Kotaku vs Gizmodo: What Will Happen To The Handheld Console?

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.


    I'm scared the pile of handheld is going to fall over!

    I don't think another iteration of handhelds from any company will happen. We''l probably see phones become increasingly powerful and fill the demand for more hardcore gaming.

    That last point made by Mark is a really important insight that reaches out beyond games, I feel. Nice work man.

      As something of an expansion: I think it will be truly amazing when, after some time, what we consider 'hardcore' games--everything from the Elder Scrolls through to StarCraft--will be the equivalent of films like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, or novels like The Great Gatsby. These will be the intense niche in comparison to the casual, disposable majority like Angry Birds or FarmVille.

      I'm not making a value judgement here: the distinction between "high" and "low" culture isn't really valid that way. They are different by kind though. That will be an interesting day, when everyone plays games, but a relative few play the intense, console type we see today.

      +1. This is the feeling I've had but not quite been able to express so eloquently. The Vita may be a fine purchase, and very good at what it does, it just doesn't have the convenience factor that phone gaming does.

      Of course Starcraft - and Elder Scrolls - are far more disposable than your film and literature examples. The Great Gatsby, as you cite, is complete in itself and can’t be superseded or replaced. Video games - without distinction, and as genre - are entirely more disposable.

      I suspect The Great Gatsby was published some 80+ years ago?

      I suspect Starcraft, as we know it, will be unrecognisable in 90 years. Video games (for want of a better title) are of a transient or fleeting persuasion.

      We spend more time looking for the next big thing to replace what is here today - the very nature of the industry; an industry that spends too much time on speculation and anticipation and an obsession with what is yet to come.

      Nobody is waiting for the next Great Gatsby because it’s something irreplaceable and forever, cinema has this power also. Media complete in itself, so to speak. The gaming industry is forever trying to redefine, reinvent and better itself. Some games have stood the test of time, but only over an incredibly short timeline.

      It remains to be seen if video games will one day have a Gatsby or a Kane. Until then, a game title can not be cited as anything other than a very disposable fiction.

        That is entirely and completely a subjective assessment man. You're talking about the industry, marketing, economical terms. You're buying into what they want you to think so they can get you to do exactly what you're saying: forget the past and buy the next copy of XYZ new game. That has nothing to do with the medium and everything to do with how its marketed.

        Films are absolutely capable of being disposable. What won the Academy Award for best picture in 1993? I have no idea. Anyone who answers will have looked it up on Google. Better yet, what decent film came out in 93 that did NOT win the award?

        Conversely, there is nothing to stop you from going back to old games (other than the annoyances of equipment, which is the same for films from the 20s or shot on Super8 cameras etc). Games like Thief, Half-Life, System Shock, etc etc are all still talked about, and are completely relevant to games as an artistic medium. They are complete, in themselves, as experiences you can go back to and appreciate all over again.

        I agree that by and large many games are being created which encourage the attitude you're describing, but only because of the economical pressures put on the medium--as if it is a consumer product to be used up and nothing more. I, however, can freely of my own will decide that i will not forget about a certain game, as many others do, and treat it as something better.

    Great conclusion really highlights the dual-stream of digital entertainment.

    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.

    Over crappy iPod earbuds, even audiophiles would struggle to differentiate standard iTunes sound quality from CD quality. CDs are higher bitrate but most of that is not audible without good equipment, if at all.

    In Australia we might stream crappy quality video over youtube, but that shouldn't be taken as a desire not to have quality, it's a desire to view the content immediately and a lack of fast enough infrastructure to deliver the content to us at higher quality. That will change. Stuff off more US-oriented services like Netflix is a big step up from 320p Youtube quality already.

    Also personally I can't stand watching streamed stuff, need to have it downloaded so I can watch it in my own time, or have it on physical media. So I still buy BDs. Enthusiast markets are always going to want their physical copies for the stuff they love, I think. Tangible collections.

