Many of us in the Code App team like video games and when we're not at work we're often sat in front of a TV or at a computer playing them (individually, I might add -- we enjoy working together but cosying up by the PlayStation every evening might be a bit much). And of course we can't get enough of apps either. So, when apps and video games collide, we get a bit excited.
And that's what's happening right now with 'companion gaming'. It's a term that describes the connectivity between a games console (or PC) and an app on a mobile device, and how they can work hand-in-hand to support a player while they're engaged in a game.
When gamers don't have a mouse or a controller in their hands they probably have a phone or a tablet there instead; publishers and developers have seen an opportunity to bridge this gap with companion apps, allowing us to experience a game regardless of which device we're using.
Companion apps are already available for certain game titles, and they tend to vary in features and finesse. They're also often disconnected experiences --- they're more about stepping away from the game on your console, making changes and tweaking stats on your mobile device, and then returning to the console to experience those changes.
But a handful of upcoming 'next-gen' companion apps look to be much more ingrained and integrated into the overall game experience, turning tablets and phones into true 'second screens'.
Here's a trio of interesting ones from Ubisoft:
Assassin's Creed IV
The app for Assassin's Creed IV has two purposes. One: it contains all the information layered within the game's menus (a real time map and a database of information), but you can now see all of this at a glance without having to pause your game. Two: it contains a separate meta-game where you command ships out on excursions to loot those of your enemies. Then all the money that you earn from these looting trips is transferred back into your main game to help you improve and progress. The latter of these two features has more substance to it: if the app is to be just a glorified menu system then it's simply easier to just press start on your controller and access this information, but as it offers a separate, miniature experience that can still influence your overall game playing, it could be worth using.
The Watch Dogs app is pretty smart, partly because of circumstance. The game itself is set in a near hyper-connected future and you assume the role of a 'hacker' who uses his mobile phone to hack into people's devices to snoop on their lives or into the city itself to bend it to his whim. But if you have the companion app, you can embody the protagonist even further by peering into the game through your own actual device and browsing maps and character information. This is essentially what Assassin's Creed IV's app does, but Watch Dog's setting and story makes its app more fitting and more enticing to use. And you can also go a step further and compete with your friends within the game -- you on your tablet, and them on the game itself.
The Division's app aims to deliver a true companion experience by casting mobile players in the role of a unique character (a flying drone) that can grow and fight alongside players on console and PC. For me, this is a particularly exciting next-gen companion app as it offers an experience that complements its parent game, without just being an extension to it.
The opportunity for companion apps
There is an issue facing companion apps at the moment: not all gamers have tablets or necessarily want to engage with a game on their mobile devices, plus it'd be an expensive barrier to entry if a certain game required the use of a mobile app as part of the experience. So currently companion apps aren't completely essential; therefore they can only complement their games in a limited fashion, often simply mimicking what the game itself is doing (i.e. displaying realtime maps and letting you manage your inventory).
Ubisoft is pioneering an approach where its companion apps can be used by people who don't own the respective games, allowing them to join in with friends (in varying degrees) on games that they don't own. This is a credible route, albeit one that probably requires the most effort and investment -- give the companion apps sufficient content to stand on their own and they become simple games in their own right. Then, when they're integrated into their parent game, they become companions.
Perhaps all that's needed is more time for gamers to embrace the concept. With Sony and Microsoft both offering second-screen companion apps for their upcoming consoles, players will become accustomed to the idea of using such apps on their mobile devices. Microsoft's Xbox SmartGlass is already out and offers a myriad of features, including the ability for games to hook into the app and serve their own content, transforming SmartGlass into a bespoke companion for that game. Sony's forthcoming PlayStation App may also contain similar features.
Both of these apps could be seen as a response to Nintendo's Wii U which has a second screen built into its controller; obviously this console has an advantage in that all games released can rely on this second screen being present. But, on the other hand, you can't conveniently take your Wii U Game Pad with you when you're away -- unlike your mobile phone.
Still, the 'true' purpose of a companion app is up for grabs, and it's here that game publishers and developers have the opportunity to explore more engaging and exciting ways for players to experience the games they enjoy, whatever the device they choose. And, if developers get this right, they are maximising the use of the IP that they've already invested so much time and money in creating.