The mainstream media continues to argue about a coming console war between Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. I can only shrug. What makes them think Sony has a chance?
Sony has just now produced its third console, while Microsoft is already on its 360th. That's an order of magnitude more experience. It's called the learning curve, people. You can't beat that sort of expertise. It's the same reason US cars are better than Japanese cars: We've been doing it longer.
But enough about that. Max Steele is not interested in next year's battles. He is interested in the here and now. The war at hand. And that's the handheld war.
Sun Tzu teaches us that the outcome of a war is governed by the strategy of the combatants. (Well, actually, Sun Tzu teaches there are five factors that determine victory in war, but five factors would take up too much of my allotted word count, so we'll discuss only the strategy factor. If you have a problem with this, email firstname.lastname@example.org to demand more word count for me. Thanks.)
Whose handheld strategy will lead to victory? It's not a rhetorical question. The last thing anyone wants to do is buy in to an unpopular console system. It's the network effect: You need a broad platform base to get the publishers to support the hardware with great games. Lose sales momentum and the platform can wither and die. And you don't want a dead handheld, do you? (Max Steele is still bitter about his Atari Lynx.)
So that's the question, then. Which will be the killer platform for the handheld market, and which are going to get killed?
On the One Hand
Let's start with the DS. Nintendo's DS strategy can be boiled down to one word: innovation. "Nintendo DS revolutionizes the way games are played," the company propaganda preaches.
That sounds promising. Except in last week's issue of The Escapist, our resident contrarian, John Tynes, made a great case that Nintendo is doomed because it's innovative. Of course, he is a contrarian. It's John Tynes' job to be gloomy. So before we start short-selling Nintendo stock, we are going to take our own look at the situation, Steele style.
The traditional argument against innovation in the entertainment industry - and this is true across film, music, TV, and games - is that entertainment is hit-driven, and given the high cost of production, it's foolish to try something without a proven formula. Sticking to the tried and true, whether that means formulaic plots or standardized game components, keeps cost and risk down.
That's a strong argument and, by and large, it's true. I admit to playing Half-Life 2 and waiting in line for Star Wars III. But it's also true that cost, risk, and innovation sit on a spectrum. It's not black and white. In the case of the handheld segment, there might still be room for innovation. Maybe.
First off, handheld games cost less to develop than games for the PC or living-room consoles. True, the cost is rising, but it's not rising as fast as the cost is rising for AAA next-generation consoles. A developer can make a great handheld game for as little as 10-33% of what it costs to make a AAA console game.
That lower cost means more freedom to take risks and make bold gambles. Just as films like PI and Memento can take risks no feature film would dare, a handheld game can try new things in ways that Halo 2 can not.
There's a second point weighing in favor of innovation: The audience that plays on handhelds is younger than for consoles and PCs. Why does that matter? Well, to be blunt, old gamers get set in their ways. Max Steele expects the old farts to one day grumble about the direct-cognitive interface of Quake X, and wonder why this newfangled stuff is getting in the way of real gaming, using a mouse-and-keyboard.
The point is: A gamer in his mid-thirties has been conditioned to view gaming a particular way, through the lens of a set of platforms, genres, and interface options. He thinks touching is stupid and boggles at Nintendogs. (Max Steele does too, but not because he is old.) Younger gamers haven't had their expectations set, one way or another, and are more open to new ways of playing. There's a reason trends so often start with the young. They like innovation.