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The Five Mysteries of the smartphone vs handheld debate

It's hard to believe, but the "smartphones will overtake the handheld market" punchline has been around since the launch of the Nintendo DS over half a decade ago. Yet, the DS/PSP generation has been the highest-selling handheld generation of all time. There are plenty of inexplicable things that I keep reading over and over and over and over again in this ongoing "handhelds vs smartphones" debate, and I'd like to share them with you. Hopefully, you're as confused as I am.

Mystery #5: "handheld games aren't quick enough to play on a train/bus ride". This argument crops up a lot in the "smartphone vs handheld" debate. It makes me wonder if these people have ever used a handheld before. Is the entire gaming populace riding around town all day on the train/bus? Gee, Nintendo and Sony and all these smartphone companies better thank public transit services, because you'd think that without trains and buses, no one would be playing handheld games EVER! Folks, I can't remember the last time I actually played my handheld "on the go". When I play handhelds, I'm typically sitting on the couch, a friend's couch, or perhaps in a lobby somewhere. I buy handhelds because they're portable, not necessarily because the games take 45 seconds to play or because I can play it on the bus (can't remember the last time I rode a bus, either). There seems to be this unspoken rule: "if you can't play such-and-such handheld game on your 5-minute bus ride, well, shucks, that handheld system just ain't worth buying". Huh? What happened to a portable being awesome because you're not tied down to the TV? It's easier to bring Mario Kart and your DS to a friend's house instead of your Wii, Wiimotes, and suitable TV.

Mystery #4: "smartphone games are so much cheaper". In this economy, I'm not going to turn my nose up at people who want to save a buck. I understand that $0.99 iPhone games are an attractive buy. I have a fair number of iPhone games myself. But let's consider what we're paying for here: we're buying games that are only worth a few dollars. When these same sort of games are released on the Wii, we mock them. When these same sort of games hit 40 million+ users on Facebook, we shun them. Yet, for some insane reason, we celebrate these barely-a-dollar games on our smartphones. That's fine, but I'd happily pay $10-20 for an older DS or PSP title. And let's not forget the fact that the more complex you go with smartphone games, the more expensive they are. Was Infinity Blade (the oft-praised "hardcore" darling of the iPhone) only a dollar? Can you buy any of Square Enix's library on the iPhone for $0.99? Nah, didn't think so. People also forget that on open platforms like smartphones, you don't have dedicated studio support. Oh, sure, you'll get your Dead Space and Grand Theft Auto spin-offs. You'll get your Street Fighter IV ports. You'll get your Call of Duty clones. You'll get these games. Eventually. Like, months if not years after the console/handheld versions have already come out. But if you're a serious gamer, if you had to only pick one, are you going to pick these dumbed-down, chopped-up smartphone games or a real game?

Mystery #3: "handhelds are so bulky compared to a smartphone". This one is like Mystery #5. Is everyone really carrying their handheld around in their pocket? If they can't carry it in their pocket, well...too bad you're not gonna buy that handheld unless it fits in your pocket? Huh? Are handhelds larger than smartphones? Yes. Absolutely. No one is denying that. But people carry around purses, bags, backpacks, and all such bigger things compared to a handheld. If we can carry around a laptop or even an iPad, surely we have the space in our bag to carry a DS, right? I can understand a person's desire to have an "all in one" device. Can you understand my desire to play a real videogame, even if it means bringing along a device that doesn't quite fit into my pocket?

Mystery #2: "real controls? Who needs buttons? My smartphone has touch". Touch control is great, and obviously it is here to stay. But touch has its limitations, especially when there are no other buttons to back it up. Sure, SOME games work, but others don't. That's when buttons play an important role. To imitate Kevin Butler's famous "pew pew pew" comment about motion-control gaming without buttons, let me say that touch gaming ends up being little more than "fingerswipe fingerswipe" unless you also have real functional buttons for more complicated games. Do I need buttons for Angry Birds? No. Do some games work fine without buttons? Sure, but there's a reason why everyone cheered when the Playstation Vita was announced with dual analog sticks. Are there RPGs, racing games, puzzle games, action games, and even shooters on smartphones with touch controls that work? Yep, that's true. But it almost feels like playing a minigame in Little Big Planet. Yeah, it's cool too see how someone else created that game with the Little Big Planet tools, but do you really want to spend all day playing not-as-good-as-the-original games instead of the real thing? Smartphone gaming feels the same way. Yeah, it's pretty impressive to see Street Fighter IV or Modern Combat on the iPhone, but are these games really going to replace a traditional controller? No way.

