On Wednesday, Sony’s long-awaited PlayStation Vita goes on sale in North America. Our impressions of some of the initial games ranged from outstanding(Super Stardust Delta scored a 9.5), to dismal(Michael Jackson: The Experience HDgot stamped with a 4). The rest mostly hovered around 7. Not bad for a first batch, but with gaming getting better in smartphones, tablets, and TVs, I’m wondering how long before these standalone system become obsolete.
Now, the Vita isn’t perfect. We gave it an 8.5 out of 10, dinging it for hidden costs, a limited browser, and poor battery life, but for gaming it is better by far than any smartphone. So while I think we are seeing the end of this class, I’m going to argue that that this shouldn’t be the case.
Death of the unitasker
The PDA and the two-way pager no longer exist, having been absorbed into the feature and smartphone space years ago.But these were communications applications, and phones are a communications platform, so it was relatively easy for them to become aggregated into the new form factor. As these devices became obsolete, they drag companies with them. Palm had trouble with the migration, and that company no longer exists. Research In Motion (RIM) is currently on death watch.
So there is clearly a precedent for one device eating up everything similar, but I’m not convinced this should happen with games yet.
Gaming: It’s in the controller
Casual games are clearly fine on a smartphone, but if you’ve ever played an arcade-style game or a shooter, the touch screen really starts to suck as a control element.Having physical controls makes these games far less aggravating because you can actually feel the button move, and you can hit several controls at once and not confuse the device.Yes, the phone is more convenient, but systems like the PlayStation Vita are just more fun. I seem to have a vastly lower tendency, after playing a fast game, to need to through the device into a wall out of frustration.
In addition, unlike two-way paging and PDA functions, you play games for hours.It isn’t atypical to find your phone completely dead after playing games for just a few hours on an airplane, meaning you have no power to call your ride when you land and get picked up.If you kill the hand-held game system, you still have your phone to fall back on.
Granted, the Vita only has five hours of batterylife, about half of what I’d think was ideal, but think of this as five extra hours for your phone, which could be a life saver if you need to call for help.Given the power-intensive nature of gaming coupled with the need for a dedicated physical controller for anything above casual gaming, I think the hand-held gaming segment has some potential life left in it.But perceptions may kill it anyway.
The problem with perceptions
Perceptions drive our reality. That’s a problem for both Sony and Nintendo, which are currently perceived as redundant beside smartphones.Given what happened to Palm and RIM, there is clearly a broad foundation for that perception, and gaming developers have been flocking to iOS and Android for some time now.
So the problem isn’t whether gaming systems should be absorbed by smartphones, the problem is that people believe that to be the logical outcome.Sales and demand are well off the ideal for this class of product as a result.
First handhelds, then consoles
If hand-held gaming systems become obsolete, can console gaming be far behind?We’ve seen both Microsoft and Sony move their platforms aggressively towards other uses like streaming video, but smartTVs continue to advance, and at some point they may make standalone consoles obsolete.I think this is the bigger risk, because OnLive has demonstrated that it can provide a rich TV gaming experience on a current-generation smart TV. TVs aren’t battery operated, nor do they require 3G service for networking support, suggesting a vastly faster and easier path for them to replace consoles than for smartphones to replace hand-held gaming systems.
Long road to obsolescence
The difference between the outlook for hand-held gaming systems and consoles really lies in the network connection.TVs can increasingly assure access to a high-speed network, enabling OnLive to replace console gaming on TVs. But 3G data remains expensive, and hand-held games are generally better played individually, not over the Web.This means that ultimately, systems like the Vita likely have a better long-term defense against being gobbled up by a smartphone than a console system like the PlayStation 3 has against being cannibalized by TVs.
In the end, both are on a path to eventually be replaced either by smartphones or TVs. But, particularly in the case of hand-held gaming systems, I think we’ll regret this move once it’s done.