    I subscribe to the notion that there are two types of games: games you spend time playing, and games you make time to play. Smartphones offer a lot of the former and are fantastic for it - stuff you grab out when you're in the waiting room at the hairdresser or you're sitting on the toilet or you're taking a quick bus ride. Time wasters. They don't really offer meatier experiences to the same extent, the stuff you would actually set time aside in your schedule to play like you would with a console or PC. Of course you can play a time-waster game like that, and smartphones do offer some games for that niche, but it's a suboptimal platform for that. Handhelds are more skewed toward that meatier experience.

    The problem Sony and Nintendo are facing is that the bulk of what people want for portable games is the time-waster category. The other type is shrinking, and I wonder if it might not have dried up completely without the massive boom the PSP had in Japan with ad-hoc wireless multiplayer games like Monster Hunter taking off there. We're seeing meatier DS and PSP games getting ported to iOS as well, though only where the touch interface is actually still appropriate. What worries me about that is the fact that Apple have destroyed the software market on those platforms. The expected price for a portable game is like $1-2. A team of four or five working out of a bedroom can make good money off that if they have a breakaway hit. A team of forty or fifty simply cannot. Portable games used to be that middle ground between the cheap casual games and the expensive console games. The market rejects console games that aren't priced at full retail at launch as having something broken about them - THQ found that out the hard way. Portables used to be where you could do that B-budget low-end console experience, and that'll disappear if handhelds go, and taking it to its extreme conslusion we'll be left with an even bigger gap, where everything on consoles is a bland 'AAA' brown game where you spend every minute looking down the barrel of a firearm, and everything else will be a 99c iPhone game. I don't really want to be a gamer in that sort of environment.

      Interesting take on the subject. You read my longer reply above? Do you think it'll only be brown bland games in a future? I mean, there are still artistic and strange movies being made, even though there are way MORE action hero or rom-com formula movies around too.

        On consoles? Yes. The amount of money it costs to make a AAA game is astronomical. The money to make them comes from risk-averse investors, they stick to what they know will sell. And in the US, that's 'realistic' military shooters. There's increasingly no middle ground any more. The money flows to the low-risk, high-cost, high-return AAA stuff or the high--risk, low-cost, high-return iOS/Android market. The high-risk, high-cost, low-return middle ground isn't perceived as being profitable enough on consoles and is too expensive on iOS (see the whining about the $17 pricetag on Final Fantasy Tactics for iPad for example).

        The new ideas will still come in. Creative people will still want to make creative games, and periodically someone will invest in making that happen. But by and large, those games are going to be made in the low-budget indie space, probably on PC or iOS/Android.

        You can't make a comparison between the film and games markets. They're similar, but they are consumed in a different way with much different pricing models, the barrier to entry for making a film is much lower and they're a comparatively much older medium, and as a result they are much more diverse. That industry has already gone through these sorts of challenges. Additionally the movie-watching public are more accepting of creative ideas. Most of the landmark games for game critics (think Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Beyond Good and Evil. Psychonauts, Viewtiful Joe, Okami, God Hand etc.) have also been sales failures. The gaming public (especially the US gamers, I think) reject them.

          I'm not sure I can agree with you on some of these points. On your first one, it costs far, far more to make the equivalent of a AAA movie than it does videogames. There have been a very select few games recently that are getting into that territory, but as a rule, nowhere near.

          I also think you're not stacking the history quite right. I'm not saying that the current film industry and games industry are the same, but that a very similar historical development seems to be emerging. I'd say that now, games are in the "Hollywood Studio" era of film, in the 30s and 40s, when things like spaghetti westerns started to be made. The days of genre films, where the studio would pump out a half dozen films in the same genre with basically the same story and the same actors (who were contracted to the studio) in a single year. The Western is sort of like our modern "realistic military shooter" game at the moment. I think games, like films, will grow out of it in a similar (not identical) way. Genre films still exist, with pretty much identical narrative arcs, but there are others. Movie-goers were not always terribly accepting of unusual, creative ideas. This comes with time; like you say, movies are an older medium. Games will get older too!

