The End of Gaming-Only Portables

Apple and Android devices are eating into the handheld market and endangering the future of gaming as we know it.

By Andy Hoover. Posted 05/02/2011 16:00 Comment on this     ShareThis

I have made it abundantly clear on multiple occasions how I think gaming on iPhone and its various smart phone brethren is horribly overrated. In fact, I am honestly convinced that many gamers, including plenty of the gaming press, have seriously diluted themselves into thinking that some of these games are much better than reality would suggest. Some ideas work fine, tower defense games have proven to be a natural fit for the these touch only devices and Angry Birds is a decent enough diversion that has won over millions of converts, but it’s the more traditional games that really confuse me. Plenty of reviewers praised N.O.V.A., a smart phone FPS, despite the fact that the touch only controls make it impossible to effectively aim, move, and shoot all at once; add in the fact that it is as linear as games come and you have a game that wouldn’t have received the light of day had it been released on any major console. As a gamer I am simply confused by the praise iPhone, iPad, and Android have received as gaming platforms, but my confusion is irrelevant because like it or not, these devices are defining the future of handheld entertainment.

For those of us who have been gaming for years and years and years, we hold the Game Boy and DS line up of systems as the golden standard of entertainment on the go. But that was in a different era, a time where keeping one’s self entertained on a long car or plane ride was a matter of bringing a couple books, a Walkman and collection of CDs, and of course your Game Boy and a handful of games. Fast forward to the present and all of this can be accomplished by a single device that will also play movies, allows you to surf the web, and it’s also your phone. All things considered, these devices are simply too practical and convenient to dismiss solely for their shortcomings as gaming devices.

Even with its shortcomings as a gaming console, iPhone still pulls out stuff like Infinity Blade from time to time.

Of course, iPhone wouldn’t be worth too much consideration if it were just another option in the pursuit of killing time, but it has been a massive, paradigm shifting device that has forever changed handheld entertainment as we know it. iPhone has grasped the mass market and is now in control of how people’s perceptions are shaped, and it is offering a massively different and thoroughly convincing argument for how all entertainment companies are going to be moving forward from here on out, and that goes for the gaming industry as well. Nintendo and its prime competitors could continue focusing on their core audience of dedicated gamers and still maintain a sustainable business, but nothing they produce will ever achieve the same level of success as Game Boy or DS unless they are willing to bend the way the wind is blowing.

It took me a while to truly appreciate how significant a threat smart phones posed to gaming as I knew it. As a owner of an iPhone as well as a number of gaming consoles, I was familiar enough with each to know their respective strengths and weaknesses– my phone was great for music, video, and web surfing while my consoles and handhelds were my go to source for gaming entertainment. Then I started to realize just how much time I really spent on my iPhone doing everything I have already mentioned. I rarely boot up gaming apps, but the amount of time I have spent randomly surfing the web, listening to music, and streaming Netflix has increased considerably and during much of that time I could have been gaming. You see, the competition between today’s premiere smart phones developers and the traditional gaming industry isn’t just a matter of gaming, it is about how we spend our free time in general.

I’m sitting around with nothing going on: do I boot up my Wii for another romp through Twilight Princess or pull my phone out of my pocket and randomly surf Wikipedia for an hour?

I’m laying in bed but can’t fall asleep: do I jump into a few races of Ridge Racer 3D or do I listen to the new Rush singles again?

To be fair, it’s hard for anything to compete with Rush.

It’s a lazy Sunday morning: do I continue my conquest of medieval Japan in Samurai Warriors: Chronicles or do I stream a few more episodes of Arrested Development?

It pains me to say this as a gamer, but recently I’ve been going with the second option in just about all of these situations more times than not. I can’t even remember the last time I booted up a game on my phone, but it still remains amazingly successful in the ongoing, multimedia war for my attention.

