Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Death of the Portable

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Portable gaming has been around almost as long as gaming as a whole.  Since the first moment bleeps and bloops could be captured on a screen, engineers have been hard at work trying to recreate the same experience on the go.  Now with both the Playstation Vita and Nintendo 3DS this goal has, for the most part, become a reality.  While neither is quite on par with the likes of their HD gaming counterparts, there’s no doubt that the smaller screen does make the distinction difficult.  Having personally played Resident Evil: Revelations, Super Mario Land 3D, Wipeout 2048 and Uncharted: Golden Abyss, I admit that I feel these games are nearly identical both in gameplay and graphics to home console titles.  This is nothing new, in fact many would argue that the Playstation Portable was nothing but a slew of PS2-style titles both unique and ported.  Unlike the PSP, though, it appears that the gaming public claim this is what they want.  The sales, of course, tell a different tale.

Building a Foundation

This very site’s Gaming To-Go series helps explain the apparent necessity and strength of portables: they are inexpensive experiences for when you are away from your console.  Today’s market is a different place than it was when the Gameboy premiered in 1989, but even back then it’s important to note that at $89.99, it was only $10 less than the NES at the time.  This may not sound like anything significant at first, but when you consider that Gameboy cartridges were usually $30-$35 when compared to the NES at $40-$50, the gap can begin to widen.  Couple that with the SNES, premiering in 1991 and having early games like Street Fighter II retailing for $69.99 or more at launch and eventually large titles like Final Fantasy III hitting the $100 mark, the difference is huge.  Then there’s the television factor – you don’t need a TV to play a portable game.  When the home console is attached to the main television for the household, it can be difficult to find the time to play in an American house of 3-5 people.  With the advent of the portable, all you needed was a place to sit and mind your own business.

Lower prices, no need for a television and the amusement factor make the portable gaming system a temptation for a house with kids.  While we would all like to pretend that kids should share one Nintendo DS for today’s household, this is simply not the case.  Thanks to multiple children and the rough nature in which they treat the portable, it’s not uncommon for the typical household with two kids to eventually purchase three, four or even more of the same console in a life cycle.  It’s still a rarity, even for gamers, to have multiple copies of the same home console – I get weird looks when I mention I have three PS3s in the house.  This type of market created inflated sales, but as any 3rd party developer on these consoles will tell you, thanks to piracy and lack of demand your sales numbers can be one percent or less of that market.

A Taste of Things to Come

We saw this most recently in home consoles with the Wii – the attach rate for the console teetered between 1-3 games.  This meant that for every console sold, only 1-3 games would be purchased with it.  There are literally millions of households in America that only have one or two titles for their Wii, and usually those are Nintendo first party.  This makes any impressive game that releases without Mario or Nintendo all over it will be ignored based on bias, not content.  The same can be said for the portable and has always been the case.  In the Gameboy era, many kids in houses with multiple Gameboys would be limited to Tetris and maybe one or two games from the initial purchase.  This is why the earlier a title releases on a portable, the more common it is to see on the used market.  Even the great and untouchable Call of Duty franchise has seen failure in the eyes of the Nintendo DS, resulting in portables rarely being considered for future ports.  Sure, those games have compromises, but then so does every portable port.

That’s another change that has been brought with this new generation of portables – no more compromises.  No longer do you have to get the dumbed down or stripped version of a game, now you can get the whole package.  Street Fighter IV 3DS is a rock solid port that comes pretty darn close to its console counterpart, complete with online play.  Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and Rayman Origins are already being touted on the Vita as alternatives to purchasing the home version.  For titles like this it’s the concept that in the race for your attention, these titles can’t compete at home but perhaps they hold a strength as your “lunch break” game of choice.  We already saw popularity in the classic RPG/JRPG on the portable front – I’ve been able to complete Final Fantasy VII and Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time on portables in the same amount of time it took to complete half of Chrono Trigger on home gaming time.  Now it’s time that you decided not what game to get, but whether you want it at home, on the go, or both.

Apples to Oranges

When you strip it away, the Vita (and to certain extent, the 3DS) is just another console that happens to be “portable”.  It costs about the same as a Playstation 3 or Xbox 360, it has many of the same games, it has online patches/DLC and lets not forget an online community.  At a retail price of nearly $300 (even if you go wi-fi, a memory card or accessories get you there with little effort), this is not the portable you buy multiple copies for to appease your children.  In fact, the 3DS and Vita will most likely be nowhere near the hands of the average kid.  Not only are they more expensive, they just look like something that’s dying to be destroyed in the hands of the young.  I’m pretty sure my Gameboy and even my DS would give me a concussion before I ever dreamed of hurting them, especially with the clam shell closed.  Games have raised in price, most of them sitting in the $40-$50 range against the $50-$60 range of modern titles and I feel it’s only a matter of time before market tweaks result in identical pricing.  No, nowadays if you want a strong little device for your kids to play on you’ll most likely get them an iPod touch or a DS for like $100.

This is why the apparent lack of sales for both consoles early on shouldn’t be feared, especially if 3rd party titles do well on the console.  There’s no doubt that from a hardware sales perspective that the 3DS and the Vita will most likely not compete with their predecessors, but it’s important to remember that the hardware is rarely responsible for the profit margin to the manufacturer and definitely not to the publisher.  The hardware is merely a vehicle to create a market for the games that release.  In the case of most portables it’s a sea of unsold software – I purchased Contra 4 on DS for $4.80 at Target and Final Fantasy III on DS for around twice that – which benefits no one.  What’s the point of having 100+ million consoles if your penetration rate is pathetic?  Despite so many DS systems in the world, to break 500,000 units sold is a crowning achievement for any non-Nintendo developer.  Is a goal of any 3rd party title to receive a 0.5 percent penetration rate a good thing?  Imagine if only half a percent of all drivers purchased gas, that would dry up the gas station business at a staggering rate.  This doesn’t happen because a car essentially needs gas to be valuable, which is not the traditional view of the portable gaming market.

With any luck we will see benefits from having a smaller market; perhaps we will now see more dedicated customers who can add value to development that has been all but abandoned on portables in return for first party market control and vaporware.  There may only be 10 million Vita’s in gamers hands by the end of 2012, but if any 3rd party title can break the coveted million unit sold mark, I don’t see why anyone should be concerned.  This all comes at a price, though: portables are competing with home consoles as an option, not a supplement.  The Gameboy was you “on-the-go” option for the NES, but I don’t know that it would have been as popular had it been and actual handheld NES.  In addition, developers may be shooting themselves in the foot.  If all the Vita gamers that purchase Marvel vs. Capcom 3 would have eventually purchased the game for Xbox 360 or PS3, what was the point in developing it?  You’re basically robbing Peter to pay Paul.  This is the big issue I currently have with the Vita, it doesn’t have any console-specific software driving me to it yet.  Building on that, why wouldn’t any unique Vita title also release on PS3 since they’re so similar?  It’s a double-edged sword for the console in terms of getting me as a customer (but then, I’m a retro gamer, so of course I’m fine with DS and PSP titles, right?).  Furthermore, they haven’t ironed out all the issues with PSP/PSOne titles and until it can at least replace my PSP I’m even less likely to consider a purchase.  Here’s hoping it all gets worked out and we are seeing the portable equivalent to the hiccups of a console launch.

What about you, fellow gamers?  Is the Vita the next evolution in portable gaming that you have been waiting for or does its lack of original options hold you back from taking the high price plunge?  Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

Written by Fred Rojas

February 27, 2012 at 1:36 pm

Posted in Blog

Tagged with , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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