Nintendo has had huge success with portable game consoles, having sold over a hundred million Gameboys, and over 150 million Nintendo DSes. But the latest entrants into this market, the Nintendo 3DS and the Playstation Vita, both launched to doom and gloom. When we ask,
Is there a future for portable gaming?
The conventional wisdom increasingly says: “No.” The culprit is mobile gaming — in particular, games on the iPhone and to a lesser extent the iPad and on Android phones. The iPhone generates a case like the following against picking up a portable game console from Nintendo or Sony:
- You have to carry a phone regardless. Carrying additional devices is annoying. Using your iPhone for games allows you to carry fewer devices.
- Games cost like $1 on iPhone. Games for 3DS and Vita still cost $30 or $40. So instead of buying a 3DS game, you can just buy 30 iPhone games and spend a few minutes with each, or throw out the ones you don’t like, etc. etc.
- Quick fun iPhone games are at least a decent substitute for anything you would want to play in a portable / mobile context. When you have time for bigger, meatier game experiences, you can just fire up your home PC / home console or whatever. Portable games consoles fill an in-between niche that’s not very important.
If any of these premises are vulnerable to attack, it is 3. An attack I haven’t seen elsewhere begins from the observation that portable games have always been, and continue to be, much more successful in Japan. I think a majority of Japanese households owned a Nintendo DS. The contrast to America is due at least in part to the different commuter cultures of the two countries. Japanese are more likely to live in cities where they commute by mass transit, are more likely to take trains between cities, etc., whereas Americans drive. A lot. A whole lot. The subway is great for portable gaming, but you shouldn’t try it while you’re driving.
These observations led me to the following crazy blue-sky idea: as self-driving cars become the norm in America, it will open up a whole lot more portable gaming time for people who used to be busy driving. We might then see a major revival of portable gaming in the US, instead of the usually-predicted decline. It depends on a lot of things, but the iPhonification of portable gaming may reverse itself yet.