    I will cry when it becomes the norm for phones to be considered handheld gaming systems. They are PHONES. Not to mention it feels like im ripping my own skin off my fingers with the iphone/ipad touch screens.

      Dude, how ARE the 1990's?

      The 'Phone' part of a phone is one of the parts I'm least interested in. I doubt I'd notice if my phone didn't do phone calls.It mightn't be long before we simply use the word 'Phone' to mean portable computer.

    I would like to disagree with the smartphone 'issue'. Yes, a large portion of the handheld market is now phones, but has it occured to anyone that the market has grown signigicantly, and the sales on handhelds are as good as ever?

    Whilst I believe phones have a place in portable gaming, how do you guys place them in the same category? In all honesty, I've found gaming on IOS platforms to be slightly amusing at best.

    I can understand why people play them; they are a quick fix, simplistic, easily accessible, integrated into an everyday device, but lets face it, they are designed for little kids, and adults, including myself, trying to kill half an hour on the train home from work.

    No gamer, and i dont just mean hardcore gamer, can honestly say they have had a satisfying gaming experience on a touch device. Ten minutes of Fruit Ninja doesnt count. In comparison, how many of you actually enjoy GTA 3 on the IOS? Its a fun game thats ruined not visually, but due to laggy touch controls, and lack of buttons.

    Unless the Games Industry experiences a Titanic style demise, ill take my $60 PSP version of GTA over its $4.99 counterpart any day.

      Sorry but how are judging what everyone finds satisfying? I'm quite happy playing Where's my Water? for an hour, and I can also be quite satisfied loading up gran turismo and playing one 4 minute lap.

      what is a "gamer"?

        I guess my definition of a gamer is someone who seeks some depth in their gaming experience...

          dont worry mate, I hardly regard phones as a gaming experience

    Personally, I'd say portable core gaming in the future is going to be the realm of Tablets and the ilk, the middle tier.
    Smartphones will have the $1-5 titles that lack depth, Consoles and full PCs will have AAA titles, and the middle tier (tablets), will be the realm of Core portable games.
    They have the power to handle decent graphical capabilities for hours, and are modular enough (with USB host support) to support peripherals such as an attachable dual-analogue controller (or have such controls build in, like Razer's offering).

    With Win8 running on an Intel Medfield processor, you'd have the perfect portable gaming machine: A fully portable Desktop OS machine, with touchscreen, good battery life and support for controllers.

    Counter-point: http://www.1up.com/news/3ds-takes-8-months-surpass-first-year-ds-sales

    The market grows larger each year, and even those who start on touch controls may eventually yearn for a more substantial gaming experience. Provided that Nintendo keeps the flow of decent 3DS titles steady, it could do just as well as the DS. I want the Vita to succeed, but I fear the cost of entry is too great.

      It's funny that people are complaining about the Vita's 'cost of entry' when it costs the same amount that the 3DS did at launch, and when the Vita pricing was first announced people were stunned at how cheap it was.

      What a difference a year's head start and a strategic price cut can make.

        350 + 65 (for a 16gb memory card) = $415 versus $299 for 3DS plus one game from Dick Smith (pre-order promo). 3DS also came with an SD card.

        I know you can argue that I could've gone with a smaller card, but I filled up the 16gb card within a few hours of booting up the Vita. I love the machine, but I don't see it as being $350. Not if you want the most out of it, that's for sure.

    my stack of handhelds would be near or at that height if i kept them around

    The problem i think still stems from the fact that their is no way to make a good usable gaming smart phone.

    While the rear touchpad is a great step forward IMO( Iphone touch screens suck if you have big hands.) Most likely no phone will ever put them to a large amount of use due to the fact that most users want their phone in a protective case.

