Were Companion Apps Ever Actually a Good Idea?

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Game development goes through some very strange trends, especially with hardware. Motion controls were the future, then VR, now cloud gaming. It seems like one idea dominates the industry’s innovation for years at a time. A while ago, that was the second screen experience.

The idea was to have a main screen where you play the game, and a second screen to provide supplementary information while you play. This usually came in the form of a companion app that players could download on their phone. The problem was, none of these actually enhanced the experience in any meaningful way.

What did these apps look like?

Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag Companion App

Most of the time these apps simply provided a way to view the world map on your phone rather than on your TV, like Assassins Creed. The problem is that looking at the map on your phone won’t pause the game, unlike with the in-game map. Another “feature” was the ability to change equipment and loadouts like with the Fallout 4 Pip-boy app. While it is cool to use (especially if you put your phone in the Pip-boy that came with the collector’s edition), good luck trying to use a stimpak while being shot by super mutants.

Although, some of the better apps actually provide a mobile game to play. The Battlefront app gave you a cool card game to play, which also helped unlock items in the main game. One of the coolest ones was CTOS mobile for Watch Dogs, where you play as the police trying to stop another player as they race through the streets in the main game.

But no matter how fun the little mini-game was, it never actually impacted the experience of the main game. Because they knew not everybody would download the app, the main game needed to stand on its own. So, none of these games were actually designed to integrate with an app in any significant way. It seems like the apps were simply added in the end to follow the trend and because they were cheap to develop.

Why did Companion Apps even become a thing?

Wii U Gamepad

The idea came from the Nintendo DS, which utilised a dual-screen to a great deal of success. This was then ported to consoles with the Wii U, which while not being the most loved console, did use the second screen on the gamepad to make some really unique games.

A lot of the time, when a game was being developed for the Wii U, they needed some kind of second-screen experience for the gamepad screen. This obviously wasn’t an option for other consoles, so it was ported to mobile companion apps instead.

Why did second screens for Wii U and DS games work while cross-platform games didn’t?

Firstly because the screen is in your hand so you could easily access the map or other gameplay features. Rather than having to put down your controller to use your phone and then pick up your controller again. And secondly, because these games were actually made with a second screen in mind. Certain game modes and even whole games for the Wii U were made to utilise the second screen to enhance the experience, rather than just chucking on companion apps as an afterthought.

It’s strange to see what gimmicks the industry grasps onto, especially when there’s no real innovation being made. I think the companion apps were pretty bland back in the day, and I’m not sad to see them gone.

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Dan Waterman

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