[Games] Sony– It’s Got the Whole World in its Hands

The PSP2 - or NGP as we're supposed to call it

The PSP2 - or NGP as we're supposed to call it

The other day I was leafing through some old issues of multi-format games magazine Edge, circa 1994. Every single page, just about, was bursting with information on the latest hardware releases. From 3D0 to CD-i to N64 to PlayStation and everything in between. The letters pages too were entirely consumed with format fanboys arguing about why their Atari Jaguar was better than their friend’s Amiga CD32. It was a reminder of how hardware-obsessed the gaming world was during the 90s. A hype-drive whirlwind of propaganda, rumours and expectation that’s now all but evaporated. Even the fanboy-driven din of forum posts about the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360’s relative merits have fallen silent. Everyone’s picked a side and it’s become pretty obvious that in practical terms, if not on paper, the two machines perform almost identically. There aren’t even that many interesting platform exclusives anymore. There’s no point arguing over which format is best. Both are here to stay.

Nintendo too, has helped end the partisan bleating of old, by effectively forging a third way. Most every serious gamer I know owns either a 360 or a PS3 and a Wii on the side. It’s the console snack you can eat between meals. The Wii is a machine for the odd game here and there, and a bit of retro fun. It has no rival (at least until Move and Kinnect grow into their respective niches), so brooks no argument.

The current hardware cycle is the most mature I can remember and there’s no sign of any new, full-sized hardware to get excited about in the meantime. It’s an interesting shift for an industry that once looked in danger of collapsing under the weight of its own lofty claims about the pace of hardware development.

It’s also a little bit dull.

It’s amazing to think that in the six years since we first saw the Xbox 360, gaming technology has hardly moved on at all. Compare that with the the four years between the launch of the SNES and the PlayStation’s debut – and the shift in technology between the 2000 launch of the PS2 and the current hardware generation. We’re already six years into this console cycle and there is literally no sign of a replacement for either the 360 or the PS3. It could even be five years before they hit the market – that’s a 12 year hardware cycle, something entirely without precedent. Even PC technology seems to have virtually stagnated in the last couple of years.

So while we search in vain for any sign of gaming’s next hardware frontier, more attention than every will be focussed on the only new machines we’re likely to see for some time. The portables.

The 3DS - one step too far for Nintendo?

The 3DS - one step too far for Nintendo?

We’ve already had a chance to clap eyes on the Nintendo 3DS, the big-N’s latest iteration of its wildly successful stylus-operated DS line. It looks interesting, if slightly unconvincing at this stage. While the bigger screen and the extra grunt are welcome, it’s only been breathed on by comparison to the DSi and many developers will doubtless reign in their ambitions to ensure cross compatibility. The device’s prime selling point is doubtless it’s glasses-less 3D technology but, after some initially positive reports, there are some worrying noises coming out of Japan about extended playtime causing nausea and eye-strain. Not ideal.

That’s not the only issue either. Nintendo has a tradition of stretching the lifetime of its handheld machines to breaking point. The original Gameboy was launched in 1989. It was fully ten years before it was updated as the Gameboy Color – a device that was effectively killed off just two years later when the Gameboy Advance was  launched. The Advance rumbled along fairly successfully through a variety of hardware tweaks until 2005’s Micro – a fabulously cute little device that almost no-one bothered to buy. So now, four versions after its 2004 launch, the DS is updated again. Admittedly it’s probably as big a leap as the Advance was over the Color – but have Nintendo once again pushed the lifespan of a product line beyond the public’s tolerance? Will DSi or DSi XL owners really rush out to drop another $250 on a follow-up that isn’t radically different to their current machines? Perhaps not.

Compare that to the sleek powerhouse that is Sony’s new handheld. Announced last week, the quad-core, dual-analogue, OLED monster is rumoured to be a PS3 in your pocket. With its touch-screen reverse and console-beating graphics it’s no minor update to the original PlayStation Portable – a fact underlined by Sony’s insistence that the PSP2 name be dropped in favour of NGP or Next-Generation Portable. In the 6 and a bit years since the PSP’s launch its once proud place at the forefront of portable technology has been eroded bit by bit until its specs are outclassed by all but the most budget of smartphones. I bought once weeks after launch, and sold it on some two years later, by which stage it had already lost much of its lustre. By pitching itself as the early-adopters choice, the technophiles plaything, Sony has made sure that it’s new handheld is seriously better than the model it replaces.

