When Nintendo and Sony released plans for their new portables, the 3DS and the Playstation Vita, many reporters claimed that these systems were dead before they released.. They claimed that, with the advent of smart phones and tablets, and the fact that these came with app stores in which you could buy small, cheap games, that the market for a dedicated portable gaming system was shrinking. Why would people spend hundreds on a Vita or 3DS when you could just use your phone to do the exact same thing, and more. It is, after all, a phone.
But that was not what happened.
Angry Birds and Cut the Rope are still wildly popular. Yes, people love to have little time wasters on their phone, they help pass the time when you need something to help pass the time. But, people forgot one important thing.
That regardless of if everyone has a smart phone, they are still phones. And phones suck for gaming.
Seriously, they do. The reason why games like Angry Birds or Temple Run work is because they are simple, all you do it simple motions on the touch screen. Trying to play a game that requires pin point controls is, well, a challenge on a phone. And don’t try to sell me on peripherals for your phone to allow for better controls, they are even worse. Every time I see one of those things, I wonder how someone would still use their phone as, well, a phone.
And that is where a dedicated machine helps. Look, this is the same thing with PC’s and consoles. Why would you buy a console when you can get a PC, play every game AND do all the things your computer does? Easy, cause it is easier to play games on something specifically meant to play games on. Same principle here. This is the same reason why console-based web browsers are usually awful. Consoles are made for games, not for to browse Amazon.
Your phone is meant to be a phone first, and the games are secondary. With the 3DS and Vita, they are meant specifically to play games. They have the controls built in for that, it is what are built for. And, beyond that, they have companies behind them that understand the industry. Nintendo has been publishing portable games since the 1980′s, the not only know the market, they pretty much invented it.
Now, it took time for the 3DS to take off, and it has. Yes, the original price point was too high, and it relied on a gimmick that can give some people, like myself, a screaming headache. But, now they have actual games on it, and they seem to be abandoning the gimmicky 3D. And Nintendo took the one lesson about the internet they learned from the Wii, that having a good online marketplace was key, and applied that to the 3DS. Yes, it still has a way to go, but it is far from dead.
And even the Vita has been somewhat successful, which is actually saying something. Nintendo has dominated the handheld market for so long, really since the original Game Boy, that any other system actually surviving against them is impressive. The Vita has issues, as any newer system does, but the fact that it continues to sell well actually proves the point that the portable market is more than just smart phones.
Where people have completely underestimated the abilities of Nintendo and Sony to keep the handheld gaming market alive is that they forget who actually buys these systems and games. Yes, for adults, playing Angry Birds or Plants vs. Zombies on their phones in a waiting room is a good way to pass time. But for children, they seem to want whatever the latest ‘cool game’ is. And, let’s face facts, kids love stuff like Pokemon and Mario, they love games that you actually have to play. Yes, kids will play Angry Birds, cause it is fun. But they will absolutely devour the next Pokemon game, wanting both copies of it and playing it for hours on end. Sometimes, we adults have to realize that the market is not just for us.
I do think, however, there is one change that will come to handheld systems that is apparent on smart phones. That being all software is downloaded, with no physical copies. Yes, I know Sony tried it with the PSPgo, and failed. But, I think over time, that will be the direction that Nintendo and Sony go. It just makes sense, it lowers costs for them and it prevents the secondary market from forming (which all game companies despise, as they do not see any profit from it.) Eventually, the entire gaming industry will probably go that direction, but I would assume that portables would be the forerunner to that trend.
So, the question still remains, where is the portable gaming heading? I would think the best answer is complicated. I would guess that more casual games, like Angry Birds will stay around for a good long time. Pop Cap games has built a mini empire off of small games like this, so one can imagine companies like Rovio and even Zynga doing the same. But that does not mean dedicated machines, like the 3DS, have no place. They might not be for the average 40 year old who just wants a quick something to pass the time every now and again, but that’s fine. Not all toys are for all ages, some of them we will outgrow. As long as game companies realize their handheld audience will be younger than their console audience, they will do just fine.