Commentary

Defending Mario: Touch Is Not The Answer To Everything

Developers, publishers and advertisers who think that Apple is "closed" obviously haven't worked with Nintendo. Third-party developers for Nintendo game systems have screamed for years over the cavalier treatment they endure from a company that keeps a tight rein on its platforms and persistently favors the game company's own franchises.

Getting through the waves of Mario, Wario, Yoshi and Zelda on Wii and DS was a daunting task for other publishers. The company has bolted its software to its hardware, and as a result Nintendo has spent the last few years sniffing at the mobile games market, declaring it negligible. The DS' WiFi connection to an online store of downloads seemed a gratuitous and half-hearted nod to a mobile model that was slowly but surely eroding the interest, value and share of its handheld dominance.  And forget it if you are a marketer trying to draft on gaming as a media platform. While Microsoft  (especially) and Sony tried to cultivate their game consoles as a richer media channel for marketing and publishing partners, Nintendo's Wii and DS networks were conspicuously removed from the trend.  

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To be sure, Nintendo has protected its core constituency, families and kids, by trying to keep its brands and platforms tightly controlled. For a while, especially as the Wii thoroughly spanked its rivals in the living room game wars, Nintendo seemed to do no wrong. In fact, arguably, its pioneering work in gesture gaming and insistence that raw hardware horsepower was not the main selling point of gaming, represented brave leadership positions in the market.  

And yet now we see Nintendo clearly playing defense. Mobile metrics firm Flurry reported late last week its estimates that iOS and Android game revenue had grown in 2010 to 8% of the entire console video game market compared to  portable gaming's 18% (down from 24% in 2009). Calling Nintendo's portable gaming position "Mario's Burning Platform," it used a combination of industry stats to show that the Nintendo DS had moved from a 70% share of portable game revenue in 2009 to a 57% share in 2010. The Playstation Portable had fallen from an 11% position to a 9% position. And the smartphone app market, represented by iPhone/iPod Touch in 2009 and iOS and Android in 2010, had grown from 19% to 34% in a year.  

"With both Nintendo DS and Playstation Portable shrinking in sales, while smartphone device game sales simultaneously grew by more than 60%, iOS and Android games now represent more than one third of the the portable game category," Flurry says in a blog post.

The pricing of mobile games clearly is attacking overall market value. Flurry estimates that the portable gaming category  has shrunk in terms of revenue to $2.4 billion in 2010 from $2.7 billion in 2010. In my own experience I know that the price points of smartphone games have shifted expectations across platforms. I wince at a $15.99 price on the new Square-Enix Final Fantasy III on iOS, even though I paid more than twice as much for the same game on DS.

 

But with the New 3DS (which I have not worked with yet) and the next generation Sony portable trying to regain some momentum, it is appropriate to ask whether dedicated handheld game units are relevant in the age of the oversized touch screen.

 

To be sure, I am disappointed that Nintendo chose such a closed path with its game titles and would love to see Mario or Zelda on smartphones. Likewise, I wish the Sony PSP had not come in as such a massive and expensive unit loaded down by a proprietary disc format. And yet here I am years later still playing both systems with greater focus and enjoyment than I do any equivalent games on smartphones. The physics-based casual hits like Angry Birds, Tiny Wings, Cut the Rope, etc. are all as addictive as ever on the touch screen. But I still find the richer experiences of most platform, RPG and even action adventure titles much more involving on the dedicated systems. The controls on the PS and dual screen real estate on the DS help manage the increased complexity of these games and keep me playing deeper into the experience longer.  I always pack one of the handheld game units when I travel.  

The rush of enthusiasm for smartphone gaming (and the eulogizing of handhelds) needs to be tempered by a more dispassionate understanding that not all portable game experiences port well to phones. I for one think that something is getting lost in translation, and we do stand to miss out on some great gaming experiences if iOS/Android platforms overwhelm portable consoles. Even though similar games are available on smartphones, the retro-fitting of old-style controllers to the touch screen often undermines the richness of the experience. Putting virtual buttons or analog sticks on a game screen simply disengages me from the visual experience of the game scene itself. The effect is less pronounced on the iPad, simply because the screen is larger and more involving. When a Final Fantasy title gets ported to the tablet, I may well end up playing it through in the way I would on the DS. But my sense is that games that are designed with touch as an instrument of engagement really work best here. Virtual controls on traditional console gameplay break rather than enhances the involvement.  

There is an important lesson in this, I think. Touch interfaces have a tremendous capacity to immerse users in certain kinds of experience. It is just as possible that touch can be intrusive.

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