Published as part of our sister-site GamesIndustry.biz's widely-read weekly newsletter, the GamesIndustry.biz Editorial, is a weekly dissection of an issue weighing on the minds of the people at the top of the games business. It appears on Eurogamer after it goes out to GI.biz newsletter subscribers.
If this week's leak of the Nintendo 3DS tech spec is to be believed, the device - for all its innovation in terms of glasses-free stereoscopic 3D - is not going to break with any of the company's well-established philosophies of hardware design.
Ever since the announcement of the 3D display, various commentators have attempted to suggest that this device will see Nintendo bringing the fight to Sony and Apple, creating a world-beating handheld with powerful 3D graphics which will finally combine Nintendo's mass-market appeal with the high-octane graphics which more hardcore gamers crave.
The tech spec leak - assuming it is genuine - casts a rather more sober and realistic light on what the 3DS will actually be. The consensus among those who are familiar with the sort of apples vs. oranges comparisons required in ranking device capabilities alongside one another is that the system is broadly comparable with the original iPhone, albeit sporting a graphics chip which, while low-powered, is focused on providing exactly the kind of features game developers need.
Nintendo makes a point of never releasing official spec sheets for its consoles to the public, allowing the games to speak for themselves instead - and in this case, impressive screenshots of titles such as Resident Evil and Metal Gear Solid have muted any outrage which would have resulted from the firm's lower than expected specifications.
However, it makes clear, if any clarification were required, that Nintendo will not be rejoining the technological arms race which Apple and Sony seem most likely to pursue. The 3DS, like its predecessor, will leverage tried and tested technology which can be cheaply mass-produced, pinning its hopes for market appeal on a change to the gaming experience (dual screens and touch interfaces, in the case of the DS; stereoscopic 3D this time around) rather than a major graphical overhaul.
Compared to the power of Apple's present iOS range - most recently seen wowing the gaming world with the graphical prowess of Epic Citadel - and the likely power of Sony's upcoming PSP successor, the 3DS is at least a generation behind. However, this wilful ignoring of the arms race in favour of a headline grabbing change to the experience is a tactic which has reaped rewards for Nintendo twice in a row. Will it succeed a third time?
If the excitement around the 3DS is any indication, then the answer is probably yes. Glasses-free stereoscopic 3D is something a great many consumers - not just early adopters - are keen to try out, and while there are question marks over how valuable mainstream adopters of the Wii found their purchase to be in the long term, no such issues exist with the DS.
A powerful, trusted brand and a genuinely exciting new experience are a combination which should ensure solid market performance for the 3DS. Any pundit predicting doom for the console based on its weak tech specs has clearly not been paying attention to the history of the past six or seven years - either in gaming or in consumer technology trends as a whole.
However, it would be foolish to predict stellar success for the 3DS without first taking into account the fact that market conditions now are very different to those which prevailed when the original DS was launched. Indeed, while I don't doubt the success of the 3DS, I believe that those changed conditions make it highly unlikely that the new console can match the success of its older sibling in the medium to long term.
Three major factors will make life difficult for the 3DS, and slow down sales after the initial rush of early adopters keen to try out the magic new 3D functionality.
The first of those factors is the rise of mobile - as distinct from portable - gaming. The DS launched into a market where mobile phone manufacturers and network operators were very keen to talk about gaming on mobile handsets, but consumers were rather less keen to actually play the things. Apple's iPhone has revolutionised that entire market segment, delivering a relatively consistent platform for developers to work on and, more importantly, a simple and easily understood mechanism for discovering, paying for and downloading games to your handset.
That this poses a significant dampening factor for the 3DS' sales is self-evident. Nintendo's enormous success in pulling in mass-market gamers with the DS has an Achilles' heel, which is that this is the audience most likely to ask why they need more than one gaming device - unlike hardcore gamers, to whom "gotta catch 'em all" is far more than a Pokemon slogan. Apple's gaming-heavy marketing campaigns will make iOS device owners keenly aware of the gaming potential of their phones or iPods, creating a serious mental barrier to picking up a new gaming device.
Another factor is the looming appearance of the PSP2. Ordinarily, one might argue that the threat posed by Sony to Nintendo was relatively limited - after the PSP's relative drubbing at the DS' hands, which came in the wake of analysts happily predicting that Sony's entry to the handheld space was Nintendo's death knell, everyone has been wary of backing Sony's horses against Nintendo's.
However, as our interview with Sony Worldwide Studios boss Shuhei Yoshida at TGS last week revealed, Sony is no longer the company it once was. The firm is still proud of its technological achievements with the PSP - and while it may be overshadowed now by the iPhone 4's "Retina Display" and various OLED displays from rival firms, the system's huge, bright screen and sleek design lines are still very impressive, even five or six years down the line.
Alongside that pride in the platform, though, Sony now displays a real understanding of its problems. It was an engineer's console, not a developer's system - right from the outset it was designed to impress with hardware, under the assumption that the software would come later. It did - but it was a lot later than Sony might have hoped. The renaissance of the PSP thanks to the enormous success of titles like Monster Hunter would have done a lot more good to the firm had it arrived a few years earlier.
This time, Sony's approach will be different, and the first completely new hardware platform to be launched since the departure of Ken Kutaragi will be fascinating to observe. For Nintendo, it almost certainly represents a resurgent challenge from a rival which had been almost written off a few years ago. A Sony handheld console which managed to strike a balance between power, cost and ease of development - rather than simply going all-out for power and letting time take care of the rest - could be a formidable foe for the 3DS.
The final factor is something of a wildcard - the rise of social, networked gaming as a common pursuit among downstream gamers (the class of people who, according to research this week, happily play games while utterly rejecting the label of "gamer"). This is a movement which Apple is poised to take advantage of through a combination of a fully-featured web-browser for some games, and Apps which can replace Flash functionality for others (including, most obviously, Farmville).
Other devices, too, can take advantage of social games. Android, which is rapidly becoming the OS of choice for non-Apple smart phones, works perfectly happily with Flash, for example, which even gives the platform a leg-up on the iPhone. The potential also exists for consumers to slake their gaming thirsts on their laptops or work computers, rather than pulling out a handheld console on coffee breaks or during commuting time.
The reason that this factor is a wildcard is because it may be something Nintendo understands and is willing to exploit. The full functionality of the 3DS has yet to be discussed - a powerful web browser is something of a possibility, an open, Apple-style App Store a rather more remote one. Nintendo hasn't quite embraced online gaming in the past, but the 3DS could be a break with that tradition, in recognition that the same audience which it managed to tap with the DS is now heavily absorbed in social gaming experiences online.
None of these factors, of course, will matter to Nintendo's most loyal subjects, who are simply excited by the enormous potential of the 3DS and the glorious screenshots released thus far - and quite rightly so, of course. However, in the long term, I believe that a combination of these factors (and others I have no doubt failed to identify) will make this market into much more of an uphill struggle than Nintendo faced with the DS.
Nintendo's competitors are smarter and more organised, the attentions of its consumers more divided - the world has changed, and while the success of the 3DS platform is not really in question, the triumphant march of the DS will be a very tough act to follow.
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