Let the games begin

Nintendo's DSi handheld console

Nintendo's DSi handheld console

With mobile phone-based gaming maturing into a fully fledged platform the entire handheld gaming platform is changing beyond recognition.

Until relatively recently handheld gaming was the sole domain of Nintendo, which dominated with its Gameboy and later Gameboy Advance consoles for well over a decade. Companies like Sega and Atari tried to compete at times but the Japanese device – best known for bringing Tetris to the masses – marched on relentlessly.

It was not until 2005 that the company got its first real challenger in the shape of the Sony Playstation Portable (PSP), turning the market into a two-horse race that it has remained until now.

However just like in many other sectors of the technology world the iPhone arrived and changed everything. Its quality 3D graphics, touch screen and motion-sensing accelerometer has made it real competitor to the traditional handheld market, with consumers using the device as a gaming platform far more than other mobile phones.

“Traditional mobile games are played for 6 minuites but you look at the other end of the spectrum and the average play session is 22 minutes. The average player is playing the game ten times. That’s a very different type of behaviour,” said Neil Young, CEO of iPhone development company ng:moco. “That’s the type of behaviour you’d expect to see from a DS or PSP or a traditional console gameplay experience. Why do I believe this is different? Because I believe people are playing the games differently. And that’s enabled by what the device is able to do.”

What has really changed things, however, is the App Store that gives customers access to a potentially limitless number of games right on the device itself. Companies like ng:moco can also develop games for the iPhone at a lower cost and with fewer barriers to entry than the traditional market and as a result the games are more varied and innovative.

Developers for Nintendo and Sony would normally have to get licenced, spend a lot of money developing the game and then spend even more distributing and marketing it to customers – therefore this shift coming on the back of the iPhone could change things forever.

The first of the two gaming giants to respond so far has been Nintendo, which recently released the Nintendo DSi to the Irish market. The new console plays the same games as the existing DS and DS Lite but also works as a music player, internet browser and to some degree personal organiser.

Critically the new device also has an SD card slot and access to a download store which will allow gamers to buy and download games through their ‘DSWare’ store, just like you can on an iPhone. However Nintendo are keen to stress that this is not the end of the physical release just yet.

“We don’t want and we don’t see a world where products and titles live in a virtual world as well as a physical world,” said Reggie Fils-Aime, Nintendo of America president in a recent interview “We see them filling very different needs for the consumer as well as for the business overall.”

There are practical reasons as to why downloads will not take over from physical games just yet – for a start their size makes them more difficult to download than the likes of a song or short video. On top of this they may be difficult to store if they are large in size, leaving people with a mass of SD cards instead of DS cartridges.

Of course another problem for Nintendo is the fact that the DSi can only connect to the internet while in a WiFi hotspot, where the iPhone has the freedom of a 3G connection. This means purchases cannot be quite as impulsive for DS users as Nintendo would surely like, even if they are more potentially impulsive than those made in shops.

What the new DS really does, just like the iPhone is already doing, is widen the definition of their respective markets. The iPhone has made the mobile phone more than a device to make calls and texts and has added functionality is a practical way. The new DSi aims to turn the Nintendo handheld into a multi-functional gadget too with everything, even VOIP phone calls, potentially possible on the device.

“It is technically possible to play video on the DSi,” alluded Satoru Iwata, Nintendo’s chief executive in a recent interview. “I think you could also technically stream video over the Internet or potentially view compressed video that has been stored on an SD card.”

Amongst all of this Sony have remained quite quiet, saying very little about their plans for the PSP. When invited to speak on the topic for this article representatives of Playstation Ireland declined, saying they did not feel they were the best suited to comment on the area.

Their hesitance could be connected to rumours of a new PSP, expected by some at the E3 conference due to be held in Los Angeles in early June. Depending on the talk you listen to this new device could do away with physical formats altogether but Sony are naturally remaining tight-lipped.

If the company is sitting back to see how well the DSi does before they commit they may be interested to see that it sold around 600,000 units in the US and Europe in its launch weekend alone. Given that the DS brand as a whole has already outsold the PSP more than two to one worldwide Sony may not be able to afford to hold its tongue for much longer.

An edited version of this article was published in Business & Finance magazine on the 7th May 2009.

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