We've had our PS Vitas for a while now, and some of you may have picked one up over the weekend, but what does the future hold for the traditional handheld device? Is the future bright, or are they part of a dying breed. Alex Kidman from Gizmodo and Mark Serrels of Kotaku discuss.
ALEX: I've got to be honest here. I own way, way too many portable systems, and the Vita's not making things any better. As something of an acid test, I tried to collect every system that I could call 'portable' and stack them up within two minutes last night. This is what the stack looks like.
No, I don't have a problem. Really.
Although I didn't dig out any tablets, or for that matter the Game & Watch systems. So it's fair to say that I've got a strong history with portable gaming, but at the same time, I'm not entirely sure that dedicated portable gaming hardware has that much of a future. Sony's certainly thrown a lot of technology at the Vita, but I look at it next to mobile phone gaming, and I can't help but think that it might be the last of its breed. What's your take?
MARK: I've said before that I think the PS Vita is a bit of a Frankenstein's monster of a console, and I don't necessarily mean that in a bad way. The design is ergonomic and slick, but there's just so much going on with the Vita it's a bit difficult to digest.
It's sort of this halfway house. It's not a phone but it has 3G, its games can be bought at retail, but digitally as well. It has traditional analogue controls but multiple touch screens as well.
I truly believe that the PS Vita is perfectly representative of the handheld market in a state of flux. In a sense the Vita really defines compromise, and I wonder if it'll be the last console of its kind. I don't think this is the end of handheld consoles, but I definitely believe that the Vita will be the last handheld of its kind.
ALEX: From any vendor at all? I'd certainly say that it seems like it might be a last portable hurrah from Sony's Computer Entertainment arm — and quite why, having spent billions buying out Ericsson, it hasn't poured similar sums into making a killer Android gaming phone that'd really take on iOS eludes me. Because it seems to me that this is the endgame that we're rushing towards: Smartphone gaming.
That aside, what is Nintendo likely to do? It's made serious money out of portable gaming going all the way back to the classic Game & Watch models, but the 3DS is the one portable console I don't own. With my aversion to 3D and a catalogue that seems to be mostly just the classic Ninty franchises, I'm not sure that I ever will. Nothing wrong with Mario, Link, Samus et al — but I do have a limit on the number of copies of Super Mario Bros that I need to own. Even last year, you were complaining that your 3DS was gathering dust — is that still the case?
MARK: Well, I think that Nintendo has played it very safe with the 3DS, which is very un-Nintendo-like. The 3DS will continue to succeed because it caters to a different market and appeals to a broader audience in a more meaningful way.
The 3DS really is a last generation device, but it will continue to move units in the way that last generation devices move units. People still buy PlayStation 2s! I continued to play my DS until last year.
In order for the handheld to survive into the next decade it will have to completely reinvent itself in some way, and I think Nintendo has the best chance of doing it successfully. Both the Vita and the 3DS are devices in transition — I doubt either of them will shift the same amount of units their predecessors did.
The DS sold 150 million units and the PSP did about half that. Those are huge numbers. I'd be surprised if either device even came close to those numbers.
Where do you see the handheld going next?
ALEX: I'm not sure I agree with a shelf life for consoles. Then again, I still play Atari 2600 games, so perhaps I'm missing the point. That having been said, the next step appears to be towards smartphones — but perhaps not just a smartphone world where everything is touch controlled.
Touch interfaces *can* be great, but most of them are, frankly, quite woeful. You're either obscuring the screen you're playing on with your thumbs, or you're struggling with buttons with no tactile feel that are too small to tap reliably. Not so much of a problem for a match-three style puzzler, but not something that I want in a fast action game. It's pretty clear that there's a huge casual market out there for smartphone games, and what I'd certainly like to see is that kind of thing applied to the hardcore gamer. Sony's in a rather unique position to do it, too. Yes, it laid an egg with the first Playstation phone, but that's because it integrated the controls into the system. Why not take the iCade approach, and work with a modular system that can scratch that casual gamer itch by offering up touch games on the go, but with optional bolt on controls? You'd need a major manufacturer to do it (Sony - tick!). They'd need to own some compelling games IP and studios (Sony - Tick!). And they'd need to have a singular, focused approach. Ah… oh dear.
MARK: See my feeling is this: as people who have always played games we see a future where buttons are perennial and the precision based control is a must. I wonder if that future is tenable. It’s based on the idea that these controls provide a more in-depth gaming experience, and that may be true, but it doesn’t necessarily mean standard controls will win out.
Kids listen to mp3s despite the fact CD is better quality. We watch lo-res clips on youtube, or stream low quality through streaming services instead of buying Blu-rays. The world we live in is increasingly moving towards entertainment as something disposable, cheap, and easy to consume. That goes double for entertainment on the move.
My point is – simple, cheaply made mobile games, despite the fact they don’t provide the best, most in-depth experience possible, are far more appropriate types of media for people on the go. They’re far more in sync with the way we’re beginning to consume media.
I love handhelds — in the same way that my Dad loves Vinyl — but the market is going to become increasingly niche.