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Talk to the Handheld

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

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.

With the details of Nintendo's 3DS launch plans finally in the open, and the rumour mill building up to a potential unveiling of Sony's PSP2 before the end of next week - not to mention inevitable updates to Apple's iOS device line-up within the first half of the year, and yes, Sony's Xperia Play "PSP Phone" - there's no doubt that the focus of the games business is firmly on handheld hardware for 2011.

This is, of course, a cyclical thing. Handheld devices come into focus in the ebb at the middle of the life-cycle of home console devices - something which makes perfect sense, not least since consumers don't have unlimited disposable income in their wallets. The sales figures for consoles like the DS and PSP mark them out as something far more important than a "snack between home consoles", of course, but the timing of their launches corresponds exactly to that idea all the same.

It's not just timing that makes 2011's prize-fight into a peculiar echo of the last set of handheld system launches, however. In fact, there's a significantly similar flavour to the approaches being taken by the companies involved. Once again, the indications are that Sony will deliver a hugely powerful system which leverages all of the technological advances of recent years - while Nintendo is doing something quirky and left-field with technology that's arguably far from cutting edge.

The difference, this time around, is perspective. Nobody needs to be reminded, I'm sure, of the hysteria which greeted the unveiling of the original PSP - the certainty in the minds of journalists, analysts and shareholders that Nintendo's death warrant had been signed live on stage at Sony's E3 conference. Everyone understood what PSP did - it was, in effect, a PlayStation 2 shoehorned into a gorgeous, sleek, portable case. Nintendo, meanwhile, was showing off some bizarre ugly stepchild of a system, with two screens, stylus input and 3D graphics a whole generation behind Sony's creation. Nobody was quite sure what it was for, or what the point of it was. Faced with the PSP's clear agenda and amazing hardware, it was doomed to failure.

This time, despite little having changed in the respective approaches of the two companies, the world has changed around them. The PSP, despite solid sales, most definitely played second fiddle to the stunning success of the DS - a console which not only opened up vast new demographic possibilities for games, but even paved the way for Nintendo's continuing dominance of the home console market with the Wii. 3DS, then, is seen as a sure-fire winner by most commentators, even in spite of hiccups like a rather inflated European price point and a frankly bizarre and retrograde step in regard to region-locking. PSP2 is expected, not unfairly, to be a solid performer with a still deeply valuable core market.

Let's be blunt, though - even those of us who didn't dismiss the DS out of hand all those years ago still misread the direction of the market, and it's outright naive to treat this year's hardware launches as if they'll be a direct retread of ground we've covered before. Just because Nintendo's last couple of innovative, unusual product launches have struck a chord doesn't mean that 3DS is automatically about to set the world on fire - and it'll probably be over a year before we really see whether the system is just selling to a core audience, or actually converting the masses who bought into DS.