The handheld entertainment market is now all about accessibility and variety; a device needs to do a variety of things easily in order to make it an appealing device for your average consumer to purchase and carry around. Ever since DSi, Nintendo has slowly been working at achieving this, but there were still plenty of shortcomings. DSi could play music, but the process of loading it and the unfamiliar file format made it a cumbersome and unappealing process. DSi also does photos, but the picture quality is terrible and iPhone has moved onto HD video recording. And then there is DSiWare, a significantly more successful attempt at combating iPhone’s App Store that has plenty of great games but continues to fall short due to less content, cumbersome navigation, and inflexible pricing. DSi was definitely a significant step in the right direction for Nintendo, but it still feels well behind.

3DS is now out and it too is making strides into the brave new world of handheld entertainment, and while its potential is impressive, much of it remains unrealized. Like DSi, the 3DS’s camera’s remains rather unimpressive, but their ability to take 3D photos is definitely a standout feature and the possibility of adding support for 3D video recording is certainly interesting, if it comes to pass. Nintendo has also made clear its intent to include greater video support for 3DS in the future with the addition of Netflix streaming and the potential for 3D content. As for the future of the Shop Channel and the various Wares, it is yet another promise of things to come; browsing through content looks like it has been cleaned up immensely but it remains to be seen if the amount and variety of games and other applications will be able to compete with what is on the App Store. However, 3DS does have one new feature that definitely stands out as a unique and potentially game changing concept: StreetPass. Considering Nintendo’s reluctance to create an easy to use online experience, it is quite amazing that they have created such an accessible and flexible means for easily sharing data. Games like Street Fighter and Samurai Warriors have found fun and clever ways to use this feature, but its full potential remains a mystery to me, because I simply know somebody much smarter than me will find ways to use StreetPass that will be nothing short of amazing.

Ideas like StreetPass show Nintendo still has a great deal to add to the rapidly changing market.

Considering all the strides Nintendo has taken already, we need to consider what more needs to be done, and there is plenty. First and foremost is the matter of internet connectivity; Wi-Fi access continues to grow faster and more prevalent, but the future is more likely with 3G, 4G and beyond. Constant high speed internet access is quickly becoming the expected norm for much of the developed world and more than just phones are taking advantage of its availability: the iPhone big brother, iPad, has access to 3G, as do a number of e-readers, and some competitors in the tablet market are already hopping on 4G. One tactic that could be employed to circumvent the iPhone’s advantage of being a, well, phone would be to partner with a VOIP service like Skype to effectively turn the system into a phone without having to deal directly with the likes of AT&T or Verizon outside of perhaps utilizing their 3G/4G network as the connection. Partner this connectivity with a better realized, and immediately available, content strategy and Nintendo will immediately have a foothold in the modern handheld market.

Then again, there is the simple question of whether or not this is a battle Nintendo needs, or wants, to wage. Apple and Google have certainly had great success in trying to develop devices that are everything to everybody, but the mere fact we are having this conversation is proof that they haven’t perfected their ambitions yet. Millions of gamers picked up 3DS at launch and millions more will follow suit in the years to come for one simple reason– it does games better than the competition. My overall play time might have dropped due to the abundance of options my iPhone gives me, but I won’t be giving it my gaming time until it has buttons, bigger games, and Nintendo titles. In order to get more of the mass market, Nintendo needs to improve their multimedia functionality and offer a broader variety of more accessible content to consumers. Nintendo could, and probably will do this, but hopefully only to a certain degree, because the cornerstone of Nintendo’s foundation are the longtime gamers who have remained loyal to its accomplished franchises over the decades. Still, in order to maintain relevance over the years Nintendo will have to grow with the trends expected by today’s youths, but they should always utilize the quality of their games as the primary means of setting themselves apart from the competition. Hopefully every handheld user will be able to surf the web, listen to music, download really cheap and useless apps, watch and record HD video, and play games together in peaceful harmony– only while they are flinging birds at pigs we will be liberating Hyrule and solving Morph Ball puzzles.

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