Is the iPhone Killing Handheld Gaming?
With 3DS and Vita sales lagging, Nintendo and Sony have to be wondering if Apple’s iPhone is killing dedicated handheld gaming units.
It was just over a year ago that Nintendo released their 3DS unit to much hoopla and fanfare.
It was an impressive piece of hardware offering three-dimensional gameplay, augmented reality that could make your kitchen table the setting of a game, the ability to gain goodies just by walking past another person who was carrying a 3DS, and much more.
And it took just four months for the price to drop by nearly a third, from $250 to $170. This both angered people who paid full price during the initial launch window—though Nintendo tried to placate them with its Ambassador Program—and was pretty much an admission that sales were not close to Nintendo’s expectations.
Fast forward to February 2012 and Sony released its PS Vita handheld.
Again, gamers were treated to impressive hardware: a beautiful system, front and rear touchscreens, a decent launch lineup, 3G/WiFi capability, and more.
And again, signs are that sales aren’t so hot, even when compared to the diminished expectations that people had in the wake of the 3DS’ inability to gain a lot of sales traction. In fact, the system had barely been in the U.S. market when rumors of developers cancelling projects for the Vita started flying.
So what went wrong?
Handheld gaming, like its console brethren, keeps getting better and better, offering more power, higher-resolution graphics, and innovation to keep things fresh. Yet, companies used to putting out systems and having them nearly be printing presses of profits have been shocked.
The economy has to be playing a part.
Any product introduced to market right now faces the headwinds of the global recession. Asking people to pay a $250 price of entry for a bit of entertainment is a tough ask, especially when there’s no guarantees how many developers will support it in the long run.
If you’ve lost a job, fear you’ll lose a job, or have a spouse whose job is in jeopardy, you may be thinking twice about going to GameStop or Best Buy and instead worrying how far that money would take you at Acme or Giant or towards a COBRA payment.
But the more likely, and more persistent, threat is that device so many of us have been carrying in our pockets and handbags for years now: the smart phone.
It used to be that if you wanted to play a videogame on the subway or bus or just sitting outside Starbucks, you needed a machine made by Sony or Nintendo that was designed to play games.
But then came App Stores and Android Markets with thousands of games at usually no more than a few bucks a pop—or free if you’re cool with the occasional ad banner popping up on screen.
Make no mistake, these games are far cries from the action and beauty of a game created specifically for the 3DS or Vita, and certainly don’t have the control options. But the miniscule cost per game compared to $30–40 for an AAA handheld game can make up for a lot of that, especially when you add the factor of already having spent a few hundred dollars on the phone. It’s starting to seem that gamers are perfectly content to while away their moments of downtime away from home with Angry Birds, Words with Friends, or Draw Something, and simply waiting until they get home in front of a TV to play a ‘real’ videogame.
Is this really what’s happened? Did people really not care that much about having as close to the console experience as possible in the palms of their hands as we all thought? Or if the economy suddenly expands and bursts at the seams next quarter will gamers just as suddenly flock to the 3DS and Vita, their hesitance to pay the price alleviated and leaving Plants vs. Zombies in the back in the discount rack, like another can of beans?
It would be a shame if dedicated handheld gaming truly went away, as there have been plenty of handheld-exclusive games that have provided fun, creative, amazing experiences that are just as memorable as great console games. But maybe handheld gaming is just starting a shift in delivery systems.
By the time iPhone 9 hits the shelves, maybe Apple will have found a way to make smartphones give the experience of a Vita or 3DS. And their rumored entry to the console market could give them the experience to do so.
And if that’s the case, might we see Nintendo enter the smartphone arena, with the draw of handheld Mario or Zelda being exclusive to their phones? Or could Sony design a ‘gaming phone’ that would automatically pause Nathan Drake’s latest adventure when someone calls you?
Either way, handheld gaming—in some form—looks to have a long and bright future. The only real variable is whether these games will continue to be delivered on dedicated units that offer the more hardcore experience that’s close to consoles, if those will be pushed aside for the more casual games that are eating up ever bigger slices of our time, or if a new generation of smartphones might offer both options.
Jeff is currently playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3; follow him on Twitter at JKLugar.