The announcement of Sony’s apparent discontinuation of their portable line was a cause for celebration among some people – basically Nintendo fans and, rather knee-jerkily, me. But when it comes down to why this might be happening, it exposes a deeper difficulty with the portable market – if you can call one system a market – which could harm everyone.
The PS Vita has done pretty badly, all told. In three years of life it’s only just managed more sales than the Wii U, and compared to the PSP (which managed over 60 million despite never making too much of a splash) it’s not even on the map. A release schedule resembling the Mojave desert hasn’t helped matters, nor has a restrictive proprietary memory card sold at prohibitively high prices.
But it would be hugely dangerous if Nintendo got complacent as a result. They’ve notched up a respectable 55 million sales with the 3DS, but it’s not been without problems. The initial high prices followed by an abrupt cut, which pleased few – even though early adopters were recompensed with some Game Boy Advance classics.
They’ve failed to cut through as the dominant portable system against the rise of smartphones. While you do see kids in restaurants or car rides playing games, they’re as likely to be swiping away at Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja as playing Pokémon X on their 3DS. It makes sense – most adults have a smartphone or tablet anyway, and lending it to them (which neatly allows control over when children can play) means not spending money on a very specifically designed system.
Reports of Nintendo’s imminent death have long been exaggerated, and it seems pretty unlikely they’ll be in mortal danger while they still hold their trump cards – Mario, Zelda, Metroid and Pokémon. But the decision to release Pokémon Go on mobiles next year exposes the knowledge they must have of the way the wind is blowing.
The history of our industry