    And then there is the issue of buttons. Personally i think any less than what the PSVita has is too little. But then you run into an issue. If you have one phone on Android that supports that sort of button schematics while the other 90% of the market share doesn't have those buttons. Your development is either going to make great use of the buttons but make the game annoyingly control dependant for the phones without buttons. Or it's going to be made for simple touch inputs and not translate to the butto system

    I think we might get another handheld out of Nintendo yet.

    I don't think the iphone will be seen as a serious contender in gaming until they release an official controller case thing that the iphone can clip into allowing it to have sticks and buttons and become a real handheld.

      ^ This. However if it did become a 'real handheld', I don't think it would be a hit since games would cost a lot more. And after paying $1 for Angry Birds, I don't think many could justify the price.

    If the handhelds don't start complimenting the consoles with cross-interacting features, then yes I imagine they will die off, there is so much uptapped potential.
    People should be able to utilize the Vita to quickly swap between cars from the garage in GT5 for example, so they don't have to trawl back and forth through the menus, among things.
    In FPSs, the vita could be used to show the map or as an alternate way to activate those care packages in CoD, as well as show current stats or something.
    In any case, handheld manufacturers need to unite them with the console in any way they can otherwise they're just going to remain as an isolated platform that isn't really neccessary, they need to make the handhelds 'a console away from the console'.

    EA seems to be the only big name to have released games for phones, everyone else seems content with supporting the vita which is interesting, this may be the measurement to keep an eye on.

    Convenience of the mobile phone market is such a killer. This is a hot topic at the moment with the Vita release and it's always good to see your take on the matter Mark.

    As much as I understand why people play smartphone games (you take your phone everywhere), I can't imagine preferring them to "deeper" ones.

    People seem to claim that it's about the length of time you want to spend, but I don't think that's the case. Having a race in ModNation or playing a few battles in MvC3 doesn't take any longer than solving a puzzle in Where's My Water. And games like Uncharted can be paused with the click of a button and resumed later.

    I've found the touchscreen controls on the Vita a mixed bag. The good thing is they're optional. They're gimmicky and pointless in MvC3, but in Uncharted, they're great. I don't use touch to pick up weapons etc, but I use it to climb ropes and things. The ability to choose means you get any potential benefits from the touchscreen controls without the many, many down sides. And I thought the back touch panel would be pointless, but it's great since using it doesn't block your view of the screen.

    I hate playing games exclusively on touch screen. I've enjoyed the touchscreen elements on the Vita so far, but I don't really enjoy playing Shadowgun for example, on my phone/tablet. It's a great game but the lack of fine control and tactile feedback just ruins the experience for me.

    When people claim that handheld gaming is being made obsolete by their iPads and 'smartphones' I tend to think that they're just falling victim to a misperception. iPhones aren't replacing portables, that implies that they are providing similiar experiences/products and are possibly improving on them... they're not. They're really just being used as distraction machines by people with poor attention spans and lower-standards, i.e. "regular people"

    Mark's last point was pretty on-the-nose. iPhones don't do games better than portables, they're just more convenient and require less thinking/effort on the part of the user. But coupled with that is the fact that smartphones are devices that *everyone* is getting, and nobody is getting them for the games :-P. Many people with smartphones would never have bought/played a portable gaming device as a source of entertainment/distraction in the past, but since they have the smartphone they figure 'what the heck' and download games.

    Personally, I'd rather run through a quick mission on PEACEWALKER when I have some downtime during the day... but most people would rather zip into something colorful and simple and mindless for 30 seconds between emails and text messages. Because they already have the phone. That's just how it goes.

    I just hope this doesn't mean portable games hardware gets canned in favor of phones. I think that they're still viable and preferred to the group of people who had been buying/playing them all along. Plus, for those of us who actually *play* more substantial portable games, I'd hate to have my phone *and* my game platform tied to the same battery...

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