On October 7th, The Wall Street Journal reported that Sony might be planning to buy Ericsson, the company they partnered with in 2001 to create the Sony Ericsson mobile phone brand. It was a 50-50 joint venture, but in recent times Sony Ericsson phones haven’t been doing too well. In the second quarter of this year, IDC‘s data showed that they had just 2% of the mobile phone market share (for comparison, Apple had 5.6% and Nokia had 24.2%).
But what relevance does this have for Nintendo and 3DS, I hear you ask? Well, if Sony go ahead and buy Ericsson, then Vita might not be the only thing Nintendo has to worry about. If you caught Sony’s E3 press conference this year, then you’ll have seen that they were very keen to show off their upcoming PlayStation Suite, a software framework which will provide downloadable PlayStation content for a myriad of different devices. They’re even going to sell you PlayStation branded 3DTVs and 3D glasses.
So far, though, there hasn’t been an official PlayStation Phone to complete the package. The closest thing on the market at the moment is Sony Ericsson’s Xperia Play, which launched earlier this year. But there was a problem– it launched with less than favourable reviews and, much like 3DS, hasn’t performed as well as expected. It had “a pretty barren gaming landscape”, was “too pricey for casual gaming”, and had “little to offer over its slimmer, lighter rivals”. Sound familiar?
Xperia Play– the 3DS of Sony’s hardware library?
But if Sony do in fact buy out Ericsson’s estimated $1.3 billion stake in the joint venture, the future of Sony’s mobile phone division could be very different indeed.
Let me paint you a picture. It’s a well-known fact by now that PlayStation Vita is significantly more powerful than 3DS. It’s debatable whether Vita’s launch price of $249 (or $299 if you’re going for the 3G model) will garner the same backlash seen with Nintendo’s console, but if either one was ever going to deserve that price tag, it would be Vita. Of course, Nintendo have since culled the price of 3DS and have tried to appease early buyers with their 3DS Ambassador Programme. It’s also hoped that Nintendo’s autumn and holiday line-up will help to stimulate sales. But the fact remains that both devices are still dedicated gaming platforms, and there has already been plenty of debate about what the future holds for these kinds of devices.
But imagine this. If Ericsson became part of Sony’s tablet and gaming branch as opposed to existing as a separate, outside joint-venture company, it might finally give Sony the opportunity to create a true PlayStation Phone; a phone that might rival, or even surpass, the gaming experiences offered by the iPhone and other smartphone devices. Market this alongside Vita and Sony could completely dominate the portable gaming sphere, covering both sides of the hardcore-casual player and price spectrums and crush Nintendo and its other competitors in its wake.
Would the double threat of Vita and a PlayStation Phone be enough to drive Nintendo out of the portable gaming market?
This is all speculation, of course, and I wouldn’t want to sensationalise the situation. Heck, we could even be on the next console cycle by the time the deal’s wrapped up and Sony actually produce a proper PlayStation Phone. Nevertheless, this potential outcome could mean that Nintendo needs to shake up its act when it comes to handheld gaming now more than ever before.
Now we all know how much Iwata has spoken out against mobile and social games. To paraphrase some of his comments at the GDC earlier this year, he talked about how smartphone game developers allegedly no longer cared about the quality of the gaming experience, and he feared that so many cheap or free games would jeopardise the overall future of the industry. To say the least, his comments weren’t met very well, and considering the disappointing start to 3DS’s life-cycle, a lot of commentators have debated about whether Nintendo should just pack in making hardware altogether and simply concentrate on making games.
Iwata: not a popular guy at GDC.
But what if Nintendo created their own Nintendo Phone?
It’s a very big “what if”, but provided Nintendo learn from their 3DS mistakes and actually produce the games to make it worthwhile, a Nintendo Phone could potentially solve both their Apple and possible Sony problems while still keeping in line with Iwata’s vision for the company. After his comments at this year’s GDC, Iwata also said:
“It’s always been the nature of our job to continue to offer new experiences that players can’t have on other devices, and as long as we can continue to do that, the consumer will want to play our games.”
Although it’s questionable how much Nintendo magic would really be lost if franchises like Mario, Zelda and Metroid moved to another console, it’s still not something a lot of Nintendo fans (including our own staffers) would like to see. Wii might not have quite lived up to everyone’s expectations about motion control, and 3DS might not have seduced everyone into thinking 3D gaming was the best thing since Game Boy, but it would be a crying shame if the successor to 3DS was an even greater failure due to Nintendo’s stubborn refusal to consider the merits and successes of mobile gaming. I want Nintendo to succeed. I want them to continue innovating and driving the market forward. I don’t want to see them fail.
So perhaps Nintendo should kill two birdos with one stone (or egg) and rethink their stance on the mobile phone industry. As unlikely as a Nintendo Phone sounds, it’s no secret that mobile gaming has become the new industry game changer. Even if you ignore Apple for a moment, Microsoft already has Xbox Live on its Windows 7 Phone, and if Sony do launch a real PlayStation Phone in the future, they’ll only be joining a pre-existing trend of portable gaming systems going mobile.
Either way, the news of Sony’s interest in buying Ericsson means that Nintendo are going to have to be even more wary about their portable gaming future. If Sony’s acquisition goes through, and Nintendo are still serious about remaining in the handheld arena armed solely with a 3DS, it might just spell Game Over for the big N.