There was a time when there existed one reason, and one reason only, why most people would choose to play a game on a portable system – namely, portability. Despite most handheld titles being sold as little more than scaled-down interpretations of stuff that had already appeared on “normal” consoles, the fact of the matter was that you couldn’t play Super Mario Bros. 3
while riding the bus – you could, however, partake in Super Mario Land
. Sonic 3
during your lunch break, no – Sonic Triple Trouble
, yes. Now, this is certainly not to say that all the portable titles of yesteryear were bad, or even necessarily inferior to their console brethren – the crux of the matter here is that the aforementioned games and systems were, for a variety of reasons, developed and marketed with a certain specific mindset, which emphasized one very particular and prominent feature, and not much else.
Fast-forward to the present day, and this recent front-page DT post.
In a nutshell, current data suggests that a sizable chunk of “portable gamers” rarely play their handheld systems anywhere outside of their home – in an even smaller nutshell, portability, the once-indispensable selling point for these systems, doesn’t appear to be the deal-breaking feature that it once was. And, despite my physician’s strict instructions to the contrary, once I’d happened upon this factoid I began wondering…
…if the above article’s information is accurate, then why are portables (well, one portable in particular) still selling so well at this point in time? If people are only going to play the system at home, by and large, why wouldn’t they just buy a “regular” console?
I’m sure that some of you out there who are more directly tied to the industry could rattle off umpteen facts and figures to explain this somewhat odd trend, but seeing as this whole article is written from a definitively “outside observer” perspective, here are three possible factors that came most immediately to this uninformed schlump’s mind –
First, and most simply, portables, and their games, are cheaper than their big brothers. The innate constraints of their design obviously limit the amount of horsepower that can be packed into them, and forces developers to make do with (let’s be frank here) lesser technology than is present in non-portable consoles. Of course, there are upsides to this – not only can the systems themselves be sold for less, but games can be developed more cheaply for them, and a portion of this cost reduction is passed on to the consumer. Thus, someone who might be hesitant to plunk down several hundred dollars or more for not just a console, but for a nice setup (“you’re wasting that sucker on a SDTV?”), online access, and other “extras” necessary to get the most out of it, is likely to find a $150 to $200 price tag (which probably also includes a game or two) more feasible. On a related note, handhelds also aren’t as intimidating as “regular” consoles on a technical level – there’s really not a heck of a lot to tweak or set up, at least in comparison. In most cases you can just put in some batteries and a game, turn the thing on, and play it – strange how that’s something of a luxury these days, but I digress.
Second, and seemingly in contrast to the previous item, despite its aforementioned limits portable technology has unquestionably advanced, to an impressive degree. Back in the era of the original monochrome Game Boy and Tiger handhelds (it’s not as long ago as it might seem), who would have thought that we’d ever see the likes of a God of War
game on a portable? Heck, how impressive would something like Advance Wars
have sounded, though its once-groundbreaking lists of features have by now been considered standard issue for some time? The leaps forward in the abilities of handhelds have always taken a back seat, attention-wise, to the new bells and whistles popping up on the marquee consoles, but the fact remains that when you buy a portable instead of a “normal” console these days you’re not taking nearly as much of a “step back” as you once did. And, as the next item will expand upon, in some ways you could actually be coming out ahead.
Third, and what I’d consider the most important factor behind “The New Portable Gamer” – to put it simply, the face and focus of the industry have shifted greatly in recent years, and its clientele, in one way or another, has followed suit. Even today there are still things that only portable systems can pull off, things that their more illustrious siblings, to a large extent, simply cannot make happen – however, simply being portable is nowhere near as high on the proverbial list as it once was. So what exactly CAN portable gamers do that others can’t? Play a 2D Castlevania
game, for one thing…and on an actual, physical game cartridge or disc, not a download. They can also experience the likes of, say, Valkyrie Profile
or Ginga Fukei Densetsu Sapphire
, without paying an arm or a leg for them – they might not always be pixel-perfect reproductions of the originals, but they’re still plenty playable and within the reach of far more potential players than in their original formats. Segueing from there, gamers can also import Legend of Starfy
or Parodius Portable
– and can pop either of them right into their system and be off to the races. No mods, no import devices, just a (comparatively) hard-to-obtain product that they can quickly enjoy once it’s finally reached their hands.
These sorts of games, and these sorts of setups, despite the praise and loyalty (and willingness to spend) they inspire in gamers, are increasingly hard to come across anywhere but on a portable system (and, unfortunately, at least some of those features are becoming rarer
here as well).
I’m sure that there’s more to it than just what’s listed above, but as I said, they’re what seemed the most obvious factors, if only at a glance. In any event, I myself fit squarely into the heretofore-implied description of the “new portable gamer” – years ago I got a Game Boy as a gift, but played it almost exclusively at home. I never bought a GBA, but I do have a Game Boy Player constantly attached to my Gamecube. I held off buying either a DS or a PSP – that is, until the latter added on the ability to hook itself up to a TV set. Despite owning several “regular” consoles, I have a sizeable collection of portable games as well, and don’t regret amassing them one bit. At the same time, though, I can’t help but feel that the industry is still, somehow, leaving me behind – I can’t directly speak for anyone else, naturally, but if the data from earlier on is to be believed, there are others with nagging feelings of this nature as well (though most of them are probably normal enough to not have to write a blog post about it). That being the case, I’m just going to come right on out and say it, before I have second thoughts –
If they want to make the most of their product, portable game makers need to step up their efforts to appeal to non-portable gamers.
