One Does Not Simply Walk Into the Mobile Market

source: newfangled.com

A lot of people on the gaming podcasts I listen to have been debating the future of mobile video games. Most of the discussion was spurred by Nintendo of America’s Reggie Fils-Aime. The other week he said that cheap phone games are hurting the portable video game market because they strengthen the misconception that games are cheap, easily produced things, like toys.

It’s the same basic problem companies have been dealing with for years on the Internet (see: every online newspaper). You offer a service or bit of information for free, and the public expects it to remain that way. Then when you want to charge for that service, because you realize you’re not making any money by giving your service/info away, no one will buy it, because they think it should be free.

Reggie’s argument, which makes sense from his business perspective, is if people keep gobbling up these cheap 99 cent games, they’ll come to expect that price for everything, and they won’t want to cough up $50 for a Nintendo 3DS game. He’s right about that, but I don’t think it’s the issue he should be concentrating on. The real issue is if portable gaming systems will continue to be relevant.

Before I bought my Nook, I had a hard time deciding if I was going to purchase it, or spend a few hundred more and get an iPad. The argument for me was that I could get a specialized device, or get a device that does a decent job of what that specialized device does, and also does a ton of other things. 

In the end I went with the Nook, because I didn’t really need an all-in-one media device. I have a smartphone, a laptop, a desktop, all the consoles, and a DS and PSP. Why use a jack-of-all-trades when you have the masters of each trade already? So I got the Nook, and it’s a wonderful e-reader.

One Device to Rule Them All

The thing is most people aren’t like me. They don’t have the funds, the desire, or in my case, the freelance gigs, that push them to pick up all these different specialized devices. They want to drop their $500 on one device that does everything they need. I know if I were a parent, I’d rather purchase my kid an iPad than a DS. On the iPad they can play games, watch movies, use educational apps (depending on age) and so on, and those apps and games won’t come at $40 a pop. Also, I could use the iPad to do work-related things, which is a bonus.

With each new home console generation we get systems with more multi-function capabilities—Sony and Microsoft are both trying to position their systems as all-in-one entertainment boxes. Aside from a few exclusive games, you can now buy one console and experience just about all gaming has to offer. That’s awesome for those on a budget, or non-geeks.

Tablets and smartphones are doing the same thing with our mobile entertainment, which makes me wonder if there will be space for new Nintendo and Sony handheld systems in the future. I for one don’t want to carry around a smartphone and a 3DS and PSP2. If I’m not going on a trip (yes, I’m the geek that brings a laptop, Nook, DS and PSP on a trip), I want to carry one device, and that’s usually going to be the one that also makes phone calls.

The Lord of the Gadgety Things

In the end, I think the winner in the mobile landscape will be the jack-of-all-trades device. We’ve got two new systems coming this year from Nintendo and Sony, and I’d love to see them prove me wrong, but I don’t think they will. I think their best bet is to position themselves as game playing devices (Nintendo is generally better at that), and downplay their other multi-media capabilities. The marketing teams at Sony and Nintendo need to push the games—the exclusive experiences you can only get on those systems. They can thrive in a niche market.

Should this end badly for Sony and Nintendo, I wouldn’t mind seeing them exit the handheld market and instead focus on software, like Sega did (although, I’d want them to make good games, unlike Sega). How cool would it be to play a Mario game on your iPhone? Not an illegal emulation, or a crippled game built for phone users, but an actual Mario game. It would be pretty stinking cool, like the first time you saw Sonic on a Nintendo system. I mean, by the time Sonic appeared on a Nintendo system he was long past his prime, but it was still kind of neat to see him in Mario’s domain.

Predictions aside, I’ll still end up getting a 3DS and PSP2 when/if they come out with their second, cheaper and smaller iterations in a year or two, because I like video games, and shiny gadgets. I’m sure those new systems will sell well enough for a second iteration, because there are more than enough geeks like me out there. I just don’t know if this will be the last round of handhelds as we know them. I think it’s possible.