I have a weird relationship with handheld gaming. I’ve owned all the portable Nintendo platforms since the Game Boy Advance, a PlayStation Portable and come the 22nd of this month, a PlayStation Vita that I pre-ordered some time ago. There’s also a good chance I’ll be splitting the cost of an iPad 3 with my girlfriend but that’s another topic. Each of these platforms have specific strengths that make them unique not only when it comes to mobile gaming but gaming as a whole. The Nintendo DS introduced a touch screen long before it was a thought in any mobile phone maker’s mind, the PSP brought us console quality titles and online play on the go, the 3DS introduced glasses-free 3D before any home display and tablets have ushered in a whole new era of inexpensive games that can be gobbled up in quantity. But here’s the weird thing: For as much money as I’ve spent on these platforms and as much as I enjoy them, I don’t tend to play them very much. I drive to work, I work out on the treadmill which doesn’t really support holding a system with buttons and when I do have down time at home, I have a PC and consoles. I nonetheless find these platforms and the experiences they offer fascinating and while I don’t end up buying a ton of their catalogues, I still get enough fun out of them to justify my purchase of the hardware.
Trends in the handheld gaming space have been thrown around wildly the last couple of years due to the introduction of high end smartphones and tablets. I’ll be discussing this at length in a later On Gaming’s Future post but the gist of the point here is that many people believe that mobile gaming is poised to eat the lunch of dedicated handhelds and is indeed doing so already. Many in the gaming and tech press wrote off the 3DS and the Vita sight unseen because they believed the market for those systems has “moved on” to mobile platforms where the games may not be deep or even high quality in most cases but are countered by being cheap and plentiful. The 3Ds has bucked the trend to a point but apparently software sales for it are still tepid. Many believe that the Vita has an even tougher road ahead because though the system is very powerful and well made while also selling for a surprisingly reasonable price, its games are almost as expensive as those you would get for a home console. Not an easy case to make in the era of $1 smartphone games. Many third party publishers have made no announcements of forthcoming Vita releases and seem to be waiting to see how the launch goes before they even start making anything for it. After what ended up to be a very weak launch in Japan (largely due to the launch line-up containing very few titles which appeal to a Japanese audience), the naysayers dug their heels in further saying that this proved the system was doomed and that Sony should just give up now before they take an even bigger bath. The enthusiast press always has to write about how something is the loser and they jumped at the chance to put the Vita on that pedestal.
While the system doesn’t officially launch until next week, the review embargo is up today and many sites covered it. With the exception of a couple of hack reviews from the usual suspects like Gizmodo–a site people shouldn’t trust for anything, ever–the opinion is generally that it’s a very solid, powerful system that is currently the crowning achievement for hardcore gaming on the go. However, almost all this coverage contains the caveat that no one knows how the platform will fair in the new “post-iPhone world” and that no matter how good Sony makes it, there may no longer be a place for $50 portable games on a dedicated device you have to carry around in addition to your phone. Though there is no doubt a lot of iCultism infecting the press right now, I can understand where that trepidation is rooted to a point. Portable gaming is in an upheaval right now, one nobody saw coming and which has happened faster than anyone thought possible. So why would I not only buy into this platform with excitement but even go so far as to pre-buy into it?
My main motivation for this is that I like deep, complex games and I welcome the opportunity to have them on the go when travelling for work, on my lunch break or indeed just at home when I want to play something different. There are plenty of cool mobile and tablet games out there but with few exceptions, they are all timewasters with little depth or memorability. This is by design. I’ve played many of the most acclaimed ones and while I like a good time waster once in a while as much as the next guy, as an enthusiast of this medium and not just a soccer Mom playing Angry Birds while in line at the grocery store, I often want my games to have story, memorable characters, complex mechanics and gameplay that encourages longer term advancement. This is something rarely found on a mobile device but it’s where dedicated handhelds shine. Beyond that, there are many types and genres of games that are simply not possible to do well on a touch only device. Titles like Uncharted, Resistance, Wipeout, Super Stardust, Mario or Zelda simply don’t exist on mobile devices and they don’t appear to be on the horizon. Beyond Angry Birds (whose flash in the pan tendencies I’ve discussed before) there is no franchise that is cemented in gaming culture as the crowning representative of the platform.
I don’t think the significance of this can be understated and while the mobile fashion trend has definitely captured the minds of the mainstream, hardcore gamers like myself are still the driving force behind this industry. We are the ones who buy more than a couple of games a year, we are the ones who don’t mind reaching into our bag for our games instead of just our pocket, we are the ones who drive gaming trends and awareness, indeed we are the ones who initially made games like Angry Birds the phenomenon they are today. For us, gaming isn’t just a way to kill time, it’s a passion. I believe there is still a significant market for people like me who appreciate all types of games, including the bigger and more expansive ones when on the go and I believe this market is big enough to sustain dedicated handheld platforms like the 3DS and the Vita. I’m not naive enough to think either will ever be as big a market as smartphones and tablets which also do a multitude of non-gaming things and neither should Nintendo or Sony be. However, I do believe these devices can serve both as a complimentary device to a hardcore gamer with a smartphone or also to young people whose parents may not want to give their kid a $700 iPhone that’s largely made of glass and will need to be replaced every year to stay current. There is incredible creative potential in the various options the Vita hardware offers, it simply must be given a chance to show this.
I chose to buy into the Vita early partially because I’m fortunate enough to have the disposable income to afford it but also because it’s the early adopters that will determine the viability of the platform. If there’s a large number of people who believe in its virtues but decide to sit back and take a wait and see approach, it will be doomed out of the gate not because of lack of interest but because everyone waited for someone else to buy in first. Every success has to have the people who try it and drive it. Try as the press might to convince us otherwise, hardcore gamers are legion and we have a chance to demonstrate that gaming the way we like it is indeed doable on the go. If there are indeed that many of us who believe this, we either have to prove ourselves right now or we will lose by own gun shyness. Maybe I’m wrong and perhaps most hardcore gamers are content to just play on their iPads. If so, I consider that a great shame because if all handheld gaming becomes Angry Birds and Infinity Blade, it is a sad trend for the medium as a whole. Only time will tell but I figure if I want to say that I believe hardcore portable games can be viable, I need to say it with my dollars and not just my blog. I hope I’m right.