Handheld Gaming Is Dead; Long Live the App Store?

Thanks to their recent refusal to localise certain Wii games this week, Nintendo apologists, in America at least, are thin on the ground. Wherever you are from though, only the most hardcore of Nintendo apologists would say that the 3DS launch has been anything greater than mediocre.

It's been some four months since I opened my 3D bundle of joy, and while living in Japan means I am in arguably the most 3DS friendly market, with my Streetpass numbers steadily creeping higher by the day, it's only been with the release of Zelda Ocarina of Time 3D that gamers here or anywhere else have had anything to truly sink their teeth into on the handheld.

OoT though, was never designed to be a handheld experience, and revisiting Hyrule for me hasn't been an undertaking to be carried out on the commute to work, or in idle toilet based moments, but in chunks of at least half an hour sat on the sofa. Doubtless it's a great game- one of the best of all time in fact- but I don't think it unfair to state that 3DS still lacks its definitive experience; one where the fine craftsmanship found in this thirteen year old classic is applied to the transitory nature of portable gaming. Make no mistake- this will inevitably happen, thanks to the appearance of Mario (3DS and Kart), Luigi's Mansion 2 and arguably Kid Icarus: Uprising. Their status as Nintendo first party titles will make a good deal of gamers sit up and take notice, too. Is it enough though? Or has the handheld console race already been won by a platform that has enjoyed a head start in creating a huge library of well crafted portable experiences?


I am a fanboy of nothing if not the iPhone gaming scene. While sometimes stories of Apple denying apps crop up from time to time, the ease and speed with which  developers can see ideas transformed into sellable products seems like a night and day difference when compared to the more curated and controlled dedicated handheld space. This, of course has its problems- a marketplace crowded with rip offs of the latest physics puzzler/ endless runner fad or unstable rushed apps are the bandits of the App store Wild West. These negatives, however, are far outweighed by two key benefits to the gamer- price and variety.

often imitated

A lot has been said about the pros and cons of the App Store pricing mentality. We often hear about developers falling prey to the 'race to the bottom', feeling they have little to no choice but to launch their hard crafted work at the lowest 99 cent/115 Yen price point in order to compete, or having to frequently boost flagging download numbers with frequent sales, such as the wave of discounts from various parties to 'celebrate' American Independence Day. The short and medium term benefit to the customer and publisher is obvious- there is a wealth of great content that is open at a low price point, and even if an app is crap, chances are you didn't lose too much cash in taking a chance. From a financial perspective meanwhile, average games that are here today and gone tomorrow on retail shelves can have longer shelf lives with frequent sales and lower price points.

Racing to the bottom could hurt everyone in the longer term though. Take-Two's CEO Strauss Zelnick stated to Forbes recently that GTA Chinatown Wars wasn't an "economically meaningful"enough project to warrant another high production value iOS title. It's a hard point to argue. Looking at even a poor to middling title such as the iOS conversion of Battlefield Bad Company 2, it's hard to imagine something with production values clearly in excess of most DS (and arguably even 3DS) titles, as well with the upkeep costs involved with maintaining online multiplayer servers, making much money at it's bargain basement price.

Buy high, sell low! Wait..

The counter points do exist though. Chair recently trumpeted 10 million Dollars in earnings for its iPhone/iPad big hitter Infinity Blade, a success that far outstripped that of Chair's prior effort of Shadow Complex on XBox Live. Meanwhile, early last month, Superbrother's wonderful art house adventure Sword and Sworcery was also hailed as a financial success, recouping its development costs with 200,000 sales, equating to just over a million USD.

surprise success

That such wildly different figures can both be deemed as a success by their respective creators is hugely encouraging for the App store as a platform. Chair proved that heavily pushed high production value titles can do well if they are geared toward the platform well enough the success of S 'n'S showed that rewards can be reaped with a well crafted vision done on the (relative) cheap. The iPhone as a platform is a curiously topsy turvy world in which the small teams without a chance of making it big on even the download services of dedicated consoles has a chance. It's the bigger corporations that seem leery of the whole thing, as what would be perceived as a triple A title on the home platforms could flop huge on the App store.

This is where 3DS is having trouble, and where Vita may stumble, too.Do we really want the home console experience in a handheld, or do we want something different for our pockets? If we do want more dedicated handheld experiences, Nintendo's problem is that the race to the bottom has already been won (or lost- depending on your perspective). The currently slim 3DS library is filled with titles that have an equally slim amount of content, but at prohibitively high prices- Pilotwings Resort and Resident Evil the Mercenaries remember that handheld play sessions are short, but forget that people will still hopefully want to play the game more than once, rather than finish the whole thing on the bus ride home from the game shop.

From what I understand from people already frustrated by the 3DS e-shop in the west, we here have a bigger range of 3DS specific downloadable titles in Japan, but they're all of terrible quality- and yet have the false bottom of 500 Yen to race to, as if that would fix the downloadable economy. Say, do you want a daringly different and totally unique (ignoring its PC indy predecessor) puzzler like Continuity 2 for two bucks on your phone? Perhaps a flawed, but nevertheless incredibly cool augmented reality puzzler like Reflow, that arguably does a better job of getting your non gamer friend/spouse/mum involved than even the 3DS' brilliant pack in software? Or do you want a horribly sparse, terrible 3DS Breakout clone for 500 Yen (5 Dollars or so)? It's a simple choice.

The ace in Nintendo's hand is possibly its back catalogue of handheld titles. Game Boy and GBC titles on 3DS aren't quite as cheap as iPhone offerings, but they are still affordable, have the advantage of nostalgia, and more importantly, will always be exclusive. If the VC lineup is well curated and frequently added to, the big N can still recoup decent money from downloads before their heavy hitting 3DS exclusives drop- certainly the majestic Game Boy Donkey Kong was worth every Yen of my e-shop cash.


The aforementioned 'if' is a big one, however, and I'll agree I'm probably in the minority of people willing to pay for 1994 games on a 2011 machine. It's the opinion of this writer that Apple has won this generation of handheld console wars. Nintendo will, of course, get by, and do well- it's hard to doubt that their first party output for the rest of the year will be anything short of excellent, and if nothing else, they are guaranteed to have the teen and tween market sewn up. Will an inevitable Monster Hunter appearance be enough this time to rescue Vita for Sony with the ultimately more cost effective iPhones and iPod touches competing for their cash, though? That remains to be seen.

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