Is There a Future For Handheld Systems?

Is There a Future For Handheld Systems?

It’s a transitional time for video gaming, and nowhere is that transition more evident than in the handheld portable video games market. Up until a few years ago, Nintendo was unquestionably the king of portable gaming. Sony made an impressive showing with the PSP, especially in Japan, but ultimately spent most of its time skulking around at Nintendo’s feet.

Then, all of a sudden, the iPhone nuzzled up to the Nintendo DS and said “hi.” Now smartphones are delivering consistent jabs in Nintendo’s ribs. Given time, Apple might even knock Nintendo off its pedestal. At least, that’s what GRL Games’ Graeme Devine told IndustryGamers in a recent interview.

“I don’t think it’s a matter of will [Nintendo and Sony] be hurt by [smartphones], I think they’ve already been hurt by [them],” Devine said. “I think that Sony and Nintendo, behind closed doors, their legs are shaking. They have to be. It’s like trying to ignore global warming. These things are here.”

There are two problems with Devine’s statement. First, neither Sony nor Nintendo are ignoring Apple. Nintendo has been particularly outspoken about its competitor, with Nintendo of America’s Reggie Fils-Aime going as far to acknowledge that yes, the shadow of Jobs is a looming menace. Nintendo is well-aware that Apple exists.

The second problem with Devine’s statement is his declaration that Sony and Nintendo are probably “shaking in their boots” behind closed doors. More likely, there’s some light sweating going on that’s easily dabbed away with a handkerchief.

More seriously, there’s an ongoing and rather tiresome belief from some corners of the games industry that smartphones and handheld game systems cannot co-exist. Analysts point to smartphones’ surging numbers, which seemingly ate into Nintendo DS sales through 2010. The Internet’s approach to Apple versus Nintendo versus Sony is all or none: In other words, the persistent belief that the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch will rob the Nintendo 3DS and NGP of every single sale and emerge the new lords of portable gaming.

That’s just not going to happen, especially to a company that sells one million units of a Pokemon game in 24 hours. What will happen, and what is happening is a shift: Casual gamers who loved the likes of Brain Age are finding cheaper alternatives on Facebook and smartphones. They have few reasons to pick up a Nintendo DS or 3DS.

To Devine’s credit, he also stated that Nintendo, Apple, and Sony must compete for people’s time. This is very true, and ultimately, that competition for precious leisure hours is what Nintendo and Sony should be most worried about. Smartphones offer a different kind of gaming experience from the Nintendo 3DS and (presumably) the NGP; a fan of Nintendo’s franchises is not going to abandon them for the sake of Angry Birds. But lately, game lovers haven’t been hurting for distractions to choose from. “Should I play Street Fighter IV on my Nintendo 3DS? Final Fantasy IV Complete Collection on my PSP? Or should I just wind down with some Doodle Jump on iPhone? How about my consoles? I haven’t given them much love lately.”

What does all this traffic mean for Sony and Nintendo? It means both companies are going to have to keep a sharp eye on the competition, will have to fight for our time, and will have to consistently deliver new ideas combined with great new installments from old, trusted franchises. That’s healthy for the industry, and it’s great for all of us.

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for 1UP.com, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is About.com’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.

2 Comments

  1. Your first two objections to Devine’s statement contradict each other. You allege that Nintendo is paying enough attention to make public statements about a competitor by name– the necessity of which is hardly ever considered to be a good sign, and then in the second you suggest that the companies are not very concerned at all.

    I see only one way of reconciling these statements, and it isn’t very positive for Sony or Nintendo– that management is not worried, but shareholders are– so the public statements are management’s way of appeasing shareholders, while they actually take no other action, because there’s nothing really to worry about.

    While it’s true that Apple has, historically, not emphasized the gaming market much, I tend to think there are those at Apple who hope Nintendo and Sony are not worried.

    The belief that dedicated handheld gaming machines won’t coexist with general purpose tablets and smartphones is only tiresome because it’s so obvious. What used to optimistically and theoretically be called “convergence” is now simple consolidation. I used to have to carry a phone, a PDA, an MP3 player, and a laptop. The current array of handheld devices allows a single device to fulfill many or even all of these functions. Whether dedicated is better than general purpose for specific purposes has never, ever been the issue– and never prevented a swing from one to the other when technology permits. When the general purpose devices are good enough for enough people, the change happens, and it’s happening now.

    When you factor in the difference in pricing between mobile games on Android and iOS, the writing is on the wall– no matter how tiresome it may be.

    I honestly don’t see Pokemon sales as a refutation of this. The Japanese domestic market may be the last to suffer any such consolidation, due to Nintendo’s popularity, relationship with its customers, and tradition. That doesn’t mean that some new studio can’t offer something on iOS that becomes as popular if the stars align properly for them.

    The last refuge of this argument is all the same– to divide the market into hardcore and casual, and call the stuff that goes on in the tablet space and smartphone space not real gaming. I suppose we’ll see if that’s really the strategy Sony and Nintendo are adhering to, and if so, how it pans out.

  2. Nadia Oxford

    Hey Narogen, thanks for the awesome weigh-in. About consolidation/convergence: Maybe I’m part of a dying breed, but I still keep my machines separated to an extent. I use my iPod Nano for music and my iPhone for my mobile games/telephone, which is honestly just silly of me. But I do wonder how thoroughly tablets are intruding on the laptop and netbook market. Speaking for myself, I just can’t write on a virtual keyboard, much as I just can’t play a core game (for long) using a virtual d-pad.

    But I guess people said the same thing about iPhones when they were held up against Blackberries, once upon a time.

    As for the core/casual gamer divide on handhelds, yeah, we’ll just have to see what Nintendo and Sony’s plans for that happen to be. I know that I need a place for my casual gaming (iPhone) and a place for my more serious gaming (DS/3DS), but again, maybe I’m part of a dying breed.

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