I like Angry Birds. It’s an entertaining—if not slightly flawed—physics simulator with colorful visuals and a cast of amusing characters. It’s easy to pick up and play in small or large intervals and is a bargain at $0.99 (or free with ads if you’re on Android). It may also have changed the handheld market forever. Well, not just Angry Birds, but the entirety of the mobile market has recently exploded into a juggernaut of gaming profitability. With Angry Birds alone reaching over 12 million downloads and showing no sign of stopping, it is truly the poster child for the mobile market’s success. What does this new social acceptance of cheap thrills mean for what might be considered “true handhelds”? With the announcements of the Sony NGP and Nintendo 3DS, are we about to see the largest paradigm shift in gaming culture since Sega vs. Nintendo?
What I’m getting at is simple. Nintendo and Sony have both announced their newest systems and showed the world all the wonderful bells and whistles attached to these new devices. However, with both handhelds having sub-standard battery life, an emphasis on movement during play, and a high price point on content purchasing and development, both companies may have missed what seems to be the current trend of mobile gaming.
Mobile games have cornered the casual market. The ease of purchase for mobile games is unheard of even on current generation consoles. Hell, Microsoft and Nintendo still haven’t developed a straight monetarily based purchasing system for their online stores as of yet. Meanwhile, Sony has become synonymous with shoddy online development. Even though most culturally involved gamers know of these shortcomings, both new handhelds are touting their newest e-shop infrastructures. As of right now, the 3DS won’t even come pre-packaged with its downloading service, a feature that has been standard on mobile phones for almost five years. Even so, the current shop on the DSi is one of the most awful browsing experiences one could face with limited browsing, meager content interaction, and a grossly underdeveloped payment system. Don’t even get me started on the PSPGo, an attempt by Sony to be the first proprietary gaming-exclusive handheld accepting only digital downloads for its games. The company itself has admitted the devices failure. Without an easy interface for consumers to use, digital distribution simply can’t exist.
More important to this shift is price of content. Most mobile games are released at about $0.99 – $5.99 a pop, and run a fairly low development budget. Contrarily, 3DS games are approximated at $40 – $50 and the NGP has yet to announce its games’ price points, but it can be safely assumed that it will at least fall into a similar margin. Add this to the average development cost of producing a 3D game or a game with “PS3 quality visuals” and the schism between the two mediums begins to look pretty vast. These problems can factor into a more difficult development and purchasing scheme while traditional mobile applications continue to be cheaply made, cheaply priced, and massively distributed.
I’ve seen more and more children ambling thorough grocery stores with their mothers carrying iPod Touch’s and less carrying DS’s. As a parent, the allure of a $0.99 price point is incredibly strong, especially considering the diversity of some devices. With the casual market becoming used to these low prices it seems a hard sell to convince the average parent to buy their child a device which requires and continual investment of $40+ dollars. Children generally don’t care about what they’re playing. It’s more important to them that they’re playing something.
The content of handheld games has taken a strange turn. The NGP is showing off games like Uncharted and Killzone as premier titles. Both are games that require a degree of dedication. Will the consumer really whip out his NGP on a bus ride to get some Uncharted in, or will he pull out his iPod for a little game of Fruit Ninja? Mobile devices are starting to generate titles familiar of the early Gameboy era. Games which can be played and put down at will but can also be played for long periods of time if the user deems it necessary. And that is the key! The handheld market is dominated by the user’s desire to allot time away from some menial task like sitting on the subway or waiting for his girlfriend to get out of Forever 21. Publishing titles that demand large amounts of time and are heavy on plot and dialoged demand the user to adhere to the games standards—a practice that is the complete antithesis of why we play games on the go in the first place.
We have already seen the effect of the mobile market. Disney recently layed-off a large portion of its games division and closed Propaganda Studios, one of its more promising game developers. A recent press release states that Disney Interactive will be primarily focused on digital-only content in the future. This coming from a company who has read the movements of entertainment fairly well in the past might make for an interesting prediction of the future.
I think we might be about to witness one of the most massive entertainment failures of our generation. Neither the NGP nor the 3DS are showing anything that draws in a mobile audience. In fact, both seem to be sacrificing the staples of handheld development—pricing and battery life—for larger, more powerful devices that still fall short of the average smart phone or iPod. Can a developer really charge $40 for a mobile game and see a return in this age of Angry Birds? The youth and casual market of today are not what we are. They do not care about an industries history or the storytelling of age-old franchises. What the focused handheld market wants is easy entertainment. And as I glance over at my PSP and DS, covered in dust, I wonder if what we truly need isn’t already here.