This post is part of a new series called “Game On” brought to you by Akamai Technologies. As game publishers deal with increasingly more complex issues, this series looks at issues as diverse as managing worldwide launches, security, second screen integration and the changing business model of freemium games. Read the whole series here.

For some time now, both the entertainment and gaming worlds have been delivering second screen experiences, aiming to capitalize on the powerful attachment consumers have to their various devices. Yet while the potential to exploit the second screens of cell phones and tablets is vast, the reality is that the exercise has largely been hit and miss. Many second screen exploits turn out to be no more than a disappointing ‘also-ran’ experience — consumers can quickly sniff out when a games publisher or broadcast property has approached the entire endeavor as a box-check.

“On one hand we have the device makers making devices, and on the other hand we have content makers making content,” says Troy Snyder, Vice President and Executive Producer at Akamai Technologies. “In many instances, the digital production world just shoehorns them together into simply a repurposed or reformatted experience.”

Effort has been made in varying degrees to go further. Apps that subtly enhance the player experience incorporate things such as background databases, maps, and player status information. But even though these apps proved to be popular at first, these features soon felt pointless and tacked-on. We’ve seen companies put out tie-in apps to cash in on popular franchises, but almost no effort gets put into many of them, instead relying on the same set of features over and over hoping that the name recognition of the parent property will drive downloads and usage. Often, very little thought gets put into why a game needs some second screen functionality, and the product suffers for it.

Storytelling is what’s missing from today’s second-screen experiences

At its heart, gaming is an interactive medium. Multiple screen experiences in games should either add to that inherent interactivity or remove barriers obstructing players from interacting with the game. The biggest issue you run into is whether an app struggles to have a reason to exist. “Does this make the experience more engaging than it was in the past?”

To truly matter, second screen apps need to focus on solving specific design problems — problems that players suffer from if left unsolved. For the simplest example, we’ve seen some racing games introduce rear views that that don’t obstruct the main screen or require pushing buttons — but live on separate screens continuously. The power of having those views at a player’s disposal throughout the game amplifies the experience tremendously.

But for Troy, what’s really missing in current second-screen iterations is the concept of storytelling. To truly take advantage of second screen potential, technology must serve the storytellers, allowing them to extend their power to create a far more immersive experience. The result is what Troy calls the third screen, and it’s a format that Akamai has been working on with a small number of developers throughout the past year.

“In actuality, it could be five screens or it could be two, but it’s the idea of using the power of multiple screens that work together in synchronicity to build the experience and make it more engaging.”

How third screen experiences deliver 

With more complex MMO games, imagine a player running multiple processes, and being able to float between them. Perhaps they’re on the main screen hunting down the villain; on another screen they’re interacting with a map and teammates; on yet another screen, they’re building an essential vehicle or tank. And all the processes are running right next to them throughout the entire engagement.

Troy contends that we, as humans, have the ability to perceive far more — and react more deeply — than is possible in today’s gaming experiences, but developers have been held back.

“Developers have never really had this power and real estate historically,” says Troy, “and when you’re limited to that single screen, you have to fight for attention span and real estate. That means you probably are making editorial decisions and cutting away at a concept simply because you’re dealing with a single screen.”

But open up the design process of the game itself to the second screen — and third or fourth — and a whole new world of possibilities presents itself. By introducing more screens into the mix, you can monitor specific points on the map or storyline, and suddenly have a game that expects you to multitask between multiple locations and functions, allowing for designers to more easily introduce resource and time management into a game while still focusing on the action.

“When you get this into the hands of these storytellers,” says Troy, “they kind of go wild with it,” says Troy.

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