As I mentioned in my last post, I recently jumped on board the iPhone train. After spending some time with it and sampling some of the many games that are available for the device, I can honestly say that my time with dedicated handhelds is probably over. Affordable games, impressive visuals and sound, and plenty of variation in genres and offerings make iOS devices compete favorably with the DS and Vita handhelds we see now.
I’m certainly not out to sway anyone from their preferences. If you bought and if you enjoy your 3DS or Vita, that’s fantastic. I’ve always said that there will be a market for them. For me, though, I was very surprised with the gaming experiences that awaited me on my iPhone 4S. Augmented reality is there. Tilt controls are there. Touch controls, while obviously not as responsive or accurate as traditional controller inputs, are acceptable as long as the game is built with touch in mind and not a port with adapted control schemes. I’ve got pinball games to hold my interest from Farsight Studios and from Zen Studios. I’ve got arcade-based games like Galaga S and Galaxian S that work surprisingly well. I’ve got a pretty neat puzzler in Castlevania Puzzle, which appeals to me as a fan of the series and adapts the idea for a touch screen instead of porting an older game with potentially rough play control. I’ve got a really cool shooter in Star Wars: Falcon Gunner that satisfies my arcade and Star Wars appetites while letting me dabble in augmented reality if I wish.
For what amounts to the price of a downloadable game on Xbox LIVE Arcade or the PlayStation Store, I have a library of seven games to play on the go… and I haven’t even taken a look at free offerings too much just yet.
I’ll admit that I’d rather play with a more traditional controller, as that’s what I’m used to. I admit that sometimes my thumbs get in the way of the action, and, on occasion, the touch screen is inconsistent with its sensitivity. It’s not a perfect experience, but when I consider everything else that I can do with this device– phone calls, text messaging, web, decent photo and video tools, productivity apps, and a lot more that I haven’t even tried yet… thinking about spending $250 on a Vita or $200 on a 3DS seems redundant. I don’t want to carry two gadgets when one fills my needs adequately or better.
I know that I’m not alone in thinking this way, either.
People are still playing video games, and will for a long time. The problem is that portable tech has caught up to dedicated handhelds in many respects, and the biggest attraction is that there’s a lot to choose from and it’s almost all significantly cheaper than what we see on the Vita and 3DS. There aren’t enough reasons for more casual players to make that second investment when they already own smartphones and tablets. Core players will still buy handhelds and will always rail on the lack of a controller, and that’s perfectly fine. For me, smartphone gaming is an imperfect but still enjoyable experience that’s less expensive, more varied, and is good enough to satisfy my gaming urges when I’m not here at home.
As an analyst, it’s been clear to see that a gradual market shift has been occurring as handheld hardware sales– despite new platforms– have been generally struggling here in 2012 while the mobile sector has been growing. Now, as a longtime video game player and with first-hand experience of what iDevices bring to the table, I can see why the shift is happening. You can complain about lack of depth, lack of a controller, the advancement of the freemium model, and more… but a growing number of people don’t care enough about any of that.
It will be very interesting to see how Sony and Nintendo deal with the challenges posed by the mobile sector as we move forward. It looks like more games will be coming for both the 3DS and the Vita later this year, which solves one problem. Now they have to get consumers to buy in… and not just the core consumer that has been on the fence, either. Trying to win back the casual consumer is important; without them, revenues will continue to slide and questions about the viability of the dedicated handheld market will continue to be asked.
Popzara Press recently published two articles of mine that I wrote in order to get the E3 ball rolling there.
The first one is from an analyst perspective, breaking down each of the three hardware companies: Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo. Microsoft was the easiest of the three to talk about, though I found it interesting that early fears of a strong focus on non-game entertainment seem to have cooled with word of several big third-party game announcements during the Monday morning presser. I think that we might be surprised with what Microsoft brings to the table, but I’m not sure whether it makes a difference in terms of hardware sales for 2012 given the saturation status of the platform. Sony’s event could be the most intriguing, as there are several possible storylines. How will Sony address the Vita situation? What of this rumored cloud-based gaming acquisition that we’ve been hearing about? Is a revamp of PlayStation Plus in the cards? I’m personally very interested in what comes from that event Monday night. Finally, Nintendo’s true unveiling of the WiiU is extremely important. Nintendo needs to start selling the world on what WiiU is, and this is the company’s first big chance to do that. Launch date and pricing won’t be revealed, but games and hardware capability will be center stage.
My other piece has to do with some downloadable games that I’m looking to see on the show floor. I named three in particular. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD is a personal selection. I hold this series in very high regard and am excited to see the work that Josh Tsui and his team at Robomodo have put so much effort into. I’ve been following the progress of THPSHD since it was announced last December; from what I’ve seen, this has the potential to be one of this summer’s bigger releases. Zen Pinball 2 is another game that I’m looking forward to seeing. If you know me, you know I’m a bit of a pinball freak… and it’s great that the PlayStation 3 is finally getting its own Pinball FX2 kind of upgrade from Zen Pinball. Hopefully I’ll get a peek at the new Avengers tables, too. Finally, Double Dragon: NEON is an appointment that I set up because of my arcade roots. WayForward has done some great things with arcade IP in the past (Contra 4, anyone?) and I’m eager to see what they’ve done with Double Dragon here.