Mystery #1: "smartphones are taking over handheld gaming". I heard this back when the DS launched, I've heard it ever since, and I've never once seen it proven. Oh, don't get me wrong. I understand that smartphones are a blossoming new market for portable games. However, in order for me to believe that smartphones were taking over handheld gaming, then I'd have to see that...y'know, smartphones were encroaching on the handheld market. The reality is that BOTH smartphones and handhelds are increasing in popularity. Maybe it's the cheap price. Maybe it's the portability. I don't know, but the fact remains that handheld gaming is as popular as ever. If a site takes the extra time to actually explain HOW smartphones are taking over the handheld market (most sites rarely go so far as to explain or prove themselves on this one), then they often go with a percentage chart. Y'know, they show you a chart of how DS once controller 60% of the market several years ago but now they only control 33%. Well, what these sites don't tell you is that the market GROWS. If there is one pie and Nintendo owns 50% of it, then they own 50% of the pie market. But, if smartphones add two more pies and Nintendo still owns 50% of that first pie, then now Nintendo only owns about 16% of the pie market. Did smartphones steal away any of Nintendo's pie? Nope, but that's what people would lead you to believe. You always hear phrases along the lines of "Nintendo is going to have a hard time keeping up with smartphone apps" and "Sony just can't compete with the low prices of smartphone games". Well, when do we hear the other side of the story? Like, when do we hear about how - other than a handful of games like Angry Birds, Bejeweled, and Cut the Rope - the vast, vast majority of smartphone games fail to make an impact? When do we hear about how as the price of an app increases, the sales drastically decrease? When do we hear about how - due to the splintering of the smartphone market - a great deal of app sales come from someone switching from Android to Apple, from Apple to Android, from Windows Mobile to Apple, and so forth. These things are true, but we never hear about the limitations of smartphones. It's a mystery.

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LightofDarkness2330d ago (Edited 2330d ago )

The buttons thing is a small argument, it only needs a small 3rd party peripheral (or 1st party when they INEVITABLY WILL make the final push) in order to eliminate the limitations of touch screen control schemes.

I don't understand what the resistance to the inevitable evolution of computing into all in one portable devices is amongst consumers. It just makes things easier and more convenient, and it's the way just about every hardware manufacturer KNOWS the industry is heading in. All the big CPU manufacturers have been shifting focus onto mobile platforms, same with the GPU manufacturers. THe amount of money being poured into battery research is staggering. These will eventually be akin to desktops of today that you can just carry around with you, and plug into larger terminals if necessary or have smaller, pocket-friendly peripherals if the user so wishes.

Just because you're playing on a phone doesn't mean all the games will be like Angry Birds or cheap, throw-away 99c games. They will eventually be the platform that all games are played on, from $1 to $60. And "eventually" isn't as far away as you might think.

And before people just start using the same old rhetoric, answer this little question for me: WHY don't you want technology to move in this direction? What's the REAL reason?

dedicatedtogamers2330d ago (Edited 2330d ago )

But technology isn't the driving force of videogames. Software innovation is. It has been that way since before the NES. The NES was an 8-bit system in a 16-bit PC era. PC gamers laughed at it, but it changed the face of videogames. The Gameboy was a black-and-green 4-bit system competing with better, more colorful handhelds, yet it still won. The "all in one" device has long been prophesied by the techie crowd, but it has never come, because PC gaming has always been held back by the limitation of its openness: it isn't a dedicated hardware platform. Smartphones are just mobile PCs, mobile open platforms. Smartphones will never, ever have the AAA developer support that dedicated gaming platforms do. And I say that based on the last 25+ years of gaming history.

LightofDarkness2330d ago (Edited 2330d ago )

The only reason consoles had that support was because they were cheaper and thus more available to the mainstream.

It's similar to the way developers are flocking to the mobile space now, they will follow the money and the mainstream wherever they go. And "software innovation" falls under the banner of "technology" and technological innovation, so that's a moot point.

And now look at something like BF3 and tell me PC is being held back by it's openness. Right now it's only being held back by consoles and developers not willing to do any more work than is necessary to make it work on a console. If anything, consoles are currently the hindering weight on the back on gaming.

