Tuesday, April 05, 2011

The Handheld Game

There has been a lot of talk about a shakeup in the handheld game. I’m not talking about the NGP or even the 3DS that released earlier this week. I’m talking about the iPhone and other iOS devices.

To anyone who has browsed the App Store it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Apple’s line of devices is contention. There are literally thousands of games available, and at prices that make owners of Nintendo and Sony handhelds jealous; when 3DS games retail for about forty dollars, some of the most popular iOS games cost ninety-nine cents. On the surface it’s a comparison that seems like a no-brainer, iOS has more game at cheaper prices than the DS or PSP, let alone the 3DS and unreleased NGP, but when you look at it closely it becomes apparent that you are comparing apples to satsumas (pun intended).

The iOS line of devices offers a different kind of gameplay experience than a traditional handheld. The iPhone and its ilk tend to be most successful with pickup and play games like Angry Birds and Game Dev Story. These are games that can be played for short periods of time and quickly ended in order to take a phone call or place your order at the counter. The DS, on the other hand, tends to succeed with more sustained gameplay experiences like Pokemon or Zelda. This isn’t to say that you can’t place your DS into suspend mode, or quickly save your game when you need to do something else. Obviously the DS still offers games like Tetris and deeper gameplay experiences like Sword & Sworcery aren’t available on iOS devices, rather the target experience group for each device is different That is to say that each device has its own niche to fill.

This difference in target gameplay experience is something that needs to be taken into consideration when looking at the pricing gap between the DS and iOS devices. Angry Birds may only cost ninety-nine cents but it also offers significantly less variety, if not actual gameplay, than New Super Mario Bros.

There is a question of how long the ninety-nine cent pricing model can hold out. Rising development costs and reduced returns from an increasingly crowded marketplace are bound to drive prices up or force developers to try other methods (Angry Birds HD for iPad just inserted ads into the paid version for example). At the same time prices for the 3DS are bound to normalize as well. As developers familiarize themselves with the new development environment games will become more sophisticated and suited to the current price point while other games should fall to budget prices. In the future the pricing gap between DS and iOS software will shrink, but the difference will still be there.

Ultimately that is the point. It’s the difference between a multipurpose device and a dedicated gaming system; each device has its own target audience. Obviously there’s some overlap, but there is plenty of symmetric difference between the two. As long as all players continue to provide quality gameplay experiences, regardless of depth, the market is big enough to sustain multiple handheld devices.

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