I hope that you’ll take a look at both pieces, and I invite you to comment on either or both.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that most of my writing for the next couple of weeks will be for Popzara Press. I’m not sure how much extra writing time I’ll have during the event, and I’m going to be playing catch-up for another week or so after I return from Los Angeles. I will post some more personal stories and content from the trip here as time allows, though, and most definitely after my Popzara workload slows down a bit. If you’re interested in more frequent updates from me during E3, I recommend following me on Twitter. You can follow along as I’m terrified during my flight, you can find out what I’m playing and who I’ve met, and it’ll basically be a running diary of my experience.
Although the thought of flying to Los Angeles is still freaking me out, I’m extremely excited to be able to attend E3 this year. It’s going to be a big show and I am even more excited to be able to share my experience with so many people. Some call this work– and it certainly is– but I consider it an honor.
There is nothing wrong with change, if it is in the right direction.
– Winston Churchill
I realize that online connectivity and console gaming were destined to be intertwined. The XBAND modem, the SEGA Channel, and then the rollout of the Dreamcast in 1999 with its built-in 56K modem were signs that change was going to happen. Console video game players were eventually going to have to accept connectivity, and this current console generation has preached that it’s all but required to have the full intended gaming experience.
I don’t have a problem with online connectivity in that it can serve a purpose. Bugs can be fixed if you’re connected (although this has been overdone, as I mentioned in my last post). Online play can allow players to find opponents (or partners) at any time instead of having to rely on having people over. In its originally intended form, downloadable content can extend the life of a game by adding levels, characters, quests, and more. The change from a purely offline to generally online environment, in and of itself, is not bad.
I do, however, see problems with how intense the change has been. The previous console generation can be thought of as a loose transition to online importance. We saw the birth of Xbox LIVE as a service and the PlayStation 2 had some online functionality, although it wasn’t at all organized. We were taking some steps a generation ago, but we’ve since taken a giant leap and have overlooked the consequences that the change has triggered. We see games launch with bugs, only to be excused because connectivity offers a quick fix instead of shipping the game as bug-free as possible. We see arguments that content is being stripped from retail games, only to be resold as DLC for added expense to the consumer over and above the $60 price point. We see online services and accounts getting hacked with increasing frequency.
Change is fine, but I don’t think that it can be said that it’s entirely in the right direction.
I know that I talked about the problem with patches in my last entry, but it’s disturbing to me how accepting that the community is of this trend. Reviewers, more often than not, seem to give the benefit of the doubt to patches rather than calling out publishers and developers for shipping a game that doesn’t work as well as it should. Skyrim is a great case in point with all of its associated glitches and issues, and yet it stands at a 96 on Metacritic. NINETY-SIX. I understand that online connectivity gives developers and publishers the ability to fix problems, but whatever happened to the goal of getting it right the first time? I appreciate the scope and size of the game, but giving a pass to a game because it tries hard isn’t the point, to me. In cases like this, connectivity has become a crutch instead of an advantage.
The news about Ridge Racer for the PlayStation Vita and its dearth of content in favor of DLC reignites the discussion about how DLC affects retail games. Issues with weak content versus numerous DLC offerings is nothing new for Namco; look at Beautiful Katamari and Ace Combat 6 for the Xbox 360 for prime examples of content that probably should have been included in the initial purchase. Beautiful Katamari was probably the most egregious example, with more than a few stages locked behind a DLC paywall. I can understand publishers looking to make some extra revenue per user, but in Ridge Racer‘s case on the Vita, three courses and five cars included on the release is an absolute joke. Compare that to the deeper overall package for Ridge Racer 3D for the Nintendo 3DS. There are nearly four times as many cars in Ridge Racer 3D, and four separate courses on the first stage of the Grand Prix alone! Instead of getting loaded with content, we get to pay more for additional content for Ridge Racer on the Vita. It can be argued that connectivity encourages developers and publishers to leave stuff out for post-launch, rather than packing as much content as possible before shipping and then delivering more after a few weeks. It’s change in the wrong direction.
Then we come to hacking. I understand that hacking is a peril of being online. Identity theft happens all the time, not just on the PlayStation Network or Xbox LIVE. The problem that I have is that we are so accepting of this and the best that the industry can do is to remind you to change your passwords and be vigilant. Worse yet, more and more content is becoming online-only, so unless you go out of your way to buy cards at local retailers, you have to chance your credit or debit card to get that DLC or arcade game that you want. GameTrailers and Spike TV gaming personality Geoff Keighley just had his Xbox LIVE account hacked and is offline for almost a month during Microsoft’s “investigation”. It happened to another friend of mine on Twitter recently, too… and I’ve read about it happening to more than a few other people recently as well. We allow connectivity, online commerce, and online delivery to be so instrumental to the console gaming experience, and yet we just accept it when we get hit and lose that ability when criminals attack. Stuff happens, right?
I understand that going backwards isn’t an option. Console gaming has barged through the online door with a battering ram, and constant connectivity is here to stay. Still, it’s hard for someone like me who has been playing console video games for decades to not look back on generations past and consider whether we’re really better off now. Sure, the graphics weren’t 1080p and the sound wasn’t Dolby 7.1. I know that games “back then” were simpler and, at times, not very mature. I also can’t help but to think back to when connectivity wasn’t a requisite. I remember when games were consistently full of content when they shipped rather than skimming a few things in lieu of making a few bucks later. I still can fire up my PlayStation or PlayStation 2 and just play a game, rather than waiting for patches and DLC checks.
I’m not sure what it will take for this change to constant connectivity and online presence to find the right direction, but it’s important to the future of the industry that it is found– and soon.