A few days ago, Andrew G. wrote an article about why Microsoft should enter the handheld market. As much as I respect my esteemed colleague’s point of view, I have to disagree. Here’s why . . .
First and foremost, I don’t see much of a future in the handheld console market for any of the ‘big three’. I think that Nintendo has the best chance of staying alive in this market, but I just can’t see any future for Sony, let alone Microsoft if they were to enter the arena. The biggest reason for this is the massive increase in the power and availability of Smartphones and tablets.
I have an iPhone 6 and I almost spend as much time playing games on it as I do playing on my Xbox, and I play a lot of Xbox. I do recognize that I play the two devices in very different ways, but it’s likely that if I were to have a portable device, I would play it in the same way that I play on my phone.
Handheld gaming used to be huge. Nintendo struck gold when they created the Game Boy back in 1989. The console sold over 100 million units worldwide. Nintendo’s follow-up the Game Boy Advance also did well, selling over 80 million units. The 3DS has also done well selling around 54 million units, however sales have massively slowed down. The latest version, the ‘New 3DS’, is not doing anywhere near as well.
The slow down for Sony has been significantly worse. Playstation Portable (or PSP), the company’s first entry into the handheld market was a success, selling around 82 million units. Their latest console though, the Playstation Vita, has not been anywhere near as successful. Since it’s launch in 2011, it has only sold around 5 million units. To put this in some context, the Playstation 4 launched two years ago and has sold around 30 million units.
Gaming on handheld consoles might be less popular, but gaming on the move is as popular, if not more popular than ever. The ongoing advance in Smartphone technology has made it possible for nearly everyone to play a game while riding a bus or train, or while sitting in a waiting room. It’s estimated that there are currently 1.2-1.4 billion iPhones in use, this isn’t the number sold, but the number actively being used everyday. In just the first week of January this year, Apple customers spent nearly $500 million on apps for their phones. While Apple does have the largest market share, there are also Android phones, Windows Mobile phones, Blackberry phones and others.
Smartphone gaming has become so popular that Nintendo has taken notice. Up till now, the only way you have ever been able to play a Nintendo game has been on a Nintendo console; this is about to change though. In a seismic shift, they are now working on games for Smartphones. The fact that the creator of the handheld console is now acknowledging the importance of this market is incredible. The idea of being able to Mario on my phone is very exciting.
Though Nintendo’s entry into the Smartphone gaming market doesn’t mark the end of handheld consoles, it is a good indicator of the decline of that market. Another indicator is the way that Sony has dialed back game production on the Playstation Vita. There are still games being released for the console but they tend to be smaller titles or indie titles rather than the AAA-type games that marked the device’s launch.
Gaming on Smartphones or tablets has many advantages over traditional handheld consoles. First of all, people see having a Smartphone as an essential item. As I said earlier, there are billions of Smartphone users. This means that the cost of gaming on your device is purely down to the cost of the games, and with so many mobile games being free-to-play, there’s literally no barrier to entry. Secondly, mobile devices are getting more and more powerful every year. Where a handheld console is a stationary platform (power-wise) for around five years, Smartphones don’t have that issue. The latest iPhones already have more power than even a Playstation Vita; in a couple of year’s time they could be significantly more impressive.
My biggest issue with gaming on a Smartphone or tablet is always the controls. Playing games with a ‘virtual thumbstick’ just doesn’t work for me. I always lose track of where my thumb is and move away from the control area, or my thumb is so tense the entire time that it’s likely to cramp up. While there are lots of controllers available for phones and tablets, they nearly all use Bluetooth and have latency problems. If someone was to come up with a great controller without latency issues, it could really mean the end to the handheld console market.
All of this brings us back to whether Microsoft should enter the handheld console market? No, just no. What I think Microsoft could do though, is a make a big gaming push on their Surface tablets. Get the geniuses, who came up with the market leading Xbox 360 and Xbox One controllers, to design a controller peripheral. With a decent controller in place, port over games like the original Halo, Fable and Gears of War. With these things in place and the already growing market share of the Microsoft Surface tablet, they could be onto a winner.