Remember the Lynx? How about the N-Gage? Yeah, most people don’t because they were out and out flops upon their release. However, if you’re of a certain age you probably remember the Gameboy. Ever since the late 1980s Nintendo had the portable gaming market cornered, but with the less-than-stellar initial sales figures for the 3DS, bloggers and gaming gurus alike have forecast the end of portal gaming as we know it. “Oh no! Smartphones are taking over the gaming market! Whatever will Nintendo do?”
The narrative about the demise of portable gaming has persisted since before the iPhone’s release and continues with last month’s release of Sony’s PlayStation Vita. Industry analysts cited the lower cost and high popularity of the iPhone as a death knell for portable gaming with its dedicated devices and $40 games. The truth is, mobile gaming and portable gaming are really two different markets and cross-pollinate more than people like to think.
iOS and Android games have exploded into their own market. Angry Birds is a genre defining cultural phenomenon. How many Words With Friends games do you have open right now? The market for free/chap, easy-to-play, casual experiences is booming and there is no better place to play those games than on a smartphone or tablet. But that’s slowly changing.
The mobile gaming development community designs games for rapid consumption on mobile devices. Sony has had trouble in the past with regurgitations of console experiences on handhelds, which doesn’t work well all the time; only a small segment of society want to play a 40 hour RPG on their bus rides. As a result, mobile developers oftentimes cut their teeth in the iOS/Android market and then use their mobile acumen to design games for the 3DS or Vita that are more robust but distinctly portable experiences.
The sales figures on the PS Vita – 1.2 million worldwide as of Feb. 2012 – are impressive by portable standards, though not as staggering as smartphone sales. Comparing the PS Vita to the 3DS makes sense, while comparing either device to a smartphone doesn’t. They’re essentially different platforms with different abilities and different properties.
Mobile gaming hits a different market of consumers than portable gaming. Sure, the two overlap to a point, but the people who buy an iPhone or an Android do so to have a phone and a mobile device first. How many consumers rush out and purchase an iPhone 4S for an Angry Birds update? The games on these platforms are just an added bonus and not the reason to purchase the device in the first place.
The market for portable consoles is controlled by other desires. Buyers want the newest launch titles and the depth of gameplay that most mobile games lack, according to Brendan Sinclair from GameSpot. They want buttons for their games, not inaccurate touchscreens! They buy the platform that supports the titles they want to play — exclusive titles in many cases. If players want the newest Mario game they need to buy a 3DS and many are more than willing to shell out the cash. Of course it’s not the same number of people who will spend 99 cents on an iPhone game they might play once and never look at again. The mindsets behind the purchases are totally different.
The numbers behind the failure of the handheld gaming consoles don’t stack up either. The original DS beat the Gameboy as the highest selling portable console in U.S. history (51 million sold). In the first year of its life the 3DS sold 4.5 million units in the U.S. alone. There’s little doubt it won’t beat the original DS in terms of sales in the long run, but it’s unrealistic to think it could. Not to mention, the ‘failure’ is more of a moderate success. It doesn’t mean the end of portable gaming but rather a shift, according to Eric Caolli of Tiny Cartridge.
The mobile market is already cornering the casual crowd, while the market for systems like the PS Vita and 3DS is moving to a smaller base, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing for dedicated gamers. It means Nintendo might stop mucking up their systems with third-party stinkers and get back to some solid titles for once. If portable gaming has to ‘die’ for that to happen, I hope the zombie corpse that comes back has some cool games on it.