EDIT: Wait, PC gamers laughed at the NES? In 1985? There were hardly any PC gamers in 1985! PC didn't take off as a gaming platform until the early-mid '90s really, with games like Wolfenstein and Doom, and the many RPG classics like Heroes of Might & Magic. The SNES had been released by then. It began to surge as a platform right about when people started buying them en masse and they became a home standard. I think you may want to revisit that history.

dedicatedtogamers2330d ago

@ lightofDarkness

You never heard of the Commodore 64 or the Amiga or the Apple II? You never heard of the Ultima series (Ultima fans mocked Final Fantasy)? You never heard of Zork?

Ya gotta remember that the Atari had crashed and console gaming was dead, officially. PC gaming and arcade gaming were both thriving, and the NES was "just a kid's toy". Heck, it was marketed to kids.

LightofDarkness2330d ago (Edited 2330d ago )

People were making games on PC, but it was hardly thriving. And no one I know who had a Commodore 64 was bragging about how superior they were to a NES, with the majority of their games taking 20 minutes to just load.

Zork was a text based adventure game (the whole series was). It was popular among only the nerdiest of nerds. PC games were just about competitive visually with NES games until much later in its life cycle.

The Apple II was an 8-bit machine released well before the NES and had next to nothing worth playing; I had one, I would know.

I don't know where you're getting this stuff from.

And besides that, you're wandering a little off-point. You still haven't stated why this is a bad thing, you've only given entirely superficial reasons that sound more like political lobbying; innovation is platform independent. Heck, much of what is big this console generation was firstly brought in by PC games over 10 years ago (online gaming, DLC, HD graphics). Consoles have had their place, they've shaped gaming in most major ways, but it isn't because the games were on consoles: it's simply because that was the most viable way to do it at the time. Computers that did more than play videogames were too expensive for most people. That's not the case anymore at all. In case you haven't noticed, all of these devices are moving toward each other at a faster and faster rate, they will eventually become the same thing.

firefoxprime2330d ago

There's no debate.

One provides a long lasting entertainment.
The other is a quick fix.

Case close. Take your pick.

darthv722329d ago (Edited 2329d ago )

I get what your are saying but you have to really look at what the era of the "iphone" smart phone represented. Prior smart phones were considered that primarily because they offered more than just making calls and sending/receiving text messages.

The term was coined (i think it was) when the phones were able to actually surf the web which blackberries and palms did. Over time they evolved into a 'lite' gaming platform to offset the mundane boring appeal of just the phones of the time. Then here comes apple. Changing the phone market like they did the music market with the all in one smartphone that was smarter than the others.

So smart that it offered simple to use tools to create the plethora of apps available today. Some of which have restrictions on them due to the improved nature of the IOS and hardware since release. It is those improvements that bring the 'smartphone' closer to the exclusive gamers club known as the handheld.

Think back to Nokia when they attempted to create real gaming and phone in one. The talking 'taco' if you will. Some of the stigma from its release was due to its design and how you actually used it for simple things like making a call. It had buttons but it was cumbersome. Time has proven that with good programming you can overcome the previous obstacles of before such as the use of buttons.

From a technical POV...the smartphone surpassed the handheld in total units sold. Then again you are blogging more about the gaming aspect not so much the overall acceptance of the platform. The iphone itself represented a fundamental shift in consumer awareness to casual gaming (still considered gaming). Thanks to those cheap little games it became more of the buzz word than nintendo dreamed with the original gameboy because it was able to be seen by the more mature market as well as to the younger audience.

Its understandable that some want to hold off the direction its headed in because it will change the development of games from the deep and involving experiences they had been into something simple to pass the time. Yet isnt that what games originally started out to be?

Bottom line is that the quality of the games will not remain what they are on the mobile platform. Hardware and software dictate that they will evolve just as console games evolved from the blocky pixels they originated from into the graphical presetations they are today. Not only that but it 'should' take less time to achieve.

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LeShin2330d ago

Totally and utterly agree with you! Not to mention that I'd rather waste the battery life on my dedicated handheld than my smartphone.

If my handheld battery dies: Can't play games, not a big deal

If my smartphone battery dies: Can't play games, can't make phonecalls, can't read txt messages, can't check my emails (hich most of them are business related), can't check my Facebook/ Twitter account, can't surf the net, can't listen to music...

Also, as a fighting game fan, touch controls are practically useless to me!