Game Companion Apps – Using the Second Screen to Extend Gaming Experience

The Spring release of Watch Dogs ctOS caught my eye. People were really excited about the gameplay and the idea behind it – maybe game companion apps (GCAs) are becoming standalone game contenders. For those unacquainted with GCAs (also known as ‘second screen apps’), they are apps that allow additional remote gaming features outside of the console or PC game on the player’s mobile device – what they offer varies from game to game. I have seen game companion apps before that usually provide some side content, maps, or a different customization screen, but Watch Dogs’ is different. It can be its own standalone game – as with most GCAs, the app is free, but with ctOS you don’t have to have the original game to play and you can play against console and PC players in tactical Mobile Challenges – for an app game that made me take a closer look. Somehow a console/PC can meet a cellphone somewhere in the middle to create a different gaming experience for both parties involved. Even though the addictive, casual gaming apps are common place on any mobile device, GCAs are striving to break ground in a new, and perhaps revolutionary, field. Is there a place between consoles and cellphones, and could this create viable, entertaining games? All of this got me thinking about “the second screen”.

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Second screen gaming isn’t a new concept. Some of us may remember the Dreamcast’s VMU or the GameCube’s GBA link cables, two ideas that resulted in a second screen that contributed to gameplay back in ’98 and ’02 respectively. With the advent of wireless technology it was only a matter of time before we started to see a more mobile version of the second screen. The “second screen” refers to any device or situation where users have an additional screen; such as, mobile phone and TV, GBA and GameCube, Smartglass and xBox, and so forth – it’s not just limited to gaming.

Using another screen in this manner has been considered one way of increasing user engagement; in fact, “70% of tablet owners and 68% of smartphone owners said they use their device while watching television”[i]  and it has shown to facilitate discussion on social networks. It seems that in a sense a second screen does offer an additional user experience. In the scope of video games, companion apps on secondary devices usually provide additional game content such as maps, in-depth information, in-game customization options, stat breakdowns and even a creative means of multiplayer group management. Plus players have the ability to check all these things out when they’re not in front of their console or computer – quite a nifty way to extend gameplay – but if the app is not crucial to the gaming experience then are people even going to download it?

That’s at the forefront of any companion app developer’s mind. Developers can’t worry about extending the gameplay experience if they don’t first get the app in player’s hands. It’s truly a thin line to walk. Even though they have the mobile and casual aspect of apps at their disposal, they still need a way to tie it in with the greater console/PC game – to add content, but not detract – to spend time and resources to create a free mobile game that’s not relegated to the been-there-done-that bin. Short of creating a way to continuously play the original game, developers are stuck with just creating some take-it-or-leave-it bonus content.

Companion apps are not essential, they rely on the fact that they’re free (why NOT play it, right?), but what this market needs is new and revolutionary ideas. As a lifelong Zelda fan, I can tell you about my most rewarding experience with a second gaming screen. I’ve mentioned the GameCube and GBA’s gamelink cable feature – the integration with these two consoles created a crucial gaming concept with The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures (2004). As a groundbreaking multiplayer Zelda game (‘multiplayer Zelda’ sounds like an oxy-moron, but hear me out) Players had to utilize the GBA to control their character when they exited the main screen. So while the other players were still exploring the overworld, individuals could carry out self-exploration in caves, buildings, holes, etc. by looking at their GBA once they entered. This process was seamless and quickly lent itself to the competitive, multiplayer nature of the game while still holding true to the joy of exploration that the Zelda title promises.

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I provide you with this example to prove a point: the second screen in gaming can play an essential role, but it might take some creative thought to integrate it. Game developers need to take a page out of Orange’s book – we reported on the Telco-turned-cloud-gaming company back in April – they’re developing an App that will allow gamers to use their smartphones as controllers. Perhaps in the same way the Gamecube used the GBA, a smartphone controller could provide valuable game insight that players wouldn’t receive with a normal controller – something that makes the GCA an advantage. These are the kind of creative approaches developers need to take if they want to get GCAs in players’ hands and off the take-it-or-leave-it shelf. Maybe the focus shouldn’t be keeping gamers engaged when they aren’t in front of the console, but actually improving the gaming experience.

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PlayStation is on the right track. With the PlayStation App players have the usual map access and game notifications, but can also purchase content on their mobile device that will directly download to their console at home. Not to mention that they can watch other gamers play. It might not be a game-specific app, but they are at least thinking about ways that their app could be used outside of the game.

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Xbox’s SmartGlass works in a similar way but has that Microsoft touch of functionality on steroids. With SmartGlass, players can use their smartphone or tablet to navigate their Xbox interface – almost like a remote control. They can manage multiple functions for their Microsoft devices: push movies from different screens, view sports plays; for gaming purposes they can check their game’s inventory content (depending on the game), make in-game purchases, set up multiplayer games, record gameplay to twitch.tv, and manage the usual stats/maps. It’s something that all hardcore Microsoft gamers should consider for their setup.

Where does Watch Dogs ctOS stand at the end of the day? Taking a glimpse at the Google Play store and iTunes we can see that since releasing a few updates, the game holds a steady four star rating at both stores – not to mention some pretty good reviews. Players still want to see a few more updates to make the app more functional and reliable, but as far as playing the game goes, people are enjoying it. One surprising theme (or maybe not so surprising given the direction that gaming is taking) is that players wished what they did in ctOS affected their original game more. Multiple people expressed this wish, and though they didn’t offer any specific suggestions, it shows what gamers want to see in the future. On its own, Watch Dogs ctOS is enjoyable, challenging and is still an interesting concept.

We can speculate on the future of game companion apps, but I think we will see some of our thoughts about this genre materialize in the near future. While not in their infancy, game companion apps could potentially have a lively future ahead of them. In the meantime, we can wait and watch how SmartGlass pans out, see if GCAs like ctOS become more popular, and keep an eye on Orange’s controller innovations – but it’s hard to predict the gamers of the future.

Here at MO Group International, we’re always excited about the future of gaming. That’s why we put our heart and soul into every video game localization and translation project we do. No game is too small or large – that’s why we have experience in everything from consoles to apps. We offer our video game services in over 40 languages and enjoy helping games flourish in emerging markets. Don’t miss out on an opportunity to put your game out there – contact us today for a free quote.


[i] http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/news/2011/in-the-u-s-tablets-are-tv-buddies-while-ereaders-make-great-bedfellows.html

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