August 31, 2011

The end of dedicated portable gaming devices?

As a early adopter, I was intrigued by Nintendo's 3DS and its 3D screen that doesn't require glasses. There have been many articles written about whether 3D is a fad or a disruption in the short timeframe, but either way 3D's general requirement around dedicated glasses is a show stopper for mass adoption, especially in social scenarios. Could the 3DS be the tip of the 3D disruption as it doesn't require glasses?

I had another reason for trying out the 3DS. I used to game on a Nintendo DS, but my use of the DS had fallen to near zero with the emergence of mobile phone gaming. Within a short time, smartphones had better hardware, screens, and (gasp!) games than the older generation DS. Could the 3DS regain the crown?

The test for me was last week at PAX (Penny Arcade Expo) in Seattle. If there is one place on Earth where the 3DS has "home field advantage", it's PAX. 40K+ gamers, many of them long time Nintendo fans, crowd into one small convention center for the weekend and geek. There are dedicated areas for DS/3DS owners to gather and play multi-player games over WiFi, and it appears the 3DS focused significantly on improving multi-player gaming and inter-personal interaction. If I didn't find the 3DS compelling in this environment, that's a bad sign.

And I didn't. While the dedicated 3D screen on the 3DS is novel, it isn't overwhelming. It doesn't make the gaming experience so much better, so much more immersive, that you want to carry another device, another charger, and more accessories. The off-axis viewing is acceptable, but I found it to cause eye strain relatively quickly. 3D, at least in this incarnation, isn't the tip of a disruption for me. Instead, I wonder if it is a marketing distraction, designed to distract you from a more disturbing trend: you don't need a dedicated portable gaming device.

I'll defend that statement with the following logic:

  • People like to travel with as little stuff as possible: When mobile, it's all about weight and comfort. Everything you take with you has to be best in class for the task at hand or be a great hybrid that lowers weight and complexity when traveling.
  • Smartphones now have the hardware to be the best mobile gaming devices available. Dual core processors, modern OS platforms with gaming extensions, amazing screens, powerful GPUs, and other affordances make smartphones excellent gaming platforms. More importantly, brutal competition between smartphone manufacturers ensures rapid device innovation for the foreseeable future. The Achilles heel of smartphone gaming is still input for certain game types, but the Playstation Phone highlights how that can be addressed by demographic targeted devices.
  • Smartphones are not only at least equivalent to the best dedicated portable gaming devices from a technology perspective, they are also critically relevant. They are your phone. When people leave their homes, they always bring keys, wallet, and a phone. A phone will always qualify under the "little stuff as possible" rule. How does a dedicated gaming device compete when it is redundant and competing with a device that has critical mobile relevance?
  • Games run as easily on a smartphone as on a dedicated mobile gaming device. The Nintendo 3DS doesn't have any must-have, exclusive platform content. And if it did, it would be an illusion purposely created by Nintendo. The 3DS is no marvel of technology with hardware specifications so powerful or different that compelling games could only be written for it. Nintendo shareholders have already started asking the intuitive question; "Why not release the Nintendo first party game library for the big mobile ecosystems (iPhone, Android, Windows Phone) and become the dominant and immensely profitable game publisher for mobile?"
  • 3D is a gimmick in the short term. It's clear that as time progresses, screen technology will improve, content owners will start creating content in which 3D presentation is critical and compelling, and techniques will be discovered to make 3D a social experience as opposed to a single user experience. Gimmicks don't sell gaming platforms. Great content and differentiated experiences create gaming platforms, and it doesn't appear there is a short term technology that will differentiate a dedicated gaming platform that in turn could not be immediately incorporated into a smartphone?

Rational and emotional investors driving Nintendo's stock price appear to agree with this logic. Nintendo has to ask itself over time if it believes it can create massively differentiated hardware to craft a unique vertical gaming experience. I for one don't think they need to, and I'll vote with my wallet. I can't justify carrying another mobile device with me when I travel. I'm now enjoying the Xbox Live integration on Windows Phone 7.x (can you say mobile achievements!?) and the huge breadth and depth of games on iOS.

I'll leave you with the following questions:

  • How well do you think Mario Kart would sell on iPhone and Android?
  • Does Mario Kart need dedicated Nintendo hardware to create its compelling gaming experience?

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Same argument for point and shoot cameras and smartphones? Nope. Point and shoot cameras still significantly outperform the embedded smartphone camera for the basic task of taking pictures. When that tipping point is met, we can start to have the same conversation as above ;-)

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