Handheld gaming's battle to hold on - MCV

Handheld gaming's battle to hold on

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Calling any area of the games industry ‘dead' is something that invariably comes back to haunt the person that said it.

Nintendo in the early 2000s? Dead. PC gaming? Dead. Console gaming? Dying. All statements that were proven unequivocally wrong in the fullness of time.

And yet when presented with the figures, it's hard to see a way back from the handheld games console. Here are some startling facts for you. In the UK, the PSP (released in 2005) sold significantly more units in its first four months on sale than Vita has managed to sell in its entire lifetime so far.

Last Christmas, Nintendo proudly announced UK sales of 2m for its 3DS family of products. By the same point in the DS' lifecycle, that console had shifted over 5m units (GfK Chart-Track figures).

According to research firm GameTrack, handheld consoles were the least played machines during Q2 this year (25m players across UK, France, Germany and Spain), putting it behind tablets (28m), consoles (47m), smartphones (44m) and PC (64m).

And Kantar Worldpanel data found that since the launch of PS4 and Xbox One, handheld game sales have dropped 27 per cent.

You can see why then, when MCV met up with PlayStation CEO Andrew House at Gamescom, we felt it was a legitimate question to ask whether the firm would ever release another portable console once Vita's lifecycle
has ended.

I can't talk about future hardware plans for a whole variety of reasons,” he said dismissively.

The reason for this severe decline is not a secret. Smartphones and tablets have simply dominated the market, with their multi-functional capabilities and cheap games proving a major issue for Nintendo and Sony.

Both companies are toying with the smartphone markets themselves. Nintendo is working on iOS and Android titles to support its ‘bigger' 3DS and Wii U games, while The Pokmon Company (which is part-owned by Nintendo) is releasing a Pokmon Trading Card video game on tablets later this year.

It's proved to be challenging to try and carve
out a space within a pre-existing ecosystem,
namely Android, and create a sense of curation
and differentiation around that.We noticed that
a huge proportion of people developing on
PS Mobile were principally doing it to get on
Vita. That led us to realise that we should
focus our efforts on people who are already
achieving some degree of success in mobile,
and whose next interest is developing for a
different, more dedicated gaming device.”

Andrew House - CEO, PlayStation


And next month Sony will release Run Sackboy! Run! a free-to-play game for Vita and smartphones.

Yet Sony and Nintendo are not simply software houses. They are platform holders that curate content and command a loyal audience. It's difficult to see how they can hold that same role on mobile platforms. Sony might be able to achieve some success on tablets via its streaming service PlayStation Now, but there's no guarantee. In fact, PlayStation has already tried to be a third party ‘platform' for Android devices via PlayStation Mobile. An initiative that has failed.

It's proved to be challenging to try and carve out a space within a pre-existing ecosystem, namely Android, and create a sense of curation and differentiation around that,” says House.

We noticed that a huge proportion of people developing on PS Mobile were principally doing it to get on Vita. That led us to realise that we should focus our efforts on people who are already achieving some degree of success in mobile, and whose next interest is developing for a different, more dedicated gaming device.”

House's last observation there is an interesting one. He says that developers are looking to take their successful mobile games to dedicated handhelds. But if tablets and smartphones are killing the traditional portable console, then why should creators be interesting in releasing games on them?

We asked a few studios.

Both 3DS and Vita offer a unique focus on how gamers play on the move, providing an experience that is currently at odds with smartphone gaming, which is still dominated by more casual and free-to-play titles,” says Jason Perkins, the MD of developer Curve which has created a large number of Vita titles.

The App Store has some amazing games as well as some excellent ports, but it also has big issues with discoverability, cloning, microtransactions and the overall business model of waiting around to be featured or paying a premium for ‘user acquisition'.”

James Marsden, founder of FuturLab, which has developed Velocity 2X for Vita agrees: Vita and 3DS provide experiences that can't be found on mobile; one geared toward highly-engaged players who are far more discerning about quality and value.”

So the dedicated handheld audience is different to the smartphone one. Those people that bought a Game Boy to keep kids occupied on a long car journey have now moved over to smartphones. But dedicated gamers that want to play more ‘core' titles on the commute, or even as a second screen in the home, are still interested.

It's backed-up by Kantar's data. The firm has found that the primary reason for the decline for the first eight months of this year (compared with the same period in 2013) has been due to a drop in people buying handheld games for others, namely children. The number of people buying games for themselves remains robust.

18 months ago, the main question mark surrounding the Vita was how it would stack up against mobiles and tablets, and whether it had a real reason to be,” says Brjann Sigurgeirsson, CEO of Image and Form, which developed SteamWorld Dig for 3DS and Vita.

We were still amazed at the versatility of smartphones: all the things they could do, the range of games we could download at a very small cost. And on top of everything you could use it to call or text someone. It was natural for me, as a self-proclaimed advocate for versatility, to think that handhelds would have a really hard time.

But the gaming audience thought differently. With price cuts, feature upgrades and more diverse content, Nintendo and Sony have given their handhelds a second wind.”

So there is still an audience for portable gaming. But is it large enough? 3DS has sold 50m consoles, and that's certainly not a number to turn your nose up at. And according to Andrew House, Vita is a profitably business for Sony.

Yet if these products are destined to be niche devices, is it really worth the investment and effort?

We were still amazed at the versatility of smartphones:
all the things they could do, the range of games we
could download at a very small cost. And on

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