The history of second screen gaming: Where are the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 headed?

The concept of “second screen gaming” has gained significant traction over the last few years. It may seem like little more than a bullet point on the spec sheets of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, but secondary screens actually have a long history in the world of gaming.

In fact, we’ve been using multiple screens for over three decades now. To better understand this growing trend, let’s take a look at the history of the second screen and examine its evolution in the marketplace.

Game & Watch

Back in 1982, Nintendo began releasing models of its popular handheld series that featured two separate LCD screens in a clamshell configuration. This novel dual-screen design offered substantially more screen space for these mobile games while keeping the device itself small enough to fit into a pocket.

Decades later, Nintendo would return to this core dual-screen design with its line of Nintendo DS handhelds which achieved massive success.

Nintendo 64 Transfer Pak

In the 90s, Nintendo was in the unique position of having a popular home console and a popular handheld on the market at the same time. The Kyoto company had toyed with cross-platform compatibility with the Super Game Boy accessory for the SNES, but it wasn’t until the Nintendo 64 rolled around that second screen gaming seriously entered the picture.

With the Transfer Pak accessory, gamers could transfer data between Game Boy and N64 cartridges. For example, Pokémon Stadium used the Transfer Pak extensively to import specific Pokémon from the Game Boy carts for use on the home console. Only a handful of titles ever supported this peripheral, but its impressive feature set remained unparalleled for years to come.

Dreamcast Visual Memory Unit

The Visual Memory Unit (VMU) for the Sega Dreamcast was a bizarre and clever attempt at introducing second screen functionality to the console market. While the VMU’s primary function was that of a standard memory card, it also worked as a small portable gaming system. Famously, Sonic Adventure included a Tamagotchi-like mini-game that allowed you to care for a little creature on your VMU, and then import that creature back into the full Dreamcast title. In addition, the small screen could also be used while plugged into a Dreamcast controller, so a number of titles used the VMU to display stats during standard gameplay.

PocketStation

Not to be outdone by Sega, Sony introduced the PocketStation accessory for the original PlayStation in 1999. Exclusive to Japan, this popular accessory allowed PlayStation owners to download mini-games off retail game discs, and waste time while on public transport. While it sold millions of units in Japan, this peripheral never made its way to North America or Europe. Sadly, the rest of the world would have to wait until 2005 before Sony shipped another handheld.

Here’s where things start to get really interesting, though. Not content with mini-games, Nintendo implemented a much more robust second screen system with the GameCube and Game Boy Advance. Games like The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventure and Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles allowed up to four local players at a time, and enabled each player to manipulate his or her inventory during play without inconveniencing other players with a pause screen. Even better, titles like Pac-Man Vs. allowed for asymmetrical gameplay where different players could see completely different areas of the map.

Nintendo DS

In 2004, Nintendo shocked the gaming press by releasing a new handheld platform with two screens – a device surprisingly similar in appearance to Game & Watch models from the 1980s. While scepticism ran high, Nintendo’s clever implementation of a secondary touchscreen allowed for new types of gameplay to proliferate. With an incredible software library, built-in Wi-Fi, and true second screen functionality, the Nintendo DS ended up selling over 150 million units worldwide.

PlayStation Cross-play

The PlayStation Vita was released incredibly late in the PS3’s lifecycle, but it was able to popularise the concept of “cross-buy” before the next generation rolled around. Sure, the PS3 had limited second screen functionality with the PSP, but it wasn’t until the Vita hit shelves that Sony started ratcheting up the feature list.

Hands down, the true innovation from this era was the rise of cross-buy and cross-play. If a title is labelled as cross-buy on PSN, customers automatically receive a copy of the game on each applicable Sony platform. For example, if you buy Spelunky for the Vita, you’re automatically granted a copy for your PS3 at no additional cost. On the other hand, cross-play titles allow save files to be wirelessly transferred between platforms, so any progress you made in Hotline Miami on the Vita will easily transfer back to the PS3 version over the Internet.

Xbox 360 SmartGlass

Microsoft launched the SmartGlass companion app for the Xbox 360 in 2012. A small number of games – Halo 4 for example – took advantage of the tablet functionality to surface some interesting information, but it mostly functioned as a streamlined remote control for applications like Netflix. It didn’t offer much in terms of whiz-bang features, but it did lay the groundwork for future releases.

Wii U Gamepad

With the Wii U gamepad, Nintendo effectively doubled down on the concept of second screen gaming. With every console sold, a sizable touchscreen is included on the controller itself. Strangely, Nintendo doesn’t even sell the gamepad separately, so multiplayer games require Wii remotes or separate “Pro” controllers sans display. While this asymmetric multiplayer model has proven to be quite controversial, the ultimate fate of the Wii U has yet to be decided. In the end, it will live or die by its oddball second screen.

PlayStation 4 second screen

Sony is betting big on second screens this generation as well. Obviously, smartphones and tablets now have their very own PlayStation apps, but there is so much more going on here. Cross-buy and cross-play titles are still going strong for Sony, and remote play functionality has been integrated at the system level. Now, virtually the entire software library of the PS4 can be streamed wirelessly to the PS Vita.

With the Vita TV and PlayStation Now right around the corner, this impressive platform synergy will only strengthen Sony’s position among enthusiasts. With all of the different second screen options being offered alongside the PS4, it’s clear that Sony is doing an excellent job executing on the promise we saw all the way back with the N64’s Transfer Pak.

Xbox One SmartGlass

While Microsoft has been much less aggressive with its implementation of second screen gaming, the Xbox One version of SmartGlass is a substantial step up from the Xbox 360’s. The boring features like achievement viewing and messaging are still built into the SmartGlass app, but it goes much deeper than that. For example, you can unlock exclusive SmartGlass items in Dead Rising 3, and a second player could even call down air strikes to help quell the zombie horde. It’s neat, but it just doesn’t hold a candle to what Sony offers. Hopefully, Microsoft will take a cue from its competition, and expand its second screen functionality on the double.

Cracks in the screen

For decades now, second screens have been offering new and interesting ways to interact with games. The potential for novel gameplay additions has never been higher, but so is the asking price. Tablets, smartphones, and handhelds cost hundreds of pounds a pop, and that’s on top of the hundreds of pounds for the console itself. If second screen gaming is going to graduate from its status as an expensive niche anytime soon, something’s got to give.

Who knows? Maybe a few years from now, we’ll all be streaming our games on cheap Steam Machines, or our tablets will have the horsepower to run most games natively. The future of gaming is still up in the air, but second screens will undoubtedly continue to play a sizable role.

For more on the new consoles, check out our piece on why the Xbox One and PlayStation 4's graphics will look fully next-gen before long.

Image Credit: Evan-Amos