There has been buzz of late about former Sony Computer Entertainment America CEO, Jack Tretton, recently speaking to IGN about his almost 20 year career related to PlayStation. What got the most play were his comments involving the PlayStation Vita and why it failed, and also, in general on the state of the dedicated gaming handheld business. In short, it’s dying thanks to the rise of the smartphone.
I predicted this very same thing in early 2011 when the Nintendo 3DS was first introduced. I remember being ridiculed by a certain segment of the gaming population for me stating that, “The Nintendo 3DS will sell well, but nowhere near as well as its predecessor.” I explained that that was based on the move to smartphones, and, to a lesser degree, tablets, by whole generations of consumers who previously had no other alternative for on-the-go entertainment. This incredulous segment of the gaming population believed that no real gamers would prefer touchscreens to real controls. I argued that convenience and being “good enough” trumps any advantages physical controls offer.
Even as successful as the 3DS was and is, it was still Nintendo’s worst selling portable series by far. As evidenced by simply observing what children are using when you’re out and about, and even my own three daughters, ages 12, 10, and 2, it’s clear kids these days would rather spend time on their smartphones or tablets than on something like a Nintendo 3DS (which my two oldest also have and haven’t touched in ages). This trend will only continue, which is why there won’t be a direct 3DS successor, but instead a hybrid in the form on the NX (final name still to be determined, of course), which may help simultaneously revive Nintendo’s still-born console business and declining handheld business. It’s clear that changing the business model is the most realistic path to success now.
There’s a definite niche market for gaming handhelds, and I doubt that will ever change, but Nintendo and Sony don’t play in niches. The mainstream is perfectly happy on smartphones, and, to a lesser degree, tablets. Why carry multiple devices when your smartphone does literally everything, including games?
On a side note, the PlayStation Vita was and is an amazing portable, with perhaps the only real negative against it being its limited and expensive proprietary storage. Of course, with all of the other market forces at play, even fixing that very real issue would have done little to change its fate.
It’s time we looked to and supported the niche handheld gaming providers for those of us still with an interest in gaming-on-the-go with physical controls. And perhaps Nintendo’s risky, but potentially innovative hybrid approach with the NX, will still provide a good major maker solution despite the split personality. Although we know little about the NX at this point, as I’ve discussed before, if Nintendo is able to rally around a single platform and no longer have to split development resources between multiple systems, perhaps it can increase its first party software output without a drop in quality, as well as keep more third parties interested. As always, it will be a fun ride.