Gaming on the Go

Gaming on the Go
The War at Hand

Max Steele | 19 Jul 2005 12:03
Gaming on the Go - RSS 2.0

With a less costly development cycle and an audience more open to innovation, Nintendo's strategy for the DS does make some sense. They've engineered the system to provide new interface options (the touchpad), new display options (the dual screen), and new play options (wireless multiplay and PictoChat), and they're saying, "Developers, use our platform to innovate. Take risks, try new things, and reach new audiences in new ways!" And to gamers they are saying, "Play games on the DS because you can't get this experience anywhere else!"

This strategy might just work.

And On the Other Hand
Yet it might not. Sony sees the market differently. And there are countervailing forces at work.

First, the forward march of technology has created substantially more powerful handheld systems than ever before. The power of what's in your pocket is probably in the same order of magnitude as last generation's console. As always, more powerful hardware means increasing costs to develop games for the hardware.

But with the PSP, at least, it seems a tipping point has been reached. The PSP is powerful enough so that it's possible to port living-room console games to the system. I don't mean just adapting PC and console games for the handheld (as has often been the case in the past), but true ports, with all that implies. Publishers love ports. They're the least expensive way to put a game on the shelf to sell to a new audience. (That's right publishers - Max Steele is on to you.)

The second force at work is the age of the handheld gamer. Handhelds used to be seen as an introductory product to get young people hooked on gaming. Indeed, I personally used to give out Gameboys to kindergarteners so I could later sell them used games at a mark-up. While handheld gaming still has a young audience, today's hardware makers and game publishers see an audience for handheld gaming that's a lot more grown up, as well. Instead of abandoning gaming on the go, older gamers simply want it in a more mature form. The advertising for PSP positions it as a product for teens and twenty-somethings.

The existence of this older audience in turn argues for games that will be familiar to that audience. While the youth audience may embrace new ways of play, adult gamers are seeking out first-person shooters, strategy games, familiar brands and formats. Combine that with the cost advantage of porting versus developing innovative handheld games, and the strategy behind the PSP becomes clear: If the DS is about innovation, the PSP is about familiarity. Even the vaunted UMD movie feature of the PSP is just another way of bringing familiar content to an on-the-go platform.

Sony is saying, "Developers, use our platform to port. Keep costs down while reaching your audience on the go wherever they are!" To gamers, they are saying, "Play games on the PSP because you can get the familiar experience you know from your PC and consoles, whenever and wherever you'd like!"

This strategy might just work, too.

And on The... Uh... Third Hand
Conventional media likes to paint this as a two-way war. Max Steele believes that a simplistic Manichean viewpoint of good v. evil is perhaps comforting, but he tells it like it is. As the great spiritual guide, Yoda, once said, "There is another."

It's called the N-Gage.

Here in the US, we like to rag on the N-Gage. We write it off as a dead platform. But then we're not exactly the world's leading experts on mobile technology.

Not many people in America may have bought one, but N-Gage has still shipped a million and a half units. Compare that to DS and PSP's numbers and you'll see N-Gage has done relatively better in this segment than Gamecube did against Playstation 2. And more importantly, even if Nokia never sold another N-Gage, they are pretty shortly going to have the N-Gage platform in more people's hands than Sony and Nintendo can dream about.

Comments on