I Was Wrong About Handheld Gaming

I was wrong about handheld video games. Very wrong indeed.

There’s a hilarious scene in Malcolm in the Middle. One morning Bryan Cranston’s character Hal discovers his youngest son has been carrying a handbag to school each day. Instead of getting all weird, macho and defensive, he empathises. He understands why his young son might want to carry a handbag around. “I can't tell you how many times I've been jealous of your mother and her purse,” he says. “You know, we men have to shove our whole lives in a little square of leather, that we then have to sit on.”

I don’t have much room in my wallet.

When Nintendo and Sony (particularly Sony) announced it was planning to re-enter the handheld market I openly poured scorn on the idea. Why? Why would you do that. Why would you force me to carry two more goddamn devices. Why? My wallet is full. I have to sit on it. It is painfully uncomfortable. These things do not fit well into my pocket. They just don’t.

I don’t need these bloody things any more.

I said these words to myself. I may have even said them out loud.

The year was 2012. I had just bought a tablet. A Nexus 7 to be precise. The screen was large, it was crisp. It was a device that did so much, a device I could easily tailor to my everyday needs. I’d check my email, read books, watch movies, read manga. Even write or edit my own work.

I’d play games. Good games. Very good games in fact. Rayman Jungle Run was one of my favourite games of 2012. Why would I need a handheld? Why did I need two more devices lunking around in my pocket or bag. What was the point even? Who would still buy these things.

My reasoning was relatively unsophisticated. I only have room/time in my life for one device and If I can only fit one device into my pocket/bag/purse/whatever, that device is going to be a mobile phone or a tablet. That device would never be a dedicated games console.

Besides, the potential of mobile gaming, at that particular point in time, felt stratospheric. We had smaller games perfectly suited to quick bursts of play. Games that worked brilliantly on touch screens. Mobile hardware was evolving constantly, evolving rapidly.

At the time I was completely bamboozled at Sony’s reasoning. Why was the PlayStation Vita not a phone. Why? If Sony was to make a dedicated gaming console that also worked as phone (the Xperia Play doesn’t count — it just doesn’t) every single gamer would make that their phone. Why was this not a thing already? Why were we stuck with a more powerful version of the PSP with an extra analogue stick? Why.

Two years later, the situation feels markedly different.

The 3DS, obviously, has sold in droves. Massively successful. The PS Vita hasn’t garnered the same commercial success but every single person who owns a PlayStation Vita understands what it is, they understand its value. There is a respect for the niche it has carved into their lifestyles.

I was wrong about handheld consoles. I was wrong about a lot of things.

I was wrong about mobile games. I had assumed that 2012 was the tip of the iceberg in terms of the quality and production quality of mobile games. I assumed that by 2014 we’d be playing mobile games that could match the scope and quality of, say, A Link Between Worlds on my Nexus 7 or the iPad. I assumed that trajectory would rise exponentially. It hasn’t. The harsh truth is this: it has plateaued and I find myself ignoring the vast majority of mobile games being released right now.

This week’s coverage of mobile gaming has focused on two games: Flappy Bird and Dungeon Keeper. Those games perfectly represent my bird’s eye view of mobile gaming. Faddy, compulsive twitch-based play and free-to-play mechanics that subvert all that is good and holy about video games. There are plenty of brilliant, innovative experiences between those two extremes but developers — quite simply — are rarely financially recompensed for creating those experiences. For smaller developers it’s far easier to throw simple, dull gimmicky ideas at the wall and hope something sticks. For major publishers? It’s all about taking existing valued IP and milking it for all it’s worth. TL;DR: it’s Flappy Bird or it’s Dungeon Keeper. Good games exist, but they’re far more difficult to find.

I was wrong about my wallet. In this silly extended metaphor the wallet is my life. It is bulky, uncomfortable and it barely fits in my pocket. I have to sit on it. I thought there was no room in my wallet for the experiences that the 3DS and the PlayStation Vita would bring. I wanted to fill that limited space with something a little more seamless — a catch all device like the iPhone or my tablet.

But there were gaps in my life waiting to be filled. Empty slots I had no idea existed. Playing Hotline Miami on the couch while my wife watched The Block. On holiday, on a sun lounger, blasting through a Link Between Worlds. Stuck at Strathfield on a train that won’t move, soothing the rage with Luigi’s Mansion 2. Wrapped in my blanket — one more run at Spelunky and then sleep.

