Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Console Post of the Week, in Which I Talk About Handhelds, Not Consoles

Nintendo put out an interesting graph yesterday:

The point? Why, that the 3DS reached 5 million in unit sales faster than any other system in Nintendo history.

The stink? Well, for one, the Wii was severely supply-constrained. Two, it's basic knowledge that the DS didn't take off until after the first year. Three, the number of people who play games has never been larger.

Usually, if numbers are being arranged in unnecessary or somewhat misleading ways, there's a far more interesting reason behind it. And in this case, I think the reasons are two-fold: one, they wanted to fire a broadside before the Vita launched in the U.S., and two, they want to keep developers from abandoning ship.

To me, this will be the most interesting handheld generation in videogame history. Two competing systems with radically different feature sets and capabilities, and a third competitor that isn't a system but an entirely different platform--the mobile space.

So Nintendo, which has historically been a tremendously successful company, is fighting a war on two fronts. They have a unique weapon--3D--but it's going to be very, very difficult.

Sony has some of the same problems with the Vita, which is far more powerful than the 3DS, but lacks a "wow" feature (beyond sheer power). I'm buying one (it should be here tomorrow), and I hope to have some impressions for you on Thursday.

The problem for both of these systems, though, is the mobile market. I think handheld gaming has evolved to the point where so many consumers expect a 5-10 minute experience for under three dollars.

Ironically, I think Nintendo might have been the first company to give us this kind of experience, but didn't understand the implications. Remember WarioWare? It was a collection of "mini-mini-games" that never seemed to last more than 30 seconds each, with an emphasis on humor. They were tremendously clever, entirely wacky, and a ton of fun to play. It distilled gaming into a series of micro-games that fit perfectly into the mobile platform experience.

Nintendo understands that at some point, big developers are going to abandon big-budget games for handhelds and instead churn out a slew of low-budget games for mobile platforms instead. And there will be plenty more who decide to develop for only one handheld platform. Nintendo wants to plant its flag in the ground and make sure that they're the chosen platform, not the Vita. It's war, and it's going to get very ugly very quickly.

Let's see what that graph looks like a year from now.

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