[Games] Whither the Handheld?

The 3DS - in trouble already. (photo by Minhimalism)

With the Nintendo 3DS in crisis and the PlayStation Vita risking stillbirth, is the era of the handheld console over?

So 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 launch, and Nintendo beginning to switch the focus of it’s PR machine away from the much-criticised glasses-free 3D, the 3DS is beginning to look like the company’s biggest mistake since the Virtual Boy – a console so notorious that it’s now legally mandatory that it be referred to as “ill-fated” at least once in every piece of text that mentions it.

We’ve also learned, or at least, think that we’ve learned, roughly when the ridiculously-named PlayStation Vita will be launched. A dodgy press release and a UK Blockbuster flyer  have both hinted at a late October launch in Europe, with the flyer suggesting a price point of around £250. If that’s true then the Vita may suffer the same fate as the 3DS (and to a certain extent it’s own predecessor, the PSP, at least in Europe).

At best, a machine of that price and technological fragility is likely to be a niche product at best. Think of the two best-selling portable gaming devices of all time, the Gameboy and the DS. Both were relatively inexpensive, featured limited technology that forced developers to create innovative gaming experiences that appealed beyond the polygon-obsessed hardcore gaming crowd into a casual marketplace that craved easily graspable concepts. Is that really likely on the Vita? Or will we see a stream of big budget, triple-A conversions of console franchises like Gran Turismo, Gears of War and their ilk? In fact, just who is Sony’s target consumer?

The Vita. Stupid name, flawed concept?

£250 is too much for most under-16s to drop on a second console (after all, the Vita is likely to appeal to the gaming fanboys who will already have shelled out, or convinced their parents to buy, a PS3 or 360). It’s not exactly an impulse buy for the typical 20-30 year old either (the traditional fanbase of PlayStation-branded products), but that’s not the main reason the older gaming demographic will likely stay away. The simple fact is that there is no compelling reason for them to invest. I don’t have the stats to hand, but I would imagine that in the venn diagram of 20-30 year olds, the circles representing PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 owners with £250 of disposable income to spend on gaming overlaps pretty neatly with that representing owners of Android or Apple smartphones.

For many users both of those platforms have not only replaced their old dumbphones, they have also usurped the portable MP3 player (witness the big drop off in iPod sales since 2008) and the dedicated gaming handheld. There are only so many things we’re willing to carry, especially us men with out storage capacity limited to a couple of pockets. Mobile, keys, wallet. That’s as much we we need, so it’s all we take. If I was given a Vita I’m convinced I’d hardly ever take it out of the house, and much like my PSP before, it would stay in a drawer next to my bed for most of its life.

The original Gameboy. Cheap and robust. Two features the Vita will lack (image by farnea)

The DS was different. It was plasticky, relatively cheap and folded neatly into a form that was protected and easy enough to slip into a pocket. It also predated the iPhone and it’s Android cousins so never had to compete for pocket-space with a device that did pretty much the same job. The GameBoy meanwhile may not have been truly pocketable, but it was dirt cheap and robustly built, and found a home rattling around in the schoolbag of just about every 8-15 year old in the early nineties. It’s worth noting that the main rivals to those machines, the PSP in the case of the DS, and the Sega Game Gear and Atari Lynx in the case of the Gameboy, failed despite boasting far superior technology. Each was let down by two crucial problems – cost and robustness. All were more expensive that Nintendo’s rival products, and all were prone to losing vital bits of expensive kit if they were rammed in a pocket or bag. Just look at the number of PSPs with cracked screens or missing analogue nubs on eBay to see how fragile Sony’s beautiful black console is.