Handheld consoles adapted. The 3DS and the Vita both found their niche. The Vita: slick, indie games on the move. The in-case-you-missed-it machine. The 3DS: home to brilliantly produced Nintendo experiences with a twist. Has Nintendo ever been as bold and inventive as it has on the 3DS? The device seems to have inspired a new lease of ideas and innovation within existing franchises. Think Super Mario 3D Land. Think A Link Between Worlds.

At one point handhelds seemed doomed to obscurity. Now, today, they feel more relevant than ever. I was wrong about handhelds. Very wrong.


Comments

    I love your writing style. Whenever these things come up, it's just like "Yeah. That's a Serrels piece."

    Also that is a pretty LBW picture and I think I need to wallpaper.

      Whenever more than 3 sentences come up I think "Yeah. That's a Serrels piece."...

      Still waiting for the "Old Man Serrels" tag to become a thing.

        agreed, I'd have it bookmarked as my work homepage and read everything in my downtime

        Old Man Serrels sounds like a blues singer, I'm hearing acoustic slide guitar and a voice like howlin wolf only with a Scottish accent and fuck me if its not awesome...

        Last edited 12/02/14 5:09 pm

        https://farm4.staticflickr.com/3438/4593531893_f67a757fa1.jpg

    I love both my 3DS and Vita for entirely different reasons. I've owned handhelds since my green and grey brick GB I got for Christmas in '89. I'll always have a place for handhelds in my life, and I hope they're always around to fill that spot.

    Nothing better on PT, those times you're flaking on the couch, or winding down in bed.

    Does anyone use a handheld on the toilet?

      Does anyone NOT use a handheld on the toilet?

      Hell a few times I've even taken the Wii U's gamepad in there, when range permits it.

        Stand over the bowl when you do that, shouldn't be too hard to aim then.

      If someone says no, they're lying. Everyone with a handheld uses it on the toilet.

        My wife used to find it repulsive that I would take my phone in there, but now she does it all the time. Sometimes she even forgets it and asks me to bring it to her if she thinks she'll be awhile.

        This is what marriage is really about, kids.

        I use my laptop, sometimes it's hard to play games due to the touchpad, since it is hard to use a mouse on the toilet. I either watch videos or browse the net, a tablet would work too but I can't justify buying one.

      That's a rather personal questio... Oh you mean a console, no, I don't

      I use a Surface Pro 2 on the toilet (Hearthstone).

      I think I do more handheld gaming on the toilet than any other single place in my house.

      No. Book/Kindle, yes. Too scared of dropping the Vita in. I'm clumsy, it's a reasonable fear.

        Dropped my Vita face down on the concrete train station floor the other day.
        Way more sturdier than the flimsy PSP. Only mild scratches on the edge, screen is fine.

          Thank f#$%, I think if I dropped and broke a portable I'd drop to the floor and let out a Vader style, noooooooooooooooooooooooo! Regardless of where I was.

            That's what happened to my first PSP, faceplant on wooden table leg. Screen went nuts then console slowly died.

              I would have cried, I actually always used the wrist strap on my old PSP out of fear of dropping it. was surprised the Vita doesn't have one.

                Was slipping it into my pocket, got distracted, slipped it to the floor instead.

        I use a handy little strap that I got with the PS Move, but you can get them on Ebay for a couple of bucks. Saved my Vita's bacon on more than one occasion.

    I have been SO disappointed by the plateau-ing of mobile games. Every month I go and check for an actual deep game that I can still play for 5 minutes at a time, like I can do with Fire Emblem or Pokemon by closing my 3DS, and nothing is here. Everything that seems hopeful doesn't entertain me for long, as I realise I'm just doing the same repetitive thing over and over with no depth. The last game that actually impressed me was Sword and Sworcery, and it's pretty old now.

    I want a developer to break the mold and give me something on par with a 3DS or Vita game. I'd be happy to spend similar amounts of money to own it on my Nexus 7! It seems that instead, everyone is sticking to the small, addictive but shallow, microtransation-laden mini games that generate revenue rather than taking a risk on something bigger and deeper.

      I love The Room games but they're way too short. I finished The Room Two in a 2 hour sitting last night and now I'm sad.

    It did seem that 2-3 years ago handheld gaming on purpose built devices were doomed. Great games have changed that around, but you're right, if Sony had've somehow put a mobile phone into a Vita capable device, hell even a PSP capable device, they'd be onto a deadset winner so far as gamers go. I wouldn't care that it would be a bit chunky or would have to have extendable parts for the controllers.

