Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo touted features at the industry's biggest annual gathering this week that let gamers employ a separate display in tandem with their TVs. Publishers like Ubisoft are designing games that will make use of this second screen – like a companion display you can glance at while the main action proceeds on your TV.
The videogame industry is looking for ways to hold fickle gamers' interest as its base is increasingly drawn toward more casual games on the Internet or on mobile devices such as Apple Inc's iPad.
The jury is still out on whether the adoption of a second screen is enough to jumpstart a $78.5 billion videogame industry that saw U.S. hardware sales fall more than 30 percent in April, the latest reported month, according to NPD Research.
Nintendo, whose Wii U was the big unveil of the E3 expo, hopes the new “GamePad” controller with its own 6.2-inch touchscreen will be the differentiator against the Xbox and PlayStation. The Wii U represents the only significant new console until at least 2013 when Microsoft or Sony are expected to unveil new hardware.
It's the Japanese console maker – which sent waves through the industry with the then-groundbreaking, motion-controlled Wii in 2006 – that may have the most at stake, as it tries to claw its way back up to the pinnacle while stemming heavy losses.
The supplementary screen concept had not been talk of E3 until this year. Using two screens to play a game is nothing new as PC gamers have been using an extra screen or two to chat and strategize for at least a decade.
Dual screens, double the fun?
Many remain skeptical. Strauss Zelnick, Chief Executive of Take Two Interactive, the publishers of the blockbuster “Grand Theft Auto” titles, said a second screen will not be a game changer because people like to be immersed, not distracted.
“It's hard for you to imagine pulling your eyes away from the core screen to another screen and not missing something along the way,” Zelnick said in an interview.
But all agree: ultimately the gamers will decide.
“You don't really get game consoles until you actually touch it,” Nintendo's global president Satoru Iwata said. “People are really going to 'get' the (Wii U) when they actually use it.”
Nintendo argues that a second screen offers so-called asymmetrical game play, meaning several players can play the same game in different ways in the same room. The company envisions a scenario where an avid gamer in a household uses the more advanced tablet controller to play a game with family members who might be novices and holding Wii remotes.
“It enables players of different abilities to play the same game and still have a enjoyable experience,” said Scott Moffitt, Nintendo of America's executive vice president of sales and marketing.
Secondary screens can display anything from weapons or items collected into a game to maps that help players navigate a complicated in-game universe. Console makers appear to be taking a cue from the mobile industry, where gaming has grown faster on tablets and smart phones than in the dedicated gaming market.
Taking a page from Nintendo, Microsoft unveiled an app called “SmartGlass” on Monday that lets gamers turn their tablets or phones into screens that can be used in Xbox games. Microsoft showed an example of a gamer drawing a football play on a screen in Electronic Arts' “Madden NFL” game without an opponent seeing it.
And Sony announced new content for its “Little Big Planet” adventure kids' game where its handheld Vita can be used as an additional screen in conjunction with the PlayStation 3. Jack Tretton, the executive who runs PlayStation in the United States, says Sony will offer consumers the option of having some games on a second screen, but won't force consumers to adopt it.
“We're not going to go into exclusive second-screen gaming. It's going to be an adjunct to what we do. It's a similar approach we had to motion gaming,” Tretton said in an interview.
In the Warner Bros Wii U Batman game, showed off this week, the screen was used to scan a crime scene for evidence, for example. The screen can work independently, so one family member can watch TV while another plays a game with the controller.
Some game makers are throwing their support behind dual-screen action, with at least 23 games so far in development for the Wii U, according to Nintendo. Ubisoft is making eight games for the Wii U incorporating the screen: like Zombie U, where players can send out zombie hoards using Nintendo's GamePad.
But the industry's biggest players remain cautious, meaning franchises such as “Grand Theft Auto” and “Call of Duty” will watch from the sidelines for now.
And without the right games employing the screens, the technology may be a tough sell, according to Roy Bahat, the president of the video game website IGN.
“Ultimately what will make the two screens work or not is if somebody creates an incredible game. Without that, it is meaningless,” Bahat said.
Eric Hirshberg, the chief executive of Activision Publishing, the unit of Activision Blizzard that oversees the most successful shooter franchise globally, “Call of Duty,” also has doubts.
“I am interested in a second screen as a way to further the immersive experience of the game on the main screen, not a way to distract me from it or give me irrelevant additional information,” Hirshberg said.
It's a “game enhancer and not a game changer.”