Handhelds mean portability, and portability means risk. As every iPhone 4 owner knows, beauty comes at a price. Apple was rightly kicked for building a gorgeous machine with two major design flaws. The much maligned reception problem caused by that pretty metal band and the perhaps far greater risk of damage caused by covering the damn thing almost entirely in glass and giving it the ergonomic properties of a bar of soap. Ask yourself how many iPhone 4 owners you know who don’t use a cover or case of some form? Then ask why they do that. It’s because they know their phone is both valuable and relatively fragile, but they still want to take it into an environment where it will be knocked, dropped, scraped against keys, rained on and generally abused.

The DS - a Gameboy for a new generation and just as successful (image by Michell Zappa)

Fortunately for Apple, the iPhone can take a case and still fit neatly into the pocket. The PSP never could. That meant that owners were left with a choice. They could keep their device small enough to be portable, but risk it breaking by taking it out of the house into the cruel testing lab of the outside world. Or they could protect it with hard cases and impact resistant sheaths, but in the process make it so cumbersome that it could barely be classed as portable any more. The problem could have been mitigated if, like the Gameboy, the PSP was cheap, knockabout kit bought for under a hundred quid that could be easily replaced if dropped. But it wasn’t That’s why you never see anyone on the tube with a PSP. The DS on the other hand was smaller, came with it’s own case (by folding up neatly) and was far more robust. It also felt cheaper, and often was, helping breed confidence in its owners to actually, you know, use it in the real world.

I fear the same problem will befall the Vita. It’s a beautiful piece of kit with some stunning technology, that Sony claims is akin to holding a PlayStation 3 in your hands. Thing is, if I already have a PS3 in my home, and my Vita is too expensive and fragile to ever leave that home, then what I effectively end up with is two home consoles. One that plugs in to my TV, and one that I can take to the bathroom when nature calls. That’s all well and good (and seems to be the key design conceit behind the Wii U – a console which should perhaps be named Wii While U Wee) but not really worth the extra £250 layout. It’s definitely not worth paying the premium for an expensive, fragile, barely portable device that isn’t that much better than the iPhone that already dominates my limited pocket space.

The first PSP, as fragile as a Faberge egg made of butterfly wings (image by Collin Grady)

The same has, until now, been true for the 3DS. It was too expensive to risk out and about, and other than the 3D gubbins, didn’t offer much beyond smartphone gaming. By marketing it as a technological tour de force Nintendo also managed to increase its perceived value, further loading that risk vs portability equation in favour of that bedside drawer scenario I outlined earlier. There is also the side issue of the price of games on Nintendo’s console versus Apple’s app store. If a typical 3DS title is £30 (which it is in the UK) that doesn’t stack up too well against the 69p gaming on offer from Cupertino.

That’s why Nintendo’s new direction represents a vital last roll of the dice for the company that often seems to understand the market better than anyone. The 3DS never has been a technical tour de force (and with the Vita coming sooner that we thought, will look even less so before 2011 is done). The 3D is gimmicky at best, annoying at worst, and while £200-plus may represent only a small profit for Nintendo, it feels like a lot. Many don’t buy because they don’t see it as good value, those who do barely use the machine because it’s too susceptible to risk in a pocket. That’s why a price cut and de-emphasis on the 3D side of the marketing make sense. It’s also why Nintendo is right if, as reported, they start to emphasise the console’s own downloadable game content (something Sony did yonks ago with the PSPGo). Handheld gamers are used to paying pennies to get instant access to games, not forking over three tenners in a shop for a cartridge. That feels very nineties.

In truth it may be that the handheld market is dead already. Nintendo investors and Sony board members may speak breathlessly of multi-million unit sales projections, pointing to the PSP’s success in Japan (entirely fuelled, it seems, by Monster Hunter) and the last-gen DS’s global dominance. But the market has shifted, consumers already have a handheld gaming device in their pocket and with a pay squeezes and austerity measures all over the westwern world aren’t too down with the whole conspicuous consumption thing. It remains to be seen whether Nintendo’s return to its low cost routes, or Sony’s stubborn insistence on the high-tech, high-price route will win out, but I’m betting both companies will be left effectively fighting for scraps.

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