    That said, when it comes to the next gen of handheld devices the market could all change again and they'll be met with a hostile market again like the beginning of the 3ds & Vita experienced. People these days seem to be a lot more hesitant to buy into a new handheld device until there are a handful, not just one, of killer apps available

    Saw the title. Saw the author. Immediately knew this was going to be a good read. :)

    Stuck at Strathfield on a train that won't moveI know that feeling all too well. But hey! Now i know you occasionally go past Strathfield! I WILL FIND YOU SERRELS!

    Last edited 12/02/14 4:33 pm

      http://drawception.com/pub/panels/2013/6-23/RgznXQgFzn-4.png

    touch screens are very very limiting from a games perspective, I often wonder how that is not incredibly obvious to people.

      Same way it isn't obvious to people how controllers are limiting from a games perspective. The only conventional game genres that I think would work well on touchscreens are strategy games and some rpg's, but even then both of them would be limited compared to a mouse.

      I think controllers are limited for strategy, shooter and action/rpg (or probably action/anything) games due to the lack of precision. They are good for racing games, but that's about it.

        the only example I really agree with there is strategy games. shooters on a controller are a matter of personal taste and what action/rpg games are you thinking of? I would say controllers work better then mouse and keyboard for alot of those.

        regardless controllers are a far better jack of all trades then touch screens.

          Off the top of my head, both elder scrolls and fallout. I imagine sword fighting is fine, but shooting guns and firing magic with a controller are both about as difficult as each other. Yes you can do it, and yes with practice you will be good at it, but with a keyboard and mouse it is easier, and the difficulty curve is a lot less steep.

          And yes, controllers are a better general purpose device for games then touchscreens.

            Off the top of my head, both elder scrolls and fallout. I imagine sword fighting is fine, but shooting guns and firing magic with a controller are both about as difficult as each other. Yes you can do it, and yes with practice you will be good at it, but with a keyboard and mouse it is easier, and the difficulty curve is a lot less steep.

            soooooooooooo, shooters?

    Nah, I'm really not convinced. I think the casual mobile gaming market is still the ideal thing for people on the move. You can whip out your Vita or 3DS sitting on the couch but that's just playing a game on your couch while watching TV. Is that really any different than me playing a PC game while my wife watches Lost Girl or American Horror Story ten feet away?

    Are people using their 3DS or Vita as a mobile device? Maybe, if they have a long commute. These days I am still more inclined to fiddle with my iPhone, or at least I was until my Jetpack Joyride data stopped syncing with the cloud and my progress was being reset every day. I did have a 5-week run of Animal Crossing when I first got my 3DS until I grew bored with it. Still, that's a good run! Probably 30 hours or so! I suppose I could now choose to use that time on Pokemon instead, and I am sure many people do. I'm sure many children do, assuming they're allowed to take their 3DS to school. When I was a kid I had to fight tooth and nail to be allowed to slip my Gameboy into my school bag, because my mother was concerned it would be lost or stolen or damaged.

    I once took an Atari Lynx on a school trip. The Lynx had no value to my mother since I traded my redundant Sega Master System games for it after my console died spectacularly during a session of California Games, and I learned that dust is extremely combustible and gets inside consoles even with a lid to protect the catridge slot. An Atari Lynx (as the first colour screen console during a time when such things were unheard of) of course took approximately 40 D-Cell batteries and had an effective lifespan of eight and a half minutes, so I was bored again before we even got past the first set of traffic lights. I had to lug the piece of shit with me the rest of the day. I threw the dead batteries away once we arrived, which prevented me from losing six inches in height to severe spinal disc compression, so maybe it was all for the best.

    Anyway. There's great games on handhelds. I'm just not convinced that dedicated handhelds are really the future of mobile gaming, if we're really just using them on the couch while we watch TV, or using them in bed. 3DS does offer the temptation of gaining streetpasses, which I guess at least gvies you a reason to carry it around and check it perdiocially since you can only collect ten before the have to be cleared. Maybe that counts as gaming?

    Would I play Dungeon Keeper on my phone? No, probably not. But I would on my iPad. If I could pay $5 for it. Even $10. But I have to get a free version that will leech money from me over a period of months, probably well more than $10. Instead, I'll get the originals from GOG.com for $6 apiece, thank you. The only free-to-play game I have ever stuck with was Echo Bazaar aka Fallen London, which I have maintained an ongoing relationship with for some 3 years now, and I think some people might dispute it being considered a game. It is, but it's not really a 'video game' which is what we're discussing here. It's an interactive narrative, with game elements. Other, more truly 'gaming' experiences like War Thunder, Star Trek Online, etc. have all engaged me to the point where I have said to myself "to really get the most out of this moving forward, I should spend some money". I can see the habit forming, and I weigh that versus the time I will actually spend with the game in the future, and I instead choose to walk away.

