The handheld market had been on a rise since the original GameBoy. But 2010 was not a friendly year for handheld gaming, or rather, dedicated handheld gaming. In 2011, the two companies behind dedicated handheld systems are desperately trying to survive.
I specify "dedicated handheld gaming," because yes, if you look at NPD's numbers for the Nintendo DS and the varients of Sony's PSP, the state of handhelds looks dire. But among everyone I've talked to about the subject, one of the key rationalizations for buying an iPad is the ability to play games. I'd very much argue that Apple's portables be counted in the same ranks as Nintendo's and Sony's offerings.
So what are Nintendo and Sony doing to fight back?
My personal highlight at 2010's E3 was the unveiling of Nintendo's 3DS, the new portable using a 3D screen sans glasses. It was a very neat tech demo, and got a lot of people excited.
But all's not well in Nintendo-land. The 3D technology has started to spin from "cool" to "potentially dangerous" since the unveiling. In Japan, many players reported getting nausea or dizziness after playing. Nintendo themselves suggest taking a break after playing for a half and hour, and indicate that use of the device by children under six might lead to long lasting damage.
Also, the system is expected to retail at $250, which is the same price as the Wii at launch. That's a bit pricey for a handheld device.
Here things get really interesting. First, Sony is launching a new handheld, the NGP. Perhaps the key addition to the device is a rear touch panel, technology that hasn't really been seen outside of a few tech demos on YouTube. Ironically, in this generation of handhelds Nintendo went for innovations in displaying the games, and Sony went for innovation in gameplay.
The really big news, though, is that Sony is partnering with Google to put PlayStation titles on newer Android phones, in addition to the yet un-official PlayStation android phone (from Sony Ericsson).
It's quite humorous, actually. Sony is pulling in gameplay innovation for their new hardware, a la Nintendo, and they are expanding their software marketplace out to mobile phones, a la Microsoft and the Xbox 360 integration with Windows 7 phones. But at least in this latter case, while the integration isn't as deep, the success of Android as a mobile platform far exceeds the current footprint of Windows 7 phones. Clever clever.
The Nintendo DS price point and the immaturity of 3D technology will hinder the overall success of Nintendo's new platform. It will still outsell the NGP - 3D Pokémon will be a resounding success, even if it burns away kids' eyeballs (slight exaggeration) - but it won't save dedicated handhelds.
In fact, Nintendo's greatest loss in the youth market has been a branding one. Because of Apple-crazed bloggers and jounalists, enough stories have been written about kids and cats playing iPads that "Apple" is as synonymous with kid-friendly gaming as "Nintendo" has historically been.
If Sony can integrate their Android PlayStation experience with their core PS3 experience, and offer up a great peripheral for non-Sony Android phones (such as a combined micro-USB battery pack/controller), they're going to do quite well for themselves.
The biggest victor in all this is Google. One of the key advantages of iOS over Android has been the game library. If Android gets support for game software from PlayStation, their devices -- and especially their tablets -- will be that much more competitive in the marketplace.
"The dedicated handheald is dead. Long live the mobile phone and tablet."