Monday, 8 August 2011

The Future of Portable Gaming

It’s no secret by now that the Nintendo 3DS is going to be receiving a huge price cut within the next week, dropping from $249 to $169 - a nearly 100 dollar cut - which is unprecedented this early in the life of any system, console or handheld.

The official word from Nintendo is that the price drop is to provide motivation for the 3DS to live up to its true potential. But that’s not really something that anyone is ready or willing to believe, even the Nintendo faithful judging by drop in stock that occurred around when the price drop was announced.

No, what seems to be closer to the mark was something that was succinctly summarized in this Penny Arcade strip.

Portable gaming is undergoing a change, and it has been for a while now, but it’s really begun to catalyze in the last one or two years. Really, it’s all gone to the birds, the Angry Birds.

The fact is that with more and more portable games appearing on tablet computers like the iPad and others, that systems like the 3DS that are primarily gaming machines just don’t have the command of the industry that they used to. In a very strange way the multimedia minded PSP was a little ahead of the curve, considering that it could be used as web browser and could potentially be homebrewed into doing other media applications as well. People don’t just want a game system on the go anymore: they want an everything on the go system; and the latter is just what they’re getting whenever they buy a tablet PC.

The problem isn’t just with the fact that people are demanding - and getting - more elsewhere, it’s the fact that portable gaming can really go down one of two roads, and right now companies like Nintendo and Sony have to decide just what they’re going to throw in for.

The first way of doing things is the way that most of the tablet pcs have adopted: games that are immediately accessible and more than reasonably priced: generally for under $1 and almost never in the double digit range. These games are often good for popping off a couple of levels whenever time allows, then forgotten about (or not) whenever there’s more pressing matters to attend. Games like Angry Birds and Death Rally are both good examples of this kind of idea. The immediacy of the pick up and play is quite appealing, and thanks to the price point a person might be able to buy five, ten, or even more games for the price of one game for a more traditional handheld gaming system.

Odds are these are going to be the style of games that the market ultimately turns to because of the ease of development, the immediate turn around time, a decent profitability factor, and of course the fact that it’s what the public is heavily buying into itself these days. There is a different option, but it is a strange one indeed.

From the first glances of it, I can say that the Sony Vita may perhaps be gambling and attempting to go this route, and the 3DS has definitely been attempting it. I’m talking about attempting to emulate a console gaming experience on a handheld. It’s important to note that I don’t actually mean remakes like the recent re-release of Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, I mean original, completely new entries in existing series or entirely new franchises that offer the same length and scope of gameplay that one would expect to see from the Wii, PS3, or 360 currently.

The reason for this is that one of the turnoffs - at least in my belief - about handheld gaming is that you’re paying nearly as much money as you would for a console game, but getting nowhere near the same amount of gameplay out of it. Handheld games are generally offering perhaps 10 to 20 hours with any more being an outset. Most decent console games are attempting to offer at least double that in order to be deemed worthy of purchase.

Now, I won’t lie, I’ve run into this problem before, especially on the DS. Games that cost 30 to 40 dollars a pop that can be decimated in two days because I’m playing them non-stop left me feeling ultimately cheated, even if the experience was an above average one. I’d actually be thrilled if handheld games became more like console games, but I know that I’d be in what is likely to be the extreme minority of those that would be. While there is some appeal to a console length game on a handheld, at this point the argument holds that if you want a console game experience that you play a console game. Console games do not lend themselves well to the dynamic, sometimes stop and go gameplay that handheld games need to adhere to. A lot of people don’t even play their handhelds at home, instead opting to make progress in whatever game catches their eye whenever they’re on a trip or have a couple of minutes to spare. Even with the best save system in the world, the frustration can only mount when you’re still five or ten minutes away from the next progress point and your game must end now. A lot of people simply won’t tolerate games that make such demands of their time, not when they are outside of the sit down and play environment.

Whichever of the paths that handheld gaming goes down though, it’s clear that the days of games being miniaturized versions of their console counterparts has to become a thing of the past, because it’s something that people simply won’t tolerate. Nintendo has already proven that micro gaming can work on a handheld with their successful WarioWare series, but it’s a matter of asking them if that is ultimately what they want to go all in on, because if they want to survive in this current market, it might have to be.


  1. You make some good points here, even the President of EA has said games like Angry Birds are changing the video game world. Though he said it in respect to home consoles. I don't totally agree with that as I don't see an Xbox 360, PS 3 or Wii game really being compared to a phone game like Angry Birds. Sure maybe a WiiWare, Xbox Arcade or PSN game.

    I still find those offer more then App store games, but there is no doubt that such games compete with 3DS/DS and PSP/Vita games. Plus they have the advantage of being on your phone, something pretty much everyone already carries around. Not a whole another device to add to the list of things you already have to carry with you.

  2. It's not just quick pick up and play affairs that are going to really round out iDevice/phone gaming, like Angry Birds and Super Sheep Tap. I strongly suspect, once people realize just how intuitive a touch screen is for turn based RPGs, you'll see entries in said genre hit the market.

  3. Sorry, let me elaborate: you'll see expansive, epic, solidly designed and wonderfully written entries in said genre hit the market. The next Final Fantasy 6, perhaps, will be an iPhone game.


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