"We constantly have to revisit 'Why would Donkey Kong do this?' or 'Why would this environment be like this?' And then we start thinking: 'We're making a game about a gorilla wearing a tie.'"
-Michael Kelbaugh of Retro Studios on Donkey Kong Country Returns
"I have to say it's kinda scary how much you know about this game."
-Nicolau Chaud creator of Marvel Brothel
As of right now, there is a fracture between Western and Eastern markets that is causing a fair bit of uncertainty in the industry. For all extents and purposes the handheld market is drying up in America. With the rise of high end phones, laptops and tablets we've seen a noticeably cool reception to portable games and consoles over the past year. The 3DS started with a bang and has shrunk to a whimper.
For Japan, this isn't the case. The portable market stayed strong with the DS, however games like Monster Hunter showcased what a true portable console could be. This might have taken a bit longer than Sony had actually wanted, but they changed the Japanese market. Many Japanese gamers stopped shopping for high end home consoles as they were taking their games on the go.
For Americans, we are seeing fewer and fewer traditional Japanese releases migrate to the west. With more and more Japanese developers programming for portables, this is disconcerting. Meanwhile, Japanese handheld games are staying in Japan because the market is shaky at best here. Likewise, Western console and PC games are unable to truly breach Asian markets due to long held consumer preferences since the rise of the Japanese electronics industry in the 1980s.
What we now have is a world split by the handheld and home console markets.
The market wasn't always this way. Nintendo's original Game Boy was a phenomenon. It lasted through 3 home console life cycles and will probably be the only system to ever accomplish this. The portable was able to last over a decade on the market utilizing slight redesigns to keep the hardware fresh for consumers. It alone did so many things for us as gamers. It allowed us to take our game of Tetris anywhere we wanted. We were no longer tied to our local arcade or home console.
Nintendo crushed the market with a push for the longest battery life and the lowest price points. It was how they outplayed the Game Gear and the Turbo Express. Nintendo's dominance in this realm would carry it through to their next handheld, the Game Boy Advance. Only this portable would have a much shorter shelf life.
At the time, Sony had come in to the market like a snowball rolling downhill. Sony did struggle in the early years of the PlayStation to gain market share. However, they continued to pick up momentum until they couldn't stop. Meanwhile Nintendo and their third parties were struggling with the high costs of printing cartridges for their Nintendo 64. Nintendo games flourished on the system, however the third parties did not. Sony's PlayStation would go on to be the first console to reach the 100 million unit mark. Nintendo would only sell a third of that with 32 million units. This success would continue with the PlayStation 2.
The Game Boy Advance however was still the only real console on the portable market. While Nintendo struggled with their consoles, by default they were the dominant handheld on the market. Seeing an opportunity they couldn't pass up, Sony announced they would enter the ring with the PSP. Nintendo obviously fearing Sony's presence rushed the Nintendo DS on to the market one year after Sony announced their development plans in 2003. The Game Boy Advance had only been on the market for three years.
While the dual screen technology was a revolution in its ability to implement a touch screen controller, Sony had the ability to bring an actual console experience in to your hands. It was powerful and it was shiny, however it fell to the same issues that Sega had with their Game Gear. It was too expensive. Pair this with the shorter battery life and the Nintendo DS looked a bit better on the market.
Nintendo did finally find a true competitor in their midst, however the battle would be short lived. Sony's hardware suffered immensely from many of the problems that plagued the early CD based consoles. It had long load times, it was a bit more technical to develop for and it had the potential for piracy. This greatly affected the American market place with many cold periods between game releases.
The Nintendo DS however excelled. Nintendo's initial issues were that the rushed DS looked like a bad prototype and they forced developers to apply necessary touch screen implementation in to the games. This hindered the original developers greatly. When Nintendo started to relinquish their software regulations after the much prettier Nintendo DS Lite came out, we started to see a true difference between the two portables. Developers turned out en masse to attack the market and sales were very good for a very long time for Nintendo.
When Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft came in to the "Next Generation" of consoles, many Japanese gamers were still content with the offerings they were getting on their home consoles. Microsoft would continued to struggle in the Asian market. Sony's PS3 was expected to dominate, however Sony's hubris crippled the company. The PS2 came in with the right technology at the right time and ran away with the market. The PS3 came in way too expensive with a focus on attacking high end entertainment centers in an attempt to sell TVs and consoles. It suffered greatly because of this.
With these errors, Microsoft and Nintendo moved in and ripped the reins from Sony's hands. Microsoft would be able to rapidly grow in the west thanks to Xbox Live. It became an entertainment subscription powerhouse that paid for itself. Nintendo used motion controls to break down the video game and in doing so expanded the market like a virus. The Wii would shock everybody and become the best selling console of all time.
Microsoft stole back North America and some of Europe from Sony. Nintendo would go on to steal everybody, but would never be able to satisfy them. Sony needed to fight and regain what they were losing. It did when the PSP came roaring back in Japan.