There, it’s out in the open now. It sounds utterly nutty on its face, and I guess it sort of is, especially in the age of cell phones, pocket PCs and i-Everything, but as opined earlier, I truly do believe that the nature of “portable” gaming, and its customers, has fundamentally changed. The systems still offer something that isn’t available anywhere else, but it’s not the same situation as it used to be – there are many who treat their portable games, well, pretty much exactly like “normal” console games, and are more than willing to sacrifice portability for a more “complete” (lacking a better term) experience with their “kinda-portables”. Most of the industry’s efforts to cater to such an audience over the years have been half-hearted – even if you can connect your portable to a larger screen, for instance, you still have to live with borders (seriously, UMD movies in full screen but PSP games reduced to nearly half size?), hobbled multiplayer (I spent the money for a bunch of Gamecube controllers and a GB Player, why can’t I use them together?), and/or an inadequate controller interface (honestly, what good are excellent Street Fighter Alpha 3
ports if you can only play them with the PSP’s thoroughly unsuitable pad?). And you can pretty much forget TV/monitor-specific display options or other features included in portable games to appeal to “kinda-portable” gamers.
In the meantime, what DO the system’s designers constantly determine to add to their products? Microphones. Cameras. Printers. Movie functionality. Limited and gimmicky “link-up” capabilities to non-portable consoles. Slightly smaller casings and slightly larger and/or brighter screens. Pardon me for being so blunt here, but think about it for a moment – when have ANY of the above features, despite all the hype they’ve consistently received, EVER been a determining factor in how readily a portable console was accepted by gamers or how well it ended up performing against its competition? In my (overly simplified, admittedly) view, with ANY console, portable or not, success will always come down to two things – 1) putting games onto your system that people want to play, and 2) making said system capable of rocking said games to the fullest extent possible. Today’s portables already have the first part down, but are only halfway there with the second – portable gamers who actually play their stuff on the go regularly are set, but the rest of us, who view portable games not as an “alternative” to “normal” video gaming but as an integrated part of it, can’t help but feel at least a little bit left out.
So what precisely am I suggesting be done to remedy this state of affairs? Well, I’m obviously not a designer or programmer, so I hesitate to put much more of myself forward than I already have, but I can suggest a few (hopefully) doable things to get this shift started proper –
1) Make full-screen “kinda-portable” gaming standard issue for as many systems as possible. As I mentioned earlier, borders are a bummer – I’m sure there’s some technical excuse as to why they’re there, but I very much doubt that they’d be insurmountable if their reduction and/or elimination was placed higher on the priorities list (if you can get your system’s desktop
to show up full screen I’m sure that this isn’t impossible). If this means offering more “non-portable portable consoles,” then so be it – if Sony put out a “PSP Player” that would eliminate the borders (and other problems) in its present setup I’d buy it tomorrow. Also, as mentioned before, including some full-screen display options and more convenient multiplayer setups in portable games would be nice to see, if that’s feasible.
2) Keep as many genres in mind as possible when designing the control layout. Granted, dual-stick control or a keyboard/mouse interface for portable FPS games might still be a ways off, but a decent d-pad and comfortable button layout shouldn’t be (free advice - when Capcom puts out its own official d-pad mod
to be used with its fighters, that’s a hint that a redesign on your part is probably in order). And again, if you can’t or won’t do this much, then at least include a port or two where we can plug in a more suitable controller or joystick.
3) If you won’t humor us on most of your “big” consoles, then at least leave portable games region-free – seriously, haven’t you hamstrung us importers enough already? If a game we want is not available in one region, it’s not like we’re going to throw you the money we would have spent on it as a reward for not letting us have it – if it’s not feasible to localize it, fine, we understand, but at least give us one less roadblock to find a way over (because someone WILL find it – even if it means hacking your system or pirating your games, which you, of course, just love
). It’s been this way since the beginning – have importers been THAT big of a drag on the portable business that you need to change things now?
4) Above all, take a good hard look at what has made your and your competitors’ systems, portable and not, so successful, especially in recent years, and take it to heart. If you’re going to add or tweak something, make it something that enhances the “core” game-playing experience – in the end, nothing else is likely to matter if gamers aren’t enjoying the games on your system, for whatever reason. As I said earlier, portables and non-portables aren’t governed by completely different sets of rules anymore – they’re not exactly the same, certainly, but they’re gradually drawing closer to each other. Gamers, similarly, are constantly being split up into demographics, but in the end we’re all gamers, and when you get right down to it we all want the same thing, no matter what system or game we happen to be playing. Simply put, give it to us.
Granted, there’s a lot more to be done than just the above – especially when it comes to a system like the DS, whose dual-screen setup and stylus interface make for a very difficult, if not impossible, transition to “kinda-portability.” And to be perfectly clear, I’m not suggesting that portables ditch portability altogether – not at all, as such formats are not only convenient for true-blue “on the go” gamers, but offer unique design possibilities of their own, that even “kinda-portable” gaming can’t match. What I AM saying, however, is that the apparently-growing numbers of “new portable gamers” are ready and waiting for someone in the industry to truly acknowledge our presence and give us a reason to not just dabble in the bits and pieces of the portable pie that can appeal to our sensibilities and tastes, but to jump right in, head first, and as we do so, bring “portable” gaming into its next era.
I’m here, and I’m set to go on a moment’s notice. The only question left is, who’ll be joining me?