Op-Ed

Op-Ed
Portable Gamers

Sean Sands | 2 May 2007 18:00
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In an gaming generation when heavyweight systems, weighed as much by their price tags as their bit-chomping power, do battle in your pocketbooks and living rooms, it must be noted that the best-selling gaming system is a $150 hunk of plastic you can carry with you to the bathroom. While Nintendo happily collects the accolades for the success of its extraordinary Wii, itself a budget-friendly and fun alternative to the 360 and PS3, the real story in gaming is Nintendo's other system, the DS.

In March, the DS sold twice as many systems as the leading next-gen console, which was, not surprisingly, the Nintendo Wii. But the hand-held love is not simply an extension of Nitnendo's reinvigorated success, considering the PSP sold 180,000 units, nearly matching the Xbox 360. DS fans may be quick to point out the PSP sold less than half as many DSes, but the remarkable point is that two-year-old portable systems not driven by a major software releases are dominating the marketplace.

If you think any of that is remarkable, consider the sales numbers of the Gameboy Advance, a six-year-old system that has sold nearly 80 million units worldwide, yet managed to add another 150,000 to that total, exceeding the PlayStation 3's 130,000.

So, the question is, why? Why are hand-held systems so remarkably successful even as these same corporations vigorously push their next-generation console systems? Setting aside the obvious answer of portability, what else drives customers to the Nintendo DS, the PSP and the Gameboy Advance?

Price: Obvious though it may seem, the latest generation of home console systems have shown us, perhaps more than any before, that there is a price ceiling consumers are not quick to break. It is too simple, perhaps, to say the PS3 suffering this tough lesson, but that a person can buy a Nintendo DS for under $150 and enjoy some of the most buzz-worthy gaming in the industry is significant. What is too often overlooked in the discussion on price is that the savings extend to the games themselves; hand-held games are typically $20 cheaper than console titles.

Overall, the investment on playing a hand-held system is significantly less than that of a console. That a person can buy a Nintendo DS and 15 games for the same price as a PlayStation 3 is not a point to be overlooked.

Durability: I include myself among the ranks of people who handle their Xbox 360 as a priceless artifact, certain that the slightest miscalculated jiggle will bring the dreaded Red Ring of Death. While the PS3 has not suffered the same kind of warranty nightmare as the 360 has, one is not, by nature, casual with a $600 piece of equipment. The DS, PSP and GBA, by comparison, are easily tossed into a pocket, purse or backpack and expected to survive heat and impact reasonably well. Durability gives customers the impression of quality.

Again, this trait is not strictly limited to the systems themselves. I've seen people pull DS cartridges from their pocket unprotected, flick off a little bit of lint and proceed with their playtime. Rather than needing to protect delicate and expensive CDs and DVDs in cumbersome sleeves, the portable media seems designed to survive, even UMD discs.

Independence: Simply put, hand-held systems are perhaps the purest game machines available, in that they have no other purpose nor rely on any other piece of equipment to perform their functions. The major consoles, played primarily on televisions, rely on a centerpiece of home electronics to operate opening all sorts of opportunities for interfamilial conflict, where hand-held devices are entirely independent, requiring only batteries, a game and a willing player. Avoiding the necessity of co-opting the family television makes hand-held systems far more family-friendly and reinforces the sense of being able to play anytime and anywhere, even if that anywhere is on the family sofa while a spouse is watching a movie.

Kid-friendly: Sometimes the gaming industry is so determined to prove they aren't just about kids they forget kids still like to play videogames. Even the major console franchises that are "kid-friendly" often are designed to match the skills of older kids and prove difficult for younger players, where hand-held systems often provide a better-rounded library of games. My own DS is something my 3-year-old enjoys as much as I do.

Let's not forget kids are a driving force in the market, even if they do the driving with their parents' money. Having access to a canon of games with substantial access to kid franchises makes these systems appealing to both markets. Parents look at the games for systems when making purchases, and they notice when there are a lot of M-rated games.

Innovation: Cheaper to develop for and boasting a wide installed base, hand-held games are in a strong position to take more chances, often producing some of the most unique games on the market. The DS, which embraces innovation in its basic design, offers games that put you in the roles of a surgeon or a trial lawyer; games that make Katamari Damacy look clich?y example. Along with familiar franchises like Mario, GTA and Pokemon, new and unique games are offered with far more frequency and often more success on the hand-held systems, making the experience both liberating and distinctive.

I don't mean to suggest portable gaming might one day eclipse traditional console gaming, but with a society often on the move and accustomed to being entertained at every moment, it's not hard to envision a future where a "console war" is going to be fought over control of the bus, the grocery line and the airport instead of the living room.

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