Are portable gaming consoles still relevant in a marketplace dominated by quick and easy casual games?
(Credit: Sony; CBSi)
Throw in the towel, Sony and Nintendo; it's game over. Portable console gaming no longer has a practical place in the current landscape of casual flick, drag and swipe games. There is no room for the 3DSes and Vitas of the world when all-in-one functionality is now more important than high-tech, gaming-focused mobile systems.
Current consumers are more concerned with brief sessions of stimulation than they are with playing a complex 25-hour RPG. Take it from me, I've played those games on a Nintendo DS and Sony PSP before. I know how great they are.
But gaming is a serious business, and if consumers are content with an iPhone for music, video and games, there is absolutely no practical need to carry around another bulky piece of hardware that is more than twice a smartphone's size and needs to be recharged after five hours of play time. The audience — or attention span — for hard-core mobile gaming may be shrinking.
Please don't read this like I'm saying smartphone and iPad games are better than those found on Nintendo and Sony's portables. They're not. They're just extremely accessible. Quite frankly, a lot of them are just plain awful. But that doesn't matter. There are enough affordable titles with flashy graphics and cute creatures to pacify anyone who's sitting in a waiting room for 25 minutes. Why would anyone carry around Brain Age if they can just play Sudoku for free on their iOS or Android device?
Though it's most likely due to a dearth of compelling titles and an audience not completely on-board with 3D on the go, Nintendo's 3DS has stumbled out of the gate. So what does Nintendo do to stop the bleeding? It slashes 32 per cent off the original price and announces a right analog stick attachment — another piece of plastic the mobile gamer must drag around. Whether or not a right analog stick is the cure for what ails the 3DS is a whole different story altogether.
At E3 2011 — and even more recently — I got some lengthy hands-on with the PlayStation Vita, the already-impressive next portable machine from Sony that is due out in December in Japan and February down under. There's no denying its massive 5-inch touchscreen and jaw-dropping graphics will make for the most powerful portable system ever, but its place in the American marketplace is quickly evaporating.
Sony may already be reading the writing on the wall. Beyond the lacklustre Xperia Play, the company has been pushing the PlayStation Suite and PlayStation Store brands quite heavily in recent weeks, well beyond platforms that are designed solely for gaming. First was PlayStation compatibility with the Sony Tablet S, and now it's been reported by Engadget that the company has been in talks with non-Sony entities about expanding the PlayStation Suite reach. Sounds to me that Sony might be preparing for a Vita-less future.
I consider myself a hardcore gamer. But when it comes to portable console gaming, I'm a dying breed. People don't want to carry around an extra device with them if they don't need to. It's not how we're being conditioned. Ask a 13-year-old if they would mind hauling around a separate device with its own proprietary charger and custom game cartridges. Then tell them it can't text or call anyone.
"But the iPad is an extra device". Sure it is. But it's also replacing the magazine, newspaper, comic book and game system you'd otherwise be backpacking around. All-in-one is the ultimate goal, and, try as they might, portable consoles just aren't cutting it.
It's not for a lack of effort, either; Netflix is already on the Nintendo 3DS in the US, and the company just announced Hulu Plus support there as well. A few months ago Sony told us the PS Vita will ship with Skype, Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare apps, too. The problem is that the attractiveness of all-in-one functionality is anchored by mobile phone features. If that core element isn't present, all the other bells and whistles lose their lustre.
So what should Nintendo and Sony do? First, recognise the fact that portable gaming is evolving more rapidly than a portable console's development phase. Next, keep quiet about the misery that is playing core games without physical buttons and license out pre-existing software on universal platforms. It's not the most honourable of solutions, but at least money will be made without the gamble of producing hardware.
I'm willing to bet Nintendo would sell many more copies of Super Mario World on the App Store than it ever could in the 3DS Store.