    I have no reason to assume Dungeon Keeper mobile would be any different - but it is nice to see old titles that once took an entire PC to run are now able to be played on a piece of metal and glass that slides comfortably into our pockets. I have Wolfenstein 3D on my phone, making iOS the 4th format I have it in right after 3 1/4 inch floppy disc, CD-ROM, and Steam. The pseudo-thumbstick interface is awful, but it sort of works, and you can jump to whatever level you want so it's not like it actually requires any investment of time if you just want to kill nazis for a few minutes at the bus stop.

    I forget what my point was.

    Oh yeah. People don't really have time for mobile gaming. Handheld gaming only survives because it has a limited range of features that phones don't, and better controls, while presenting the illusion of not being tethered to the couch by virtue of having a rechargable battery built in. But let's face it. For any extended gaming, mobile becomes an extremely relative term.

      The problem here is that both those who think highly of mobile/portable gaming and those who find the thought bizarre extend their own circumstances to others.

      Once I was stuck in hospital for a fortnight. I had books to read, but the PSP probably saved my sanity.

      Most of the games I play on portable consoles are the sort of 50-hour RPGs that most people would never think of playing on the move. I can get my two minutes in - maybe a single random encounter - and sleep the console to come back exactly where I left off. More commonly, I'll play in bed or in a lounge chair until the battery runs out - then plug it in and keep playing.

      Or mix & match between the styles. The number one advantage of gaming on portable consoles is that they adapt to your needs, rather than vice-versa.

      I totally disagree, but you are on fire today!

      For me, gaming at work = Vita. Also, gaming when on holiday, gaming while cooking dinner, gaming on a picnic, gaming on the toilet, gaming when taking the kids to swimming lessons. Basically, anything that is longer than about 2-3 minutes. I take my Vitas pretty much everywhere I go, in my trusty backpack, along with my tablet and phones. I do have mobile games like Contre Jour, Demon's Score and a few others, but I find that if I have enough time to play anything, I can usually grab a Vita and play. The instant start/suspend is a real godsend, and having a clamshell protective case as well as a hand-strap means that I can pretty much just close it down and forget about it if need be.

    I agree with everything in this article. Was a great read.

    But for myself, if I am away from my PC and feel like gaming, mobile games [no matter how dinky they are] are pretty much just "good enough" to hold me over, if there aren't any games I am interested in, then I can read the news or browse reddit for a while to keep my busy.

    I'd love to get a 3ds for pokemon alone, plus a few other games. But honestly, I cannot be bothered carrying another device, and the times I would use it over my phone are very limited.
    If I am at home, I'll use my PC. If I am on the train or out, my phone is "good enough".

      I think the majority people don't play a ton of 3DS/Vita on the train. With games like Persona 4 Golden or Fire Emblem Awakening I'm not going to play it exclusively when i am on public transport. I'm going to put on NBA and chill on the couch or play for a bit while im going to bed.

    i have all consoles.
    my vita is used more than any of them. 3ds is next then ps4 is their in the distance and my xbone gets turned on for skype. i also have a wii u apparently.

    i gave up on ios/android gaming last year. i may not have too long to play games so short gimiky games may seem like the answer but they bore me after a minute or so. id rather only get so far through something good then to have to play the drivel that is the majority of phone/tablet games

    A Link Between Worlds on my Nexus 7 or the iPad. I assumed that trajectory would rise exponentially. It hasn’t. The harsh truth is this: it has plateaued and I find myself ignoring the vast majority of mobile games being released right now.

    Pretty much. Everyone thought that mobile gaming was going to better and offer more then just quick pick up and play experiences. Turns out the majority people want a free app and want mindless fun. Flappy birds, Candy Crush, Temple Run etc etc.

    I have never understood why people put their wallet in their back pocket, or I guess why people design jeans and other pants with no pockets worth the name other than the back ones.
    It is not practical or comfortable at all.

    I'd be curious to see a survey of handheld gamers that asks where they use it most - on the couch or on the move.
    I know mine has never left the house.

      I do both. I game on my DS for hours at home, but I also take it with me everywhere. I'll play it in waiting rooms, on public transport, for 5 minutes at a time between tram stops, everywhere.

      Ever since Nintendo made it as easy as folding the screen down to suspend my game, I've found my DS the most flexible console ever!

