Mobile gaming’s influence felt at E3 in a big way

by Phil Hornshaw

Walking around the show floor of the Electronic Entertainment Expo, video gaming’s biggest trade show and conference of the year, last week in Los Angeles, it was striking how much traditional gaming is starting to look like mobile gaming.

A space that just a few years ago was largely ignored now has a huge showing at the conference. Big players such as Electronic Arts (ERTS) had their Android and iOS titles available on the show floor alongside massive titles like Battlefield 3, Mass Effect 3, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. These are hugely hyped games that the company is banking on making a really big splash in coming months, and they shared space with games played on cellular phones. It’s a bit mind-boggling, this new gaming world we’ve entered.

But the presence of big mobile games on the show floor, like the upcoming beautiful-looking mobile game Shadowgun from MINDFINGER Games being played over at T-Mobile’s booth, a line to get hands-on with Sony Ericsson’s Xperia Play and demos showing streaming gaming service OnLive running PC games on tablets, wasn’t nearly as interesting as the fact that many of gaming’s biggest players are starting to make their new offerings in the traditional video gaming market look a whole lot like things you’d use to play mobile games.

Making a huge splash at E3, with a massive lineup of players who wanted to get hands on it, was Sony’s PlayStation Vita, its next-generation portable. Sony (SNE) recently released an extremely competitive price point for the new machine: just $249 for the Wi-Fi-only version and $299 for a 3G-enabled iteration. The Vita is clearly positioned to take on mobile gaming, or at least make use of all its cool innovations. The machine includes an internal gyroscope, an accelerometer, a touchscreen up front and a touch panel around back (which is basically like using a touchscreen interface without crowding the screen with your fingers, and also allows for a more three-dimensional interaction with games). It carries a camera and a microphone, and even copies the tablet model of adding 3G Internet capabilities to its package. And that doesn’t even take into account Sony’s PlayStation Suite software, which will make it possible for Android gamers to play PlayStation games against Vita owners.

If the Vita sounds a lot like a souped-up smartphone, you should see Nintendo’s (NTDOY.PK) newly announced home console, the Wii-U. The console itself is fairly standard; what isn’t standard is its controller, which is basically a tablet reminiscent of the iPad or the Galaxy Tab. The new interface includes standard game controls around its edges, but packs a gyroscope and accelerometer, as well as other tablet features, to basically add a second screen to the TV-gaming experience. And Nintendo brags that players will be able to carry the controller off with them and play their games on it while away from home – an innovation just about to be realized on a limited scale with the Vita. It’s all heavily influenced by the things being made possible with devices like tablet computers and smartphones, and it seems that traditional gaming is running to catch up with the strides those technologies are making.

Both these new machines won’t be available until later this year, and they’ll have a lot to contend with, including fresh Android smartphones from HTC (2498.TW) and new players in the tablet market with the Galaxy Tab 10.1 and the new capabilities of Apple’s (AAPL) iOS 5 (which could basically turn the iPad into a gaming console if it has some strong apps to play). All of it suggests that the cutting edge is in mobile gaming, which is good news if you like mobile gaming and better news if you like video gaming in general. Sure, the Vita and the Wii-U will have some gimmicky titles hopping on the bandwagons of touch and motion control, but like the games we’ve seen on Android and iOS, there’s bound to be some pretty incredible innovation coming with all the new and kind-of new technology being combined there. And that innovation is going to continue to spill back and forth between mobile and traditional gaming, resulting in a lot of fun to be had by all.