Monday, March 25, 2013

War In The Palm Of Our Hands

June 2007 was when the first app was fired, and the battle for mobile gamer's thumbs began.  At the end of this coming June the iPhone will be celebrating six years on the market, with the inevitable release of some newer and shinier model, with a few more features.  The capability Apple has to make a new or at least new-ish devices annually, while maintaining the regular sales is impressive.  This reminds me of the former ubiquitous handheld gaming device the GameBoy, now re-branded as the DS/3DS, and the  juggernaut behind them Nintendo.  The GameBoy business model is a clear ancestor to the iPhone; with the many various upgrades some minor, Pocket, SP, and XL (including the most ridiculous and infuriating one Colored GameBoy re-branded as 'Play it Loud' due to confusion, not to be mixed up with the GameBoy Color an actual color upgrade.); other more of significant upgrades Color, DSi and 3DS are released about every other year. Now the largest similarities between these products are not just the business model but, touch screens, cameras, online stores, and some of the same market share.

There is a significant sorrow that comes with the witnessing of Nintendo's ship burning up on re-entry to the new gaming landscape.  Personally I have owned many GameBoy products, from the Pocket that I carried in the butt pocket of my jean shorts, all summer vacation long; Color GB that received Pelican battery pack & magnifier screen attachments, to make it even cooler in my adolescent eyes; to the gift SP, from my very first girlfriend; last the three DS Lite's I bought myself, because I loved them so much, that anytime I lost one, I bought another as soon as possible.  Heck there are two more that I gave as gifts to past girlfriends, who wanted to get into gaming, but had no desire to play on standard consoles.  That was part of what put Nintendo among the stars in the past decade. GameBoy was a product for both the serious and causal gamer who wanted a fun relaxing experience, with great new and familiar IP games, on a higher quality, but lower cost device, with long battery life. Now nearly everyone you know, owns a personal gaming console; yes it is in the shape of a smartphone, but it is a viable gaming platform.  

Last year Bloomberg reported that, Nintendo cut their stock forecasts, partly because the 3DS' sales are falling below expectations (and Wii-U).  Though it has been stated that the larger trend of Smartphone and Tablet device ownership is also a problem for the handheld gaming industry; Sony's Vita did not have major success either, likely due to the same reason. Having a device you already own that has the capability to play games is great, I remember the instant that scientific calculators got introduced in school and realizing it was a rudimentary gaming device too. The difference there being that my GB was still way better than the TI-83, the same can't be said as definitively now, phones are powerful, and only getting better by the day. So why would anyone want to spend extra money ($170 the current price of the 3DS) on a second device that can't do a lot of the same things the first one can do. Plus the large difference in the price of a game app, compared to a cartridge.

I am in support of always getting people into gaming, and if phones are how it happens then so be it. Also the chance that small Indy game companies have in this format is splendid, and is democratizing game production.  The problem is that large publishers may start taking this move to the broad base casual gamer to far, cheapening the value of the product, and I do not mean in the quality, but rather the challenge or subject. A game like Fruit Ninja may be fun, but it is not much more than a time killer for the subway ride. I don't want games to just be time killers, I want them to be story tellers, challenging puzzles or just a good ol' fun time curb stomping koopas. Hopefully this gap will be bridged in a good way, and not a fiery crater full of insipid games. Last year Sony Ericsson released the Xperia Play (a Smartphone/PSP), and though it did not do very well on the market, perhaps ideas like that will be a future saving grace for the handheld business. Here's to you PhoneBoy.

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