Smartglass - The fall and rise of the gaming companion app

The second wind of the second screen.

by James Thomas Jul 9, 2014 at 7:06 AM

  • Gaming Article


    Smartglass - The fall and rise of the gaming companion app
    There was one keyword that seemed strangely absent at this year’s E3. Amongst all the fanfare and oneupmanship between console manufacturers and publishers alike a favourite of 2013 had been forgotten. It slipped into the wings of the press conferences, spoken of only in hushed tones as if the market feedback had come back and woe betide the first jacket-and-t-shirt wearing exec to utter its name on stage. No, I’m not talking about “The Cloud” but his more persistent friend, the companion app.

    Just twelve short months ago we bore witness to “Chris” jumping in on his friend’s session of The Division using his tablet. Chris obviously couldn’t wait to get home after a long day in the city so thought monopolising Virgin Train’s wifi hotspot and inducting his fellow passengers into the snowy yet apocalyptic world of future New York would be a sensible idea. He joined his buddies from on high and skilfully piloted his drone across a firefight, marking targets and offering vital aerial assistance. I’ve since seen him buff and launch missiles, but I guess he’d levelled up. That day however he was a model guest, polite and gracious but had to leave suddenly as the conductor told him he was sat in a pre-booked seat. “Alright, I need to hop out. I’ll see you guys later.” Thanks, Chris.

    Ubisoft similarly trotted out Watch_Dogs’ second screen experience, promising interesting and asymmetric game modes. This one drops you into Aiden Pearce’s Chicago, challenging him to races across the city whilst at the same time turning his own hacking tricks against him. Seeing nothing more than a plan of the city you set helicopters on his trail, turn traffic lights against him, and spring up steam pipes when he least expects it. It’s a novel way of participating without rendering a whole cityscape on portable hardware though sadly was nowhere near as engaging as flying quadcopters over a firefight.

    Away from the French multinational, Forza Horizon’s companion app offered you the whole of Colorado mapped out via the touch experience of Windows 8; Quantic Dream curiously supported Beyond Two Souls with a smartphone app that replaced your DualShock; Xbox One launch titles appeared to feature them as standard; and during a vidoc Bungie showed a potential Destiny app that pulled in players who were away from the game. It surely was flavour of the month.

    And yet here we are, the dust of E3 2014 now settled, and there was barely a mention of apps of any kind - Microsoft even having switched all of its app-focused announcements to the weeks prior to the show. Whether the usage data had spoken or the developers cited the extra work as an unnecessary burden, there was very little mention of the companion app in Los Angeles. The shame is that for every Ryse, whose complementary offering consisted just of dumping the pause menu and a whole load of stats to your tablet, there were companies who really invested and gave you a little extra for your effort.

    Xbox One’s Dead Rising 3 I particularly enjoyed as it immersed you further into the perils of Los Perdidos. Your fixer would call up and rather than speak to you through the telly they’d call you on the app itself. It might sound incredibly corny but it suited the situation incredibly well, something companion apps don’t always do, playing on the fact complete strangers were calling you and begging favours. Of course a large proportion of its use is as the traditional oversized mini-map with a host of icons to toggle on and off but it had its uses with “PDA Upgrades” continually unlocked throughout the campaign. Being able to track down specific components for weapons, calling in backup from survivors you’ve rescued, and even requesting airstrikes, it kept handing you a reason to log back in and see what new options you’d been given.

    There was also iFruit, the GTA V app. Though it offered simple car customisation and access to Lifeinvader (Rockstar’s homage to Facebook) its most unique feature focused on Chop the Dog, a Rottweiler cared for by Franklin. It was their answer to Nintendogs, though rather than being rewarded by a warm fuzzy sensation that the Labrador you had nurtured wuvved you, you’d be treated to a vicious brute who’d seek out hidden collectibles in a vicious, crime-riddled city. A pleasant enough reason to boot it up long after the humour of the app’s name had worn off.

    Such second screen experiences are rare, however, and most rely on dumping progress and stats to your portable screens. Though I could pore through a page on my Halo stats for far longer than the average human being, their proliferation as the primary reason a game should have an iOS presence is disappointing. I’d be just as happy logging on to the game’s website than having a branded spreadsheet on my phone.

