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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Why Will Handheld Gaming Devices Succeed?

The other day, I complained about Infinity Blade. It's a fine game and it looks beautiful. Many are holding up games of its ilk as demonstrating that the days of standalone handheld gaming devices are over. We also see lots of articles like this one, which show that the DS and PSP are losing ground to iPhones and Android devices. Combined with the lackluster launch of the 3DS, all signs would seem to point to a downturn in the fortunes of handheld gaming devices.

Or do they?

To be sure, Android and iOS devices have a few advantages off the bat. We're going to go through a few of those, but then we'll also explain why handheld gaming isn't going to migrate away from Nintendo or Sony anytime soon.

First of all, what advantages do iOS and Android devices have?
1) Convenience. You have to have your phone with you anyway and we're used to seeing games on them. Cell phone makers have been indoctrinating us with games on cell phones by giving us Tetris and Pac-Man clones since the very beginning, so having games on our phones isn't out of the ordinary.

Everyone liked having games on their phone, but the old system was annoying. You were usually using a crappy, low-res screen to play on, which meant that action games were right out. Games wouldn't transfer to new phones, and most phones weren't powerful enough to run anything more than basic apps. Since every phone was slightly different, developers had to choose carefully which phone they would make a game for or risk being frozen out down the line.

Now, though, if you have a smartphone, you either have iOS or Android (although some poor suckers ended up with a Palm phone) (I'm a poor sucker) with a decent, high-res screen. Since your phone is in your pocket already, it's not horribly difficult to whip out your phone and fire up a game. It's a far cry from taking out your DS, PSP or 3DS, turning it on, then selecting which game you want to play.

2) Cost. Most apps are less than five dollars. That's less than people spend at McDonalds. Buying a game isn't that big of a commitment, so people are willing to spend 99 cents just to try something out.

This works doubly well with digital distribution. Since there's no overhead, a large chunk of how much you charge goes in your pocket. That means it's easier to make money on a mobile device, which means that more developers come running to iOS and Android devices, which means that there's more variety.

3) The stigma of portable gaming devices. If I take out my phone in a crowded airport, I look like a businessman. If I take out my DS, I look like a five-year-old. It doesn't matter what exactly I'm doing on either device; one looks "grown-up" and the other looks childish.

It also doesn't matter if it's a DS, GBA, PSP, or WonderSwan Color. If I pull out a PSP, then instead of looking like a five-year-old, I look like a fourteen-year-old. No big difference.

The stigma started when the Game Boy came out. With the "Boy" name and the focus on a younger market, portable gaming quickly became synonymous with youth and kids. Now, if an adult whips out a portable gaming system, they end up just looking silly more than anything else.
Geez, it looks hopeless for handheld gaming devices. With those kind of advantages, there's nothing holding back mobile devices from taking over handheld gaming, right?

Not so fast. Standalone handheld gaming devices have some advantages. We'll get to those on Friday.