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.