    It’s not unsurprising, though. Developers of triple-A games are under so much pressure to pump out annual releases that the space in their schedule for creating an ancillary product typically tends towards zero. The likes of The Division and Watch_Dogs are the glorious exceptions who build in the scope from extremely early on, willing to dedicate core resources into tying those experiences directly into the game itself. It’s a brave gambit but I’m sure Ubisoft have found that the trade-off between the man hours spent and the uptake they have from sucking users further into their U-play ecosystem is acceptable. If it wasn’t time well spent then they simply wouldn’t do it.

    I find it even more surprising that it’s Ubi at the forefront of this trend, too. Usually it is the first-party developers that prove the vanguard when pushing such tech, instructed by the platform holders to show off every conceivable facet of the new hardware. From Microsoft’s big Kinect integration with both voice and gestures to the DualShock’s new touchpad, you never find the bullet points bigger than on the back of a first-party box.

    What also shouldn’t be underestimated is how such content is created. Not so much as in who creates it, but where you’re getting it piped from. For companion apps presenting synchronous play with your game there’s always a slice of your machine’s processing power being set aside to update your tablet. This explains why so many resort to maps, inventory systems, and messaging; it’s easy enough to load in a prerendered plan of the level and simply overlay gubbins.

    If it were anymore interactive something on your primary screen would have to be sacrificed to power your second one. The Wii U is a great example of this. Set up a local four-player race on Mario Kart 8 and on the gamepad you won’t see a dedicated view but the same splitscreen shot that everyone else is having to suffer on the TV. Rather than rendering a different view it simply pipes the same one out, the alternate being two very different shots but probably at a inadequate 15fps.

    It’s no wonder that between limited resources, both technical and staffing, we get the portable stats dump. Games today push out so many business metrics and player analytics that it’s easy enough to send a schema off to a third-party and ask them to knock together a quick release. Stick the game logo on the front and we’re in business.

    Of course spending time developing a dedicated complementary piece of software is a great deal more efficient than developing a dedicated complementary piece of hardware and it seems that it is in this domain that the companion app may have found a new lease of life. Rather than funding the prototyping, manufacture, and shipping of even simple, physical add-ons developers are turning instead to a piece of hardware that is more prevalent than ever. Why bundle a microphone when you can turn your phone into one?

    SingStar, Sony’s flagship karaoke game, has ditched its ten-year love affair with peripherals and now instead taps into your smartphone, transmitting your warbling direct to the PS4. Given the quality of my friends' voices when gathered for a sing along, the slight drop in audio quality when compared to using a proper mic won’t hurt a jot, rather it opens the game up far more than it ever did before. Barriers to entry fall away as multiple phones can connect to the same device and the age of squabbling over the mic is over. Add to that the fact you can now download a game you’d once have to wait in for as the box was too big to fit through the letterbox and Sony have struck upon a masterstroke for peripherals in the next-gen.

    They’re not alone, either, as Ubisoft’s Just Dance stage demo showed. Countless young pretty things stormed the E3 press conference to jive and hot potato their way through Lady Gaga’s Applause, each one of them waving their iPhone’s around with perilous ferocity. Gone is the need for a Wii-mote, the Kinect, or a Move wand, Just Dance now taps into the device of your choice using its accelerometer to judge your dancing skills. These are the new wave of companion apps. The ones that remove the restriction of having an extra specialised piece of hardware to facilitate games that simply wouldn’t work with a standard joypad. They’ve taken what they need to from the motion controlled gaming of last gen and squirreled all the specialist input they need within a device that is already in your pocket.

    Unfortunately it may not be able to replace every piece of gaming plastic you’ve stashed in your loft. Though tapping away on a Surface may be convenient it could never replicate the feeling of playing on a replica drum kit with Rock Band or being sat in your own mech cockpit ala the original Steel Battalion. Some experiences are just too tactile but equally there are some that are begging for its involvement. A new Donkey Konga music game where the Wii U gamepad becomes your bongo, countless card games where the main play area is on screen whilst your hand is kept private on your smartphone, or even just a proper Wario Ware. Seriously. That last one didn’t count.

    If there’s one use of a second screen that I cannot get enough of however it’s the Vita’s ability to log in to your PS4 and steal the screen. The ability to play my primary console anywhere in the house is still remarkable and possibly the greatest feature of the new generation. I continue to play Resogun in bed on a lazy Sunday and the opportunity to carry on gaming whilst suffering the tedium of Nigeria v Iran cannot be underestimated. Nintendo and the Wii U has parity to some degree – though, he says bitterly, it’s only because it never uses the screen for anything more interesting – but I now look to you, Microsoft. What do you say you let me plug a pad into a tablet and stream the Xbox One to it? Go on, now that would be Smartglass.

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