Handhelds sell a lot of hardware, rivaling and outdoing even home consoles. At the same time, itís not very easy to sell software for them. This is mostly due to the fact that the installed base of handhelds consists mostly of screaming, crying children, many of whom you simply want to strangle inside a Gamestop because you sure as hell know this little asshole is going to be on Xbox Live tonight ruining your entire evening. But I digress.
Many handheld users who fall into this category (or rather, their parents) are only purchasing maybe a handful of games in an entire year, making the market even more vicious to break into. We only see maybe one or two handheld games breaking a million units per year as well.
So why the hell does Pokemon do so damn well in this environment?
For me, Pokemon, from a design standpoint, is the quintessential portable game (though I find it to be horribly designed from a competitive aspect Ė but most people arenít buying it for that reason, so who gives a flying Frenchman about my gripes?). The last Pokemon game I really played was Gold, which I grinded the shit out of. I still have fond memories of whooping ass at the local YMCA after school, always scrounging for batteries in order to keep the crack running. Back then, the kid with the purple link cable was the shit, even if he really was a douchebag that didnít always smell great. After school though, he was everybodyís best friend!
Of course, a battle back then meant spending 30 minutes spamming Hyper Beam with the same 6 pokemon you Rare Candied the hell out of against the other kid doing the same exact thing. Itís probably the reason why the Stadium games never took off: You can only watch different pokemon Hyper Beam each other for so long.
I really do miss the 5th grade sometimes.
Regardless, these games work because they keep the entire essence of portable gaming while also offering a ton of length and value: They can be dropped on a dime, and donít require intensive levels of focus and/or extended playtime.
For about 10 years, there has been this sort of new philosophy of portable gaming that I find bunk: Emulating console games Ė The Resistance game for the Vita fits this perfectly. There is this school of thought that due to technological advances in portable technology, handhelds should try to be home consoles. The problem with this philosophy is that the home experience and the portable experience are wildly dissimilar, with very different prerequisites and demands. And not only that: Why would I want to play a muddier-looking Madden with less features on a smaller screen, instead of just playing it on my home theater in surround sound?
Developers want to shoehorn in very elaborate stories into portable games, none of which I even remember. Metal Gear Acid (an awesome, underrated game by the way) had a really cool story Ė or at least, I remember it did. I donít actually remember anything that happened, and I couldnít recognize a character from it to save my life. I played that game for maybe 15, 20 minutes at a time Ė a story like that requires focus and concentration. You wouldnít watch a movie for that amount of time, then pause it for a day and come back to it. Why the hell do developers think thatís a great way to take in a story then? Because itís in a game? Get real.
Pokemon doesnít demand your attention because its story is the same damn thing year in and year out, and it wasnít exactly the most complicated shit to begin with. You can play Pokemon at your leisure. It also has great online capabilities and tools to socialize with other players. Pokemon is a communal game, filled with interactivity and stupid crap to collect that keeps people playing for hours. It allows you to show off the time youíve invested, and compare the fruits of your labor against others.
They also offer a ton of freedom and self-expression, which I think is crucial in multiplayer games. People like expressing themselves online, whether it be through which Pokemon they pick and train, or how they dress up and customize their characters in a game like Rainbow Six: Vegas (speaking of underrated games!) Ė people would rather not be a faceless, cookie cut-out. Even if it means using Pokemon which may utterly suck and be as useful as a condom made from paper bags, people will gravitate towards characters they identify with as an expression of themselves.
These are also the reasons why Monster Hunter does so well.
Developers need to remember why people are playing portable games in the first place. Apple does so well because, whether you like them or not, these $1 games on the iPhone capture this principle of pick-up-and-play that a lot of portable developers seem to be shying away from.
And it is why people question the future of handhelds. If handhelds are going to have a future, they need to start emphasizing these communal, pick-up-and-play games that simply are not possible if sold for $1: Massive, networked, persistent games, possibly in the vein of both paid and free-to-play MMOs (which would take great advantage of the Vita's native 3G). Portable gaming needs to be more social, especially in these social times of ours, in order to differentiate itself from mobile phones and home consoles.