Friday, March 9, 2012

Portable Gaming's Siren Song

This week at PopMatters, I wrote about how the God of War: Origins Collection has shaped my view of the portable game market. To put it simply: I think Sony and Nintendo are largely on the wrong track.

Playing the God of War games has been a blast, almost to the extent of making me wish I had picked up a PSP to play them when they first came out. As I write in my article, this probably would have been a bad idea. Most of the things I like about the game (a full DualShock control scheme, great frame rate, detailed art and presentation) would have been severely diminished on the small screen. For the past few years, dedicated handheld consoles have seemingly been an exercise in dealing with compromised versions of home gaming experiences.

While all this was happening, iOS has not-so-quietly gobbled up a huge portion of the portable game market. In the face of this new and imminent threat, Sony (and to a large extent, Nintendo) have doubled down on their old techniques. The Sony and Nintendo models revolve around cramming more technology into a smaller packages while bolting on the features that have truly revolutionized portable gaming in the past few years. Touch screens, 3D, analog sticks, and $40 games aren't what made the iOS ecosystem the most exciting portable space out there; it's the ecosystem, not the hardware.

Now that people have games on their phones and iPods, they can be connected to their games and their friends by simply carrying around the accessories they'd otherwise use on a daily basis. The App Store has never been about trying to simulate a couch experience; it's more like a neo-arcade where you congregate virtually with your friends to swap high scores and throw a few quarters down on a new game you've never played before. On a Vita or 3DS, this type of experience (as well as pricing structure) is anemic at best.

So instead of changing with the times, old portable game hardware companies are locked in a death struggle over an increasingly small, conservative market. As mobile games get increasingly experimental in terms of format and business models, Sony and Nintendo keep trying to sell the same old compromised couch experience by singing a siren song.


  1. I'd be quite with phones becoming the defacto medium for portable gaming if only any of them had decent physical input. That little suction cup joystick for the iPhone, while cute, is unfortunately not a substitute for a real circle pad.

    Even considering some of their current problems (like that silly 3DS add-on), both leading portables are light-years ahead of the phone crowd in this area. At the very least, I'd really like to see styluses make a comeback, both for the added precision and the ability to touch the screen without severely obstructing the view.

  2. Agreed: a sensible control layout is crucial if you want to do traditional games.

    However, I'm more interested in developers embracing the strengths of the touch screen. A game like Osmos is a great example of a designing with the platform in mind, rather than making a traditional game and then trying to cram it into a new environment.

  3. Mads Darø KristensenMarch 11, 2012 at 1:45 AM

    Exactly, the problem with so many touch screen games is that they try to mimic the control scheme of traditional portable games rather than taking advantage of the touch screen's unique possibilities. Whenever I play a beautifully designed game that is crippled by using an on-screen circlepad I soo wish that I could just play it on my NDS :-)

  4. I wouldnt say, the market for portable gMing is becoming increasingly smaller. It's just not growing as fast as the iPod/iPad marked grew. But the gaming industry in whole is growing. Sometimes people are being brought into the marked by their smartphone and become mre interested in other gaming platforms as well.

    The only thing, thats not going in the right direction is that while games with huge content and productionvalue, such as dragon quest ix, peacewalker, uncharted or ff type-0 may cost a price similar to stationary console games, there are also examples ofgames that are already out on iMarked or android store and then come out on psn for vita for a redicolous price such as dungeon defenders. I would love to play it on vvita with buttons, sticks and front and rear touchpad, but not if i can buy it on android for such a smaller price.

  5. Good point about the value proposition. The harsh reality is that, if the price is right, putting up with less-than-ideal interfaces is worth it.

    After all, you could play literally dozens of different mobile OS games for the price of one single Vita or 3DS equivalent.