The beautiful thing about high end technology is that over time it starts to get cheaper. While many can argue the PSP was not worth it in 2004, it's hard to argue that in 2011. Sony had a strong resurgence in their native land with the smash hit Monster Hunter. Much like Pokemon for the original Game Boy, Monster Hunter spread like a wild fire through the gaming population. The first PSP title broke past a million copies. Following the initial success, the series would continue to stack a million units on top of each iteration for the PSP. This all happened exclusively in Japan.
This happened so quickly that the Japanese marketplace had to change dramatically to accommodate it. My favorite example to show this discrepancy is in NIS's 2010 game lineup. Of the 12 games planned that year, only one of them was for a home console. Meanwhile their North American branch produced 5 console games out of the 9 that released that year. While people in America argued that the Japanese had lost their touch, they failed to realize that the biggest games of Japan would be hitting the smallest consoles.
Likewise, Nintendo felt the same effects as Dragon Quest IX sold over 4 million units in Japan within one year of its release. The reason for the success in both games lies with the actual portability of the game itself. Monster Hunter was meant to be played ad-hoc with other gamers outside their homes. This works because many of Japan's urban cities require public transportation for normal day to day activities. A game like Monster Hunter could only spread in an environment like this. The 3DS street pass system is a fully realized manipulation of this concept.
We Americans, have nothing like this. Our lives are less reliant on others. Our cities are spread out and hinder our day to day interactions. In this situation, multiplayer is defined on our personal gaming setups. Computers and consoles are doing remarkably well in this space because of that.
For Europe, they straddle somewhere in between. They are a continent tightly packed, so they grasp what the handheld could do. They still have that western dependence on personal freedom however, so transport isn't necessarily as dependent on public transportation like in Japan. They have proven to be the ultimate middle ground for the market with all consoles in this realm doing moderately well across the board.
Still, in North America the console game is not only dominating the market, but the PSP is struggling tooth and nail for shelf space. The Nintendo DS did remarkably well among all groups, but shovelware has dominated the system over the past few years. The reason for this is simple. The rise of smart phones is cutting in to the shares of hardcore $40 handheld games.
The Nintendo DS didn't have an online system that could download apps. Nintendo released the DSi to gather some steam in this realm, but it was a half-hearted attempt. The 3DS would later be pushed to bolster this same concept, but it will not be able to compete in this current state. The PSP was too busy chasing away pirates to ever actually gain momentum online. They had some good ideas, but the execution floundered. Sony's handheld was just rotting on America's shelves with only the most ardent of gaming fans truly remaining happy with the console. Even big ticket developers like Ready at Dawn gave up and turned in their PSP dev kits at one point.
Meanwhile, phones like the Droid and iPhone brought apps that would change the way American's would perceive what a phone can do. We may have occasionally left the house with our handhelds, but we always leave the house with a cell phone. Nobody can really compete with that for traditional handhelds. So, the console rose to prominence in the home and the phone became the hottest new portable around.
Still, there is always hope for the portable in this market
This separation of East and West might change with Japan's newest handhelds. No, not the 3DS silly. I'm talking about the PSV and the Wii U. While Iwata-san is hesitant to call the Wii U a portable, many of us can only see an iPad that connects to our home console. Details are a bit sketchy right now so I can't really relay what the Wii U will do, but I can see the design work. With households fighting over TV time, this creates a separate system to use uniquely on its own.
High end gaming without being tied to the TV in my house is indeed a selling point. If I can play Batman Arkham City with my wife sleeping next to me in bed, we are moving in a positive direction in life. The PSP had a system like this, but it couldn't process high end gaming on the handheld.
The PSV has created a system that Hideo Kojima affectionately called "transfarring." Thanks Kojima. While I'm not going to bring up the fact that it could potentially do the exact same thing as the Wii U, which it can do in theory, I will admit that bringing a true console gaming experience on the go is a brilliant step. The "transfarring" system will make it so games played at home can have their save states transferred over to the portable.
Based on this concept, I could play Metal Gear Rising on my TV and transfer the save to my handheld when I needed to get on the bus and go to work. This in effect creates a mutual relationship between the two devices that should satiate all gamers. Console gamers can play their console games. Handheld gamers can play their handheld games. The twist is that they would in turn be playing the same game. Possibly against each other. There wouldn't be any differentiation.
The greatest example of this was shown with Street Fighter X Tekken at E3.
Imagine never having to be away from the game. To be able to take on any person at any time in the world regardless of where you actually are. How good could you get simply because you aren't being constrained by playing at home?
Conceptually, it is brilliant.
For a western point of view, imagine this exact same concept with online heavy games like MAG or Call of Duty. Gaining rank during bathroom breaks seems pretty novel.
The future of gaming isn't in handhelds, computers, phones or home consoles. It lies in that glorious gray area that separates them all. When we remove the boundaries of what a console actually is, you will see a world that games together.
Gaming on the go is about to get a lot more interesting.