Portable Gaming: Are Nintendo and Sony Paying Attention?

A recent Engadget article discusses the mobile gaming strategies for the “Big 3” of console gaming: Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft. Microsoft, like Apple, views their Windows Phone platform as a venue for gaming on the go. Nintendo and Sony, though, seem to be living in a serious reality distortion field.

Nintendo Unaware Of What Smartphones Do?

Consider Nintendo’s contention that people only carry phones “because it’s a phone”, and that expecting people to carry a second device isn’t a big deal. In part, they don’t think it is because their portable console will somehow offer a better experience. I have news for the folks at Nintendo: people are carrying their smartphones because they are small, portable computers. Making voice calls is only part of what people do with their phones now. Pretty much every I know that has a smartphone of some kind uses it for e-mail and looking things up on the web. Some play games on them. A few will update social media like Facebook, Twitter and FourSquare. But they are doing much more than just using them as phones.

The folks at Nintendo are also trying to imply that the games on smartphones are somehow inferior to the games available on the DS. Seriously? Have they even looked at what’s available? Consider that mainstream games such as FIFA, Tiger Woods Golf, Madden Football and various well-known are available on iOS. The catalog of popular and well-known titles that are on consoles are increasing on iOS and Android all the time. Most of these games are very high quality, featuring rich 3D graphics and an immersive playing experience.

So, with a smartphone, I can get games that are as engaging, interesting of equal or better quality than any DS game. They are generally cheaper on the smartphones. And I don’t have to carry a second device (plus a second, proprietary charger, since these things generally don’t charge off my laptop’s USB port). So, where’s the benefit of this second device? One that all it really does is play games?

Sony’s Kitchen Sink

With the Playstation Vita, Sony has tossed pretty much every form of user input they could think of at the thing. The Vita is a nice device, and it feels solid and substantial (unlike the rather cheap and toy-like DS family). But, again, it doesn’t really offer much over what I can get in a smartphone. It’s not like the Vita has a overwhelming advantage on things like CPU power or graphics processing, given the power of the GPU in devices like the iPhone. And, again, I’m required to bring alone yet another device (and case and charger and possibly game cartridges if I don’t download my games). The advent of the iPhone and iPad have allowed me to cut back on devices when I travel. I don’t want to add more things back into the bag. The web browser available on iOS and Android is better, and they offer a better browsing experience. With the iPhone, I can sync it to the same library of content that I use for my iPad and other devices. I don’t have to deal with yet another interface to manage the device. Yes, iTunes certainly has some usability issues. But they aren’t bad enough that I want to add something to the mix.

Because of the approach Sony took with the Vita, they ended up with a device aimed at the niche market of hard-core games and the game developers. Sure, it is a wonderful device, but this could be the first time I skip a new generation of portable Playstation. I haven’t used my PSP Go for over 2 years now, and I don’t see the point in getting a Vita just to have it sit, unused and ignored, on my desk.

Will Portable Consoles Die?

I do expect the Nintendo and Sony portable consoles to live in, albeit in sharply reduced numbers. And for those who talk about “the hundreds of thousands of 3DS that sold one weekend” during different launch phases, I have news: Apple ships about 250,000 iPhones every day. Smartphones and tablets continue to be sold in the hundreds of thousands all day, every day. Smartphones represented the majority of phones sold in the US late last year. Penetration in the overall global phone market is expected to near 50% in the next year or so. To date, Nintendo has sold about 150 million DS’s of all types. There were nearly 500 million smartphones sold just last year.

So, compared to smartphones, portable consoles represent a tiny fraction of portable computing as well as portable gaming. That doesn’t mean that people won’t still buy them. For hardcore gamers, they will still insist on certain hardware features that smartphones simply won’t have. But for the casual gamer, the question of whether to shell out a few hundred dollars on a dedicated device will be easy: don’t bother.

For companies like Sony and Nintendo, they should consider the hard reality that their portable consoles are niche devices. If they want to make real, serious money, then they’ll bring their titles to iOS and Android. The money in gaming isn’t in the hardware, anyways. It’s in the software, and smart companies put their software on the platforms with the biggest reach. Controlling the hardware doesn’t mean nearly as much as it used to, and even with the 30% Apple Tax on games sold through the iTunes App Store, Nintendo and Sony would no longer have to concern themselves with the security and infrastructure issues that they face by having to build their own distribution platform. Let someone else deal with hardware suppliers, network security, payments, etc. Take the 70% knowing that 30% is probably cheap compared to their own costs. But, blind faith in certain truisms can be hard to overcome, and if they aren’t careful, they could find their portable platforms become less relevant as each day goes by. The money is the games. Get them out to as many people as possible.