Since mobile gaming got some wind in its sails from the arrival of the Apple App Store, many of us have wondered whether smartphone gaming was going to erode Nintendo and Sony's handheld business. The answer is obvious. Both Nintendo and Sony responded to the app explosion with more robust downloadable game stores themselves, but the results have been mixed at best.
Both Sony and Nintendo's digital download stores are a mess. Nintendo's DSiWare shop is a frustrating experience top to bottom. Even sitting on top of my router performance is sluggish. They have two screens to work with in this store, and each one shows such a narrow selection of titles that browsing is downright painful. I avoid it at all costs, even though there are likely some cool things down in there.
Sony's PSP store on the PS Network mimics the PS3 PSN experience, which is not a good thing. As always, Sony overcomplicates things, pushing much too much of the gaming catalog at you with too few of the easy filtering mechanisms we already enjoy on Apple and Android platforms. While Nintendo only sells less ambitious and less expensive titles with its points credit system, Sony at least does offer a variety of full $30 to $35 traditional PSP titles as well as a set of "Mini" games that are priced and designed on the level of the mobile phone apps stores. In fact some mobile developers are already porting some titles to the PSP Min store.
With the arrival of more sophisticated strategy and role-playing titles on the mobile platform, Nintendo and Sony are both starting to lose their natural advantages of offering greater depth. While I am not as comfortable playing a full bore RPG or real-time and strategy game on a smart phone, the latest iterations of games like "Civilization" show that deeper games can now port to these systems.
Nintendo's responses to the mobile challenge appears to be the upcoming 3D version of the DS handheld. My Spidey sense tells me this is a misstep. I am not sure people want to upgrade to pretty much the same basic DS but with 3D, and I am not sure how much 3D gaming is going to add to the experience. Full disclosure: I am jaded on this to be sure, since I only have monocular vision myself and can't see depth, virtual or real. Still, it seems to me a narrow answer to a much broader challenge from handhelds.
But I have to wonder whether a looming mobile threat to gaming is from the tablet formats to consoles. I spent a few hours with Square Enix's gorgeous Chaos Rings for the iPad, and it brings the console RPG experience very faithfully to the touch screen. For movement on an isomorphic playing field they use a virtual joystick that pops up under the finger wherever the player presses. The graphics are very elaborate and detailed, although the frame rates slow down noticeably when complex characters are moving on screen. But basically Square Enix has translated the console experience into a personalized version of the console experience. It makes me wonder whether Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo have as much to fear from tablets, as Nintendo and Sony's respective handheld businesses are being pressured by smartphones.
Microsoft recently announced that its next mobile phone OS will have deep integration with the Xbox. Finally. Many years ago I recall executives at Square Enix and UIEvolution promising that any day now I would be able to manage my PS2 "Final Fantasy" character on my cell and see the results in my console game. Microsoft appears to be making good on that promise by pressing game development on the new platform as an extension of the business they already have on consoles.
Just as smartphones and tablets have to deal with TV and figure out how they plan to be a second screen, the same will be true of gaming. Console game makers have a great opportunity to reach out to the mobile screen and at the very least extend their franchises there and integrate them with consoles. Otherwise, it seems to me the mid-sized personal screen will stand as a compelling alternative to a console experience that requires a TV and a game unit and takes over the living room whenever someone wants to play. Console gaming has some inherent weaknesses (cost and convenience) that a tablet is poised to solve.