And therein lies the key difference. Constituency. The DS, like the Wii and the Gameboy before it, thrived among casual players. Its broad market of Brain Training devotees and Nintendogs addicts helping Nintendo to tap into a lucrative market of pensioners, women and young children that the PSP never sought, nor engaged. As the PSP’s cutting edge lustre dimmed with its core audience of late teen and twenty something hardcore gamers, the DS kept on selling, helped all the while by innovative third party titles and the usual super-high quality first-party releases.

So surely we can expect the same when the two brands go head to head again this year in the only hardware battle we’re likely to see this side of 2015. Nintendo will build on the DS’s huge 135 million strong worldwide user base with its usual rundown of top-notch Mario and Zelda games. Everyone and their granny will buy one and it will all end happily. Sony meanwhile will struggle to match the 62 million sales its original PSP managed, failing to convince cash-strapped austerity-era gamers to part with huge sums of cash for an overpowered, oversized, over-engineered portable without any truly innovate first-party software support. Right?

Well, maybe not.

Nintendo may like to claim the casual gaming space as its own, and that is certainly still the case with the Wii when it comes to the home console market, but the portable game has moved on. While Sony and Nintendo may not have dropped any significant new portable hardware for five or six years, others have. The handheld casual gaming market no longer belongs to Nintendo. It’s all about Apple now, and to a lesser but growing extent, Android. Who in their right mind is going to pay $250 for a portable device that’s no more powerful than their smartphone, and doesn’t let them do anything but play games and take a few 3D photos? Will there even be room in consumers’ pockets for both devices? Perhaps more importantly, who is going to fork over £40 for full-priced games on inconvenient cartridges when their mobile let’s them grab premium titles like Dead Space for £6 and carry them around by the dozen on built in memory?

The very market on which Nintendo has pinned its recent success has been stolen from under its feet by the most radically successful handheld device since its own Gameboy rocked the world in the late 80s. There’s only one constituency left for dedicated handheld gaming devices, the hardcore. And that’s exactly where Sony is pitching the NGP. Sure it will be more expensive than the 3DS, but that’s okay, because it looks and feels like it’s worth the money. It’s rocking four cores of processing power and the kind of display that those who’ve owned an iPhone 4 demand from their gadgets. On top of that it’s likely to have the backing of the Activisions and EAs of the world, who’ll doubtless bring high-spec ports of their top PS3 properties to the new device. These are games the hardcore market will happily fork over full whack for on release day. The dream of playing Modern Warfare 2, Killzone 3 or Grand Theft Auto IV on the bus is surely one every dedicated gamer has had at some point. NGP could make that reality.

Would you pay £40 for a 3DS puzzle game when you can download Flight Control on your iPhone for 59p? No. Would you pay £40 to get a near-console perfect version of Rockstar’s next magnum opus in your pocket? You bet – and cleverly, so does Sony. But that’s not all. Not only are Sony aware that they need to pitch the NGP as a luxury device for high-end gamers, they’ve spotted something crucial in the casual market – a software gap.

Sony knows that despite Nintendo’s best efforts to prove the opposite, the casual handheld market is already sewn up. The tens of millions of iPhones and Android handsets out there aren’t going anywhere. The success of titles like Angry Birds and Flick Kick Football show that users want games on their phones. Recent stats suggest that the average iPhone owner has downloaded 60 apps, many of them games. That’s a hell of an attach rate. Do you know many DS owners with 60 games? Or even half that? The attach rate on Android isn’t quite as successful (partly down to a lack of carrier billing), but it’s growing in line with handset sales, creating a massive potential market. So what is Sony doing? Brilliantly, it’s launching a PlayStation store on Android. It knows the current generation of smartphone hardware is so good it’s capable of supporting decent gaming experiences. What it wants is a slice of the app action. That 60 app attach rate is making money for developers for sure, but it’s Apple who are counting the billions from their cut of each title sold, and with the PlayStation brand and it’s relationship with big name publishers Sony can surely do the same. Oh, and let’s not forget, Sony’s even launching a PlayStation phone (the Android based Xperia Play), just to make sure it has all the bases covered.

In all it’s an inspired strategy that leaves Sony, battered by the financial crisis and the relative disappointments of PlayStation 3 and PSPGo, in the box seat to come from behind and take the handheld gaming market from under Nintendo’s nose.

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Categories: Games

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [Games] Whither the Handheld? | TGIGreeny.com - August 2, 2011

    […] in the past week we’ve learned two important things about the state of the gaming market. As I predicted, the Nintendo 3DS in big trouble. With it’s price cut by a staggering 32% just months after […]

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