The most recent handheld battle has been won for a long time but there might be another, far more fierce and interesting one just around the corner.
Outside of its native Japan, the PSP has had uninspiring hardware sales and very poor software sales. Repeated, tweaked iterations leading up to the near-disaster that was the PSPGo haven’t helped it gain much more traction in the West. Even in Japan, the ‘Go is often embarrassed in sales charts by its forebears as much as its competitors.
Piracy has been a big problem on older models and the inconsistently priced and under supported (by third parties, at least) digital distribution model enforced by the latest hardware have all had a detrimental affect on the image of Sony’s powerful little console.
The Nintendo console has been another story. Similar piracy problems have not made the same impact on its software sales (although it has sometimes been a struggle) with slow burning flagship titles that maintain their retail price for many months, even years, longer than the industry norm. The relatively inexpensive manufacturing costs of the DS range mean that Nintendo have been making a profit on the machine since the very early days and it has long been the market leader in terms of total unit sales.
But that’s all history. The handheld race is hotting up again, with Apple making big grabs for the casual mobile gaming market in the West and a new breed of dedicated handhelds in the news.[drop]It’s probably fair to say that the Nintendo 3DS has had a lukewarm reception. Critics have cynically moaned about a lack of strong first party titles in the launch line up and, despite all noises to the contrary, sales don’t seem to have been as strong as expected. At least, the ‘sell out’ we were told to expect seems a long way from happening. It’s still making money, of course, with recent reckonings that the production costs were under $105.
The hugely over-stated crashing issue has also been a slight mark on the launch. While it’s almost certainly not as big a problem as some would seem to want to imply, it is bad press around a console launch and that’s never good.
But the 3DS does so many things right that, now the ageing PSP has lost its graphical superiority (one or two titles aside, what I’ve seen on the 3DS is at least equal to the PSP standards) it’s difficult to see any life left in that old dog.
The headline gimmick is, of course, the 3D support. It is impressive when it’s just right and it will probably see some very interesting and imaginative use in the future. I don’t think it’s the killer feature though. For me, the 3DS’ bump in power, solid construction and that fantastic analogue controller (the Circle Pad) all form a solid base which gives the console a familiar and firm footing.
I think the augmented reality functions are going to be a much more interesting and important feature set in the future. AR gaming is just starting to take off with Apple’s iPhone another serious platform for its use and Kinect, Move (Start the Party, EyePet, etc.) and even the PSP (Invizimals) pushing it into the spotlight. I’m certainly no industry analyst but I think there’s more of a future for AR than there is for 3D and the Nintendo 3DS is the first handheld, even the first dedicated console, to ship with that functionality at launch.
The biggest thing the 3DS does though, for me at least, is embrace a connected lifestyle. The new system of adding friends is still not perfect but it is a huge step in the right direction. Connected ways to play with friends are all there for developers to make the best of, right out of the box. The SpotPass and StreetPass functions have the potential to make the handheld a social media device (admittedly, in a limited way) and play to the modern desire for on demand or pushed media. These are all things that are either decent improvements on older standards or new implementations which it would be unwise to ignore.
Now, the PSP is in the Autumn of its life. Successes (at least critically) for the platform’s take on the Metal Gear Solid and God of War franchises feel very much like isolated instances rather than a sustained barrage of quality software. With the release of the 3DS facing off the PSP’s longstanding graphical advantage and the ever increasing seriousness with which the iOS devices are targeting the more casual end of the market, it becomes difficult to see where the PSP can score a victory.[drop2]Of course, this all leads us to the next generation of Sony handhelds. It would seem that the tough battle fought by the powerful PSP against the gimmicky value of the DS has not taught Sony any lessons. The NGP looks like a beast, in terms of power and features. Once again it will go to market competing against a significantly less powerful, gimmicky, machine. But this time it can be different.
Sony will doubtless be investing heavily in security to prevent piracy. While nothing is ever going to guarantee them a pirate-free future, they should be able to buy themselves a decent head start on the hackers. Their return to physical media seems to indicate that they at least learned the lessons taught by the PSPGo’s lack of success and flash memory rather than expensive, battery-draining proprietary disc formats is a complete no-brainer. Two big hurdles jumped, then.
The multiple input options (buttons, touch, gyro, rear touch, etc.) have the potential to become overused and messy but they also allow developers a huge range of freedom to experiment and make much more immersive experiences. While they might be crammed in to every game just because they’re available, they could be used imaginatively to enhance the interface between game and gamer. The important thing is that the option is there in the hardware.
The NGP also looks set to feature similar, possibly more powerful (thanks to 3G), connectivity to the 3DS. With WiFi hotspots becoming more common and 3G signals ubiquitous in most major cities, the NGP has the potential to be constantly connected, continuously updating and evolving, while it sits in your pocket.
But that’s the future. Today, the handheld battle that was largely already won by the DS has been decisively concluded by a new player. The future of the market looks interesting, if Sony can firm up their plans and refine their manufacturing process for the NGP. So, it’s safe to say that while this battle was won by Nintendo, the war is still ongoing and Sony have a new tank in development.
As for the PSP? Well, I think it’s time for a nice quiet retirement while the new generation takes up arms.