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Talk to the Handheld • Page 2

Everyone expects 2011's handheld battle to be a re-run of PSP vs DS, but the world has changed since then.

Yet even more important than simply second-guessing Nintendo (not exactly a clever thing to do in light of the past half-decade or so) is to understand that the market itself isn't the same as it was when DS and PSP first took a bow. Back then, handheld gaming had basically been defined for over a decade by the Game Boy, and despite the ubiquity of mobile phones, the percentage of phone users actually playing games on their devices was so tiny as to be almost meaningless.

That's no longer the case. Apple's iOS range is going from strength to strength, and both personal experience and some pretty clear sales figures demonstrate that a huge number of users are treating their iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad systems as gaming devices. In most regards, you could argue that they don't compete directly with either the 3DS or the PSP2 - but the reality is that they are in competition in the way that matters most. A customer who can play games, have fun and be satisfied with what's available on his iPod or iPhone is a user who has little incentive to carry around another console. Even if he buys a 3DS or PSP2 console, the attach rate for software for such a user will probably be dismal.

Does it sound implausible that the same kind of users who flock to Nintendo and Sony handhelds might find their gaming desires sated by what's available on iOS (and to an extent, Android, although that ecosystem has a lot of maturing to do before it catches up to Apple's platforms)? It shouldn't. A great many iOS developers have nailed perfect handheld, short-session play mechanics, and the platform unquestionably boasts a vastly superior online experience to its rivals. Moreover, titles like the recent Infinity Blade demonstrate that Apple's devices don't have to play second fiddle to other platforms in graphical terms, either.

On the other hand, there's definitely a market for much larger experiences in gaming terms - titles like the PSP's Crisis Core or Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, or the DS' Pokemon or Golden Sun, which arguably wouldn't float in the present climate on iOS for the simple reason that you couldn't make decent money from them at the price points which iOS' audiences support right now. One way around this, of course, is to move to a freemium model, which is an immensely successful way to make money from games but requires a lot of careful rethinking of game design and some extremely delicate balancing of cost against reward for players.

Regardless, it's important to remember that there are forces at work in the market which just didn't exist five years ago. Millions of consumers carry devices in their pockets which are perfectly competent gaming platforms that are even showing glimmers of developing "killer app" brands, of which Angry Birds is arguably the first. It's not that iOS' presence in the market will stop 3DS or PSP2 from being a success, but it certainly makes the sell to non-core audiences a hell of a lot harder than it used to be. In some regards, "I don't really play games" is an easier argument to overcome than "thanks, but I've already got one", after all.

There's another way to look at the changes in the market, however, and that's as an opportunity rather than a challenge. PSP2 and 3DS both bring exciting new technology to the table (at least we assume so, in PSP2's case), while iOS has brought ubiquity and, crucially, a set of new business models which have opened up publishing to the creative masses. If Nintendo or Sony is very clever, they'll recognise the value of that model and the potential for vastly enhancing their platforms' standing by tearing down many of the walls to access for developers, creating the same kind of environment and attracting the same kind of creativity which has proven so successful for Apple.

This is not, of course, an easy thing for a company to do - not least since it would throw away decades of tradition in both cases, essentially removing much of the platform holder's role as authoritarian gatekeeper in favour of a role as mostly-benevolent shepherd. It's particularly hard to see Nintendo, whose stance on its platforms could be fairly characterised as "control freak", embracing such a concept. If Sony wants to steal a march on 27th January, however, it could do worse than to match the launch of cutting-edge hardware to the embracing of genuinely modern business models. If not, there's a strong possibility that both gaming giants could find themselves playing catch-up to Apple, of all the unlikely companies, in the years to come.

If you work in the games industry and want more views, and up-to-date news relevant to your business, read our sister website GamesIndustry.biz, where you can find this weekly editorial column as soon as it is posted.

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