      My DS has no paint on its corners from being carried in my pocket to uni every single day for the first couple of years of its life. And that was before StreetPass happened :P

      I'm 28, I think, and until about a year ago I'd never used my back pockets for anything. Now I use them for my 3DS XL every day and usually I throw my DS carry case (which is the same size as the 3DS XL) full of game carts in my other back pocket. The only time I don't use them is when I use the inner breast pocket on my jacket in the rain.
      It sounds stupid, especially because I take my devices out every time I sit down, but I got very used to back pockets very quickly and now I can't live without them. In the past I'd have to pull my handheld out of a backpack or a large pocket with other things in it, and again it sounds stupid, but it's a hassle. Not a major one but one of those little hassles that stops you doing something every now and then. Now I flip my 3DS out on muscle memory. One swift action and it's out, open and playing. Another and it's sleeping back in my pocket.
      After all these years I finally understand why people carry their wallets in the back pocket. There's no messing around with keys getting caught in the fold or lighters getting in the way. They aren't deep or complicated like side pockets, but they're super quick access dedicated homes. You put one solid item in there, like a phone, wallet or handheld, and that item is never more than half a second away from being out and in action.

      Until fashion dictates that I'm allowed to wear a chest holster for my Nintendo like some sort of man-child renegade cop I'll have a use for the back pocket.

        Yeah but basically you are saying back pockets are the lesser evil. Not a great solution but the best one of limited options.
        I am a ardent supporter of cargo pockets personally. The benefits of being able to access your stuff while sitting down cannot be understated and with that many pockets you can still have them each dedicated to a single item. No sitting on or removing things required. And fashion be damned.

          I like cargo pants but I find they're not tied down to anything and they're so large that everything just sort of clumps down the bottom then slaps about when you're walking. In the past I've found that even when wearing cargo pants I'll take a backpack before putting stuff in the leg pockets. I'm a bit more paranoid than most about electronics and I'm slim enough to be boney, so as soon as I start walking in cargo pants I feel like I'm just slamming the screen directly into my knee. The same goes for most deep pockets.

          I wouldn't call back pocket a lesser evil. Being on the back with full open tops makes them super accessible. Anywhere else on the body wouldn't really work the same. I'd call them optimised pockets. I couldn't imagine ever being comfortable sitting on something in there, but again I'm a slim guy. Maybe if you've got a bit more butt a wallet sized object just sinks in.
          If you use something like a Myki for train travel have a shot at keeping it in your back pocket for a few weeks. You'll be surprised at the difference between getting it out of a back pocket and getting it out of your regular pocket.

      Check my 'near' on my vita - its been around the world!

      Best handheld console ever

    get a backpack. i don't care if i look like a 37 year old man child, i have everything with me always.

    I carry my man bag for this very reason. Vita/DS/Nexus 7. People call me out for it, but that 1hour train journey home had rekindled my gaming spirit.

    Also "Stuck at Strathfield" I was on those trains that day and Persona 4 Golden helped the time pass as if I was on the couch at home.

    I haven’t carried a man-bag since the Dreamcast one I got for free on launch day.
    Made me the coolest kind in school. Almost.

    I play my 3DS heaps but not necessarily on the train, even though I have a 1 hour commute.
    That said, I try to keep it in my bag just in case and also because it racks up Streetpass hits (a wonderful idea by Nintendo).

    I find that the absolute best time for 3DS gaming is family holidays and things like that, when you can get away for a long weekend and just use it to fill gaps in a lazy day.
    It’s also great for if the missus steals the TV and is the almost perfect companion for a night on the lounge watching test match cricket (after beer).

    The fate of mobile gaming (iPhone style) should serve as a good warning to consumers of what we can expect if we allow companies like EA to continue to whiteant their own market with obnoxious greedy titles that exist only to exploit money from the user. There’s plenty of great 3DS and Vita titles that could have worked just fine on a mobile phone, it’s just that the market itself is too sick to support them.

    +1 for the article and the points it raised and +1 for voicing that silent, collective cry that wallets are damn uncomfortable. Those who designed and established them as the only socially acceptable paradigm for what they do when it comes to men, deserve to be shot.

    Playstation Vita is really spectacular once you get PS+. I'm surprised at just how much there is to play. Back it up with a massive PSP library, and even the option to play PS3 titles, and you really have a great little console. I'd use it more if it was a little smaller and could be used as a phone, but for what it is - and its potential, there is plenty to enjoy.

    Great read, I have and enjoyed the original psp but something about the vita always turned me off, it looks like impressive kit, but a combination of price for the required additional bits and the rise of mobile gaming seemes to make it a non vital purchase, hopefully if the ps4 connectivity works as advertised I may pick one up for remote play etc

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