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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Why Standalone Handheld Gaming Devices Won't Die

To some degree, we are seeing the end of the dominance of standalone handheld gaming systems.

We will never see another run like Nintendo had between 1989 through 2010, where every handheld device they offered was a bestseller, no matter how underpowered it was. I mean, the Game Boy sold countless units with a green, blurry screen. The original Game Boy Advance had no backlight in the screen. The original DS was bulky and weird and went up against the technically superior PSP. Yet, whatever they did found success.
That's not going to happen again, ever. Handheld gaming devices are starting to tail off, and some people are already shoveling dirt on them before the body is even cold. It's not completely over for handheld gaming devices. How come?

1) Quality
. The gaming library for iOS is enormous, and Android is catching up fast. Yet, of all these games, how many are actually good?

See, a game that's released through a major company like Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, Activision, EA, Ubisoft, or others has to go through a vetting process. You make your prototype, determine if it plays well and will sell, and then you release it. If the game doesn't pass the early steps it's not going to make it out the door, since there are quality controls in place to make sure what's being released is halfway decent.

Does that mean that crap gets out the door anyway? Oh, absolutely. However, the ratio of chaff to quality is much higher when there's more money at stake for a developer and publisher.

If you, as a developer, have nothing to lose, there's less incentive to make sure you're releasing a solid product. That's why reviewers go wild over something like Infinity Blade or Jetpack Joyride: Because someone actually took the time to make a decent game in an environment where no one does that.

2) Complexity. Look at the controls for some of the more major games. Angry Birds is just sliding and tapping on the screen. Cut The Rope is sliding your finger. Plants Vs. Zombies is tapping the screen. Infinity Blade is sliding your finger.

These are all very simple games at their core. You could say, "Well, yes, and simple games have been proven to be effective. Take a look at the DS: The DS enabled simple controls in a game, and it was successful. The Wii and Kinect both allow for simple controls, and those have been successful. You yourself have championed simplicity in games. Now you're saying that simple controls aren't effective? Make up your mind!"

All right, then, how would you port a game like Uncharted on the iPhone? You would have to simplify movement and dumb down lots of functions of the game, while removing lots of other features. You would end up with a very neutered version of Uncharted at the end that wouldn't please fans of the original and wouldn't win any converts.

A game like Super Mario Bros. would also be problematic. Can you put the buttons on the screen? Yes, but now you're covering up screen real estate. Can you make the movement be handled by tilting and tapping the screen? Maybe, but now you're losing precision. You would have to make the game far easier and more forgiving of missteps.

Heck, even Pac-Man would be rough. You would also have to take up screen real estate to fit a joystick or controls. Conversely, you could have the player touch the playing field itself for control, but that obscures the position of the ghosts and pellets and isn't that accurate.

The point of all this is that touchscreen and smartphone gaming doesn't have universal appeal. There are certain games that they do well, and certain games that they do not do well.

Now, take a look again at the DS and Wii. Originally, the DS did indeed show that simple touch-based controls were effective. After a few short years, the games grew more complex and were no longer quite so simple.

The Wii's controls were also very simple, but the market for the Wii quickly died out. The audience grew beyond the Wii, while those who made games for it just kept rehashing the same simply controlled games that they always did. (By the way, who's up for some Just Dance 3? Anyone up for Game Party 2? No?)

The point is this: There will be some people who absolutely love those very simple games. Heck, I've fallen in love with Jetpack Joyride and Angry Birds. But just because I like to eat popcorn every once in a while doesn't mean I don't enjoy a good steak, and there will always be people who want a deeper experience than smartphone gaming can provide.

3) Battery life. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Battery life is what makes portable gaming work. Looking at the example of Infinity Blade: Yes, it looks beautiful, but that beauty comes at a price. I'm not going to be able to play Infinity Blade on a plane or extended trip. My battery will run out before too long.

That's part of why graphics on portable systems aren't that amazing. While graphics technology has improved dramatically over the last twenty years, batteries are still pretty much batteries. That means that you have to work within those limits unless you want to drain it.

That was one of the major reasons why Nintendo's handhelds were so successful. The Game Boy could run for ten hours on four AA batteries. The Game Boy Pocket ran for the same amount on two AAAs. The Game Boy Color ran for twenty hours on two AAs. The Game Boy Advance ran for ten hours on two AAs, and the GBA SP ran for ten hours on a single battery charge, as did the DS.

Did all of these systems have the best graphics possible at the time? God no. The Game Boy's screen was blurry and green, when the Game Gear clearly demonstrated you could have full color. The Game Boy Advance couldn't do any 3D, and the DS paled in comparison to the technically superior PSP. And yet, with handhelds, graphics are never the most important thing.

It's no coincidence that all of Nintendo's most successful handhelds had insane battery lives, and their least successful ones don't (although the 3DS isn't entirely unreasonable, at about seven hours in 2D mode, which most people are using anyway).

Do iPods, iPhones and Android devices have good battery life? Yes, when they're playing games that aren't that demanding to the system or sitting idle. When they're playing a game that competes head-to-head with the DS or PSP, it's horrible. Therefore, the graphical advantage that these devices present is negated by the lack of battery power.

4) The purpose. If you buy a DS, PSP, 3DS or Vita, you know why you're buying it. You know that you're purchasing this device to play games, and anything else it can do is secondary. It's great if your system can take pictures or play music, but its primary function is for gaming.

You also know that you're going to be paying $30 and above to play games on this device, and that's OK for you. You recognize that if you want quality gaming on a device that can handle it, you have to pay for it.

If you're buying an iOS or Android device, you're buying it for other reasons. Maybe it's your phone, or your tablet PC, or you just plan on using it as a PDA. Gaming is probably not the first thing you plan on doing with it, although it may have influenced your decision strongly.

The point is this: Over four million 3DS users are all willingly buying games at $29.99 and up. They're also buying several of them, since you can't just buy one game and be satisfied. Since there's only one function of the system, people are spending money to make sure that function continues being useful.

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There's one more thing that's not getting discussed when we're talking about the expanding role of smartphones in gaming, and it has to do with misleading graphs. We'll cover that tomorrow.