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Video Games

'Good enough' is always enough for mainstream gamers

Gaming isn't music. It isn't photography. Gaming is about a gut reaction to fun, so why would any mainstream gamer ever buy dedicated hardware again?

Gaming isn't music. It isn't photography. Fidelity of sound and image isn't the reason why people play. Play is for fun. Now that "good enough" has reached the gaming industry, the makers of big, expensive games and systems have a lot to fear.

"Good enough" came for music first. The MP3 crushed music by getting clever with approximating all the frequencies the body cares about to give us just enough music so we could hardly tell the difference. Hardly. Mostly. For a while, we told ourselves that it was all we needed, when we could have so much music for free. Yes, MP3 really proliferated, thanks to the free sharing opened up by Napster. If we had been told we had to pay for it, who would have chosen MP3 over a CD? Not many, if any.

But music is physical. The more you hear, the more you care, and, over time, the majority of MP3 users have swapped out a lot of that early 128Kbps collection in favour of better approximations. Whether it was ripping CDs or buying for the first time, it doesn't take a PhD in acoustics engineering to understand that more bits mean better music. It's a direct art that speaks to one of our core senses.

Now, digital music is pushing ever upward, with lossless encoding options and even HD audio that goes beyond CD to make digital the domain of true audiophiles. As casual listeners engage, they tune their ears to better sound.

Then "good enough" came for photography. Low-resolution digital photography arrived, and it took time for the right balance of megapixels and convenience to reach that "good enough" status that saw mainstream photographers leave film behind. While it's an imperfect measure of quality, the very idea that people believe that more megapixels equals more quality shows that we care about what we see in that final image.

Photography is physical; another direct art that speaks to our most dominant sense. The more we take photos, the more we want them to look good. More pixels, better colour, better light sensitivity. The casual photographer tunes their eye to better images.

Now "good enough" has come for gaming. The wild growth in smartphone gaming now dominates the landscape. Quick, simple games that cost magnitudes less than games played on dedicated gaming devices. It's an easy choice for anyone with a few minutes to kill. Spend a dollar, get a few hours of fun.

Leaders at Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo have all at various times claimed that these games are snack food, but they're also good for the business. They introduce people to the world of gaming, and eventually these people will crave more nourishing gameplay. But will that ever be true?

Gaming has no physical, inevitable upgrade path. Fun is not found in resolution, sound or buttons. Fun is in the gut. The physical reaction is a feeling, a pleasure-centre brain response. It's either there, or it is not. At what point is there a direct revelation that a dedicated gaming device will give higher-fidelity fun than an app? Or more fun than can be found by just buying more apps at such easy access prices? There is no logical, physical imperative or demand curve as found with sound and image.

As for a raw, "good enough" sensation, smartphone gaming already delivers fun in ways equal to and arguably beyond the best gaming experiences of the '80s. There was no question that these were enough for many to devote all of their leisure time pursuing. They were all we had, but they were unquestionably good enough to fall in love with.

Beyond the pure, simple arcade experiences of the '80s, gaming changed. Games that offer "more", thanks to dedicated hardware, larger memory capacities and more advanced control schemes, also offer fun at a different pace — a pace that doesn't suit what many mainstream gamers are looking for. They're happy with burst-fire fun. Extended cut scenes and hard-to-reach save points need not apply. Cinematic pacing doesn't suit a bus ride. Building toward a grand pay-off doesn't win most people's attention. And right now, attention is fixed firmly on cheap, disposable games that for most purposes now seem better suited to mainstream life than anything offered by dedicated gaming machines.

The fact that there are now truly classic smartphone games points to the problem. Games with staying power. Even games that have moved from mobiles to dedicated platforms. Mobile games have come a long way since Snake and Solitaire. From solid arcade experiences to solid RPGs.

This is the big problem for Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo. Casual isn't casual anymore. Casual is now mainstream. It's the mainstream they have lusted after for more than 10 years. It's the mainstream Nintendo won with the Wii's fun-before-fidelity approach. But now it's an audience they're all losing to the world of phones and tablets.

It's hard to see any dedicated devices ever convincing them that there is a good reason to go back to an industry that argues that thousands of dollars over a console's lifetime will give better "fun" than the fun they're already having every day.