There’s an app for that… game!

The Appocalypse”, Penny Arcade, published 5th February 2010 — © Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins

In a recent discussion with some wonderful individuals working within the world of digital, talk diverged to a relatively ancient device: the Nintendo DS. I made a bold claim that this was an early look into how the future of technology would be about opening up additional dimensions without ruffling the current ones, additional states of existence within the status quo.

Yes, it was just a second screen on a handheld gaming machine. But before our phones reverted to the lengths and widths (fortunately, not the depths) of their forebears, screen real estate was a luxury. This made a second screen downright magical: one allowed touch, the other was just a screen (stay with me here). Your experience was now split across two dimensions, and I am not talking about it in the traditional sense. Some games took advantage of it, and many more did not.

To me, the DS represented the emergence of real experiments into user experience for gamers, not just the gaming experience for users.

Fast forward several years, and there is a new, somewhat postmodern, trend emerging: the creation of companion apps for videogames that are primarily played on consoles and PCs. These are not the watered-down mobile realisations of large–format titles, but something else entirely.

My first experience with one of these was the Mass Effect 3: Datapad app (retired as of 2013). It was designed to let you explore the lore of the futuristic Mass Effect universe as well as embark on simplistic missions. The latter had an impact on your actual performance within the game, as you prepared for a galactic war against the enemy.

Other games have followed suit, with a far more involving evolution of the Datapad experience being realised with Watch_Dogs’ ctOS app. ctOS allowed you to directly influence the virtual worlds of your own game and those of your friends, all in real-time.

These examples still focus on the gameplay experience, but I really want to see those that take into account the user experience.

That brings us to the PlayStation app for the home console itself. I shall be completely honest: it is quite clunky, trying to ape the operating system experience of a widescreen TV presentation onto a mobile device. But there are two things it has allowed me to do which makes me stop caring about the design issues: direct access to the PlayStation Store, and the ability to use the app as a keyboard.

Virtual, on-screen keyboards for gaming consoles are at best, mildly annoying, and at worst, severely frustrating. I do not have a computer keyboard readily available to plug into my PS4, but I do have my phone on me at all times (like everyone else). This small consideration allows me to easily — and most importantly, privately — type messages and passwords.

This will not change the world, but it shows that due care is being paid to the experiences outside of the games themselves. I am aware that the Xbox has a similar, slicker app (formerly known as SmartGlass).

The reality is that we are busier than ever with distractions available everywhere, with our mobile devices providing the lion’s share. The paradigms of interaction have changed, and with it, our expectations.

Finally, I would like to draw your attention to the six-year-old comic at the top of the page. Initially meant to satirise World of Warcraft’s addictive nature, things have now come full circle with an app (the Legion Companion App) that takes key parts of the experience onto mobile devices. Developer Blizzard’s own words “but even the most stalwart of Azeroth’s defenders can’t be at their computer all the time” demonstrate an appreciation of the reality of our busy lives (and allow them to keep fans hooked to the game everywhere now.)

The small things that absorb one’s time in front of a computer — either in action or anticipation within the game world — have been made available within the app. You can get notifications for new quests alongside your email and WhatsApp messages. You can manage your in-game, virtual followers (your lackeys) alongside your Twitter and Instagram ones. Those are just a few analogues to your real world activities.

As we continue to be immersed in both photo- and hyper-realistic worlds, it is always the small things that can easily break the illusion and create a disconnect.

Gaming has always helped push the fold when it comes to technology. Ever-growing forays into augmented and virtual reality will usher in the gaming experiences of the future and will have wonderful spillover effects into the wider world of audiovisual engagement. However, it isn’t enough to make things just faster and better.

Creating frictionless experiences is no longer a luxury, and this mindset is informing all manner of products and services. Developers and designers should be very mindful of these changes in people’s behaviours and expectations. They must pay serious heed to the user experiences of the future, for gamers and non-gamers alike.

If you enjoyed reading this post, feel free to like it and connect with me on Twitter: @azfarul

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