2011 is set to be one of the biggest years for handheld gaming since the original Game Boy hit the shelves. The Nintendo 3DS launched in March, and Sony's impressive PS Vita is set for a holiday release in US territories. Gamers are already locked in futile debate over which of the two portable heroes will ultimately win out, but there's a bigger problem on the horizon. The two consoles aren't technically in competition with each other as they offer very different game experiences... and they're both staring down the barrel of a loaded gun.
The long-term effect of the upswing in apps and mobile gaming on traditional handhelds has been largely ignored since the industry is obsessed with a perceived threat to the triple A console market. Epic Games are convinced that apps are "killing them," and you can always rely on the likes of Rovio and Zynga to continually put the boot in. The AAA industry is frightened, desperate and - most importantly - absolutely safe. Consoles command enormous hardware grunt, huge install bases, legions of rabid fans and pre-existing retail channels, meaning that the market can merrily overlap with mobile users who play apps on the move and hunker down in front of their Playstations of an evening.
LG, on the other hand, believe that the "era of dedicated gaming handhelds is over"... and they might be on to something.
Consoles may be safe, but the 3DS and PS Vita are directly in the firing line. Not to mention their successors. And if Sony and Nintendo don't handle them properly, the smartphone and tablet market could well make them the last generation of gaming handhelds - ever.
First of all, we need to talk about hardware. The 3DS is a nifty piece of kit - and the PS Vita is one of the most desirable pieces of consumer tech that I've ever seen. But when they hit the shelves, they're locked into a five year hardware cycle where Sony and Nintendo are only free to mess around with form factors and cosmetic changes. Smartphones and tablets, however, are free to constantly upgrade on a monthly basis - growing more powerful and versatile with each successive generation. By the end of the year, dual-core TEGRA smartphones will be the industry standard... and in 2012, who knows who the next innovation will be? Portable consoles' only major selling point, portability, is completely moot when you can just dig out your phone or tablet and play games of a comparable standard - whether you're on the move or lounging around in front of the telly. Before the next five years are up, phones (and tablets, especially) are going to equal or even exceed the graphical capability of current gen handhelds - and possibly even the Vita.
Handhelds have lost two of their most important hardware advantages: battery life and buttons. The days of Game Boys lasting 25-35 hours on a single set of Duracells are long gone, replaced by absolutely abysmal charge times that won't even withstand a long commute. Even a smartphone can last a working day with a heavy games load... not to mention the obscene battery life offered by the iPad. Developers are also continually coming up with new ways to replicate or even bypass traditional input methods, and though we frequently like to moan about virtual D-Pads, there's no question that they're already at an acceptable standard. Plus, hybrid phones like the Xperia Play are demonstrating that consumers don't actually need to compromise.
Software is also an issue. The 3DS has already scared off countless independent and boutique developers with a highly restrictive set of entrance criteria (even for proven studios like Team Meat, who have abandoned all hope of releasing their phenomenally sucessful Super Meat Boy on the 3DS), whereas the App Store and Android's marketplace are attracting games that are increasing in size, scope and ambition every few weeks. We've seen massive space sims, open-world exploration and survival horror on an epic scale... and that's not even including the oblique indie stuff that utilises phone hardware in new and inventive ways. Developers and publishers aren't stupid - and if they can reach a bigger install base without having to shell out for any manufacturing or licensing costs, they will flock to the mobile market in droves.
Ultimately, as always, the argument comes down to money. You can grab a top-end Android smartphone for about the same prices as a 3DS or Wi-Fi PS Vita, or the latest iPhone for a little more. Not only will this expense net you a comparable gaming experience in a couple of year's time, but it will also guarantee you access to thousands of games that typically cost between £0.59 and £10. And, you know, you can call your mum on it. As the hardware gap narrows, this option will continue to become increasingly attractive, with gamers preferring to upgrade handsets rather than buy into the next portable console generation.
Oh, and we've yet to properly talk about tablets. By which I mean the iPad, natch. Around £400 (cheaper abroad) grants you a device with a ten inch screen, advanced multi-touch input, a stonking battery life and the ability to do just about anything. The iPad and other tablets will be improving just as fast as smartphones while portable consoles languish in their hardware cycles, continually increasing in value and potential with every new model. Plus, realistically, how long do you think it will take for a tablet manufacturer to stick on a couple of thumbsticks and an ergonomic case? To tell you the truth, I'd much rather sit back and enjoy panoramic game experiences on a tablet, and with increasing tech comes even better games that retail for a fraction of their handheld counterparts. In five years time, the decision of whether to buy the next Ninty or Sony handheld will be a moot point when Apple or Google's tablet can beast out equally good game experiences. I know it, Sony and Nintendo know it... and most importantly of all, Apple does too.
We'll discuss what Nintendo and Sony can do to remain relevant to portable gamers in a future article, but for now, the only force on Earth that can decide their fate is you guys. Brand loyalty and love for portable gaming can win out over cold logic and hard cash... and we want to hear from you in the comments!