Commentary

The (Waning) Empires Strike Back

Whatever missteps Sony has taken in its current generation of console and handheld gaming units (and there are many) the company still has the capacity to dazzle.  Yesterday in Tokyo, Sony unveiled the long-awaited successor to its Playstation Portable (PSP), a totally tricked-out hunk of metal codenamed NGP. The impact of the smartphone revolution can be felt just from the specs of this next-gen handheld gaming unit. Its 5-inch OLED display has touch controls both on the front and back for a new style of touch gaming. The innards are direct ports of the latest smartphone standards:  built-in 3G, GPS, gyroscope, accelerometer, compass, Bluetooth, front and rear cameras, microphone.

This looks like a substantial hunk of hardware that is anything but pocketable. Sony, like Nintendo with its upcoming 3D version of the DS, is trying to carve out a niche in portable gaming that addresses the challenges of smartphones and still maintains a place for premium game play. My guess in both cases is that the counter-strategy will have limited success. Smartphone touch gaming has emerged to challenge Sony and Nintendo's markets in large part because of the superior portability and "always-there-ness" of smartphone games. Mobile gaming is one of those cases where once the content became "good enough" to entertain us on these platforms, it was possible to start shifting the market away from dedicated handhelds.

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The painful truth for hardware makers like Sony and Nintendo?  People don't need a console in their pockets to have fun. For years, major game makers like EA threw all their big PS/Xbox/PC game franchises at feature phones thinking they would appeal to core gamers. It turns out that even the Call of Duty and Final Fantasy crowds really were after much simpler pick-up games when on the go. The complexity and depth of console gameplay just didn't map well to mobile users. The iPhone's touch screen gaming didn't fully reinvent mobile gaming so much as underscore and accelerate a trend that should have been apparent by the late 2000s. When highly simplified but elegant gameplay emerged on the iPhone in 2009, the big game makers finally caught on. Oh, consumers want "mobile gaming."

Which is not to say that dedicated handhelds and their deeper gameplay don't have a place, but it has been diminished. I still play both my PSP and DS to engage a deeper RPG experience or enjoy just about any action gaming. I still think the touch and gyroscope interfaces work best with broad movements. I have never found shooters or even racers all that satisfying in the long term on smartphones. Others do, of course. But I think the handhelds maintain an edge for deeper play.

Beyond technological differences between smartphones and handheld game consoles, the real challenge for the mobile model has been price and distribution. When smartphone games sell for a fifth and sometimes a tenth the price of DS and PSP titles, any sensible gamer has to do the cost/benefit calculation.

Both Sony and Nintendo have fought back with online stores of lower-priced downloads, some developed by the startups that the app store markets helped create. But the big news from Sony yesterday was less about the hardware than about the platform being offered to app developers. The new Playstation Suite, a store and development platform to bring games to Android-based phones and tablets, puts Sony into the mobile game in the way we wished Nintendo had done years ago. Original Playstation content will be offered for Android devices, and a Playstation Store will allow Android users to download not only Sony games, but also content that can be written to the platform and played on Android and Sony NGP devices.

Whether Sony succeeds in this two-pronged strategy is anyone's guess, but the company now seems to grasp the complexity of the mobile gaming situation. Understanding that dedicated handheld game consoles probably face a diminishing market, Sony went all-in to create a high-end experience for the hardcore game lover. But, to stay relevant and get a financial piece of the larger mobile gaming market, it needed a serious play in the smartphone/tablet world.

Nintendo? You have something more impressive than 3D effects up Mario's sleeve? 

2 comments about "The (Waning) Empires Strike Back".
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  1. Dean Collins from Cognation Inc, January 27, 2011 at 2:29 p.m.

    5" displays are totally pocketable. I only wish a Droid"like" (eg version with a slide out keyboard) and a 5" display was launched for a cell phone.

    Wiould totally be all over it.

    yes it would be better if on a gsm platform so i could swap sims to a batflip style when i needed but giving up verizon isnt an option.

  2. Steve Smith from Mediapost, January 27, 2011 at 2:49 p.m.

    I don't know Dean. Take a look at this brick of a handheld. that is a 5-inch screen flanked by analog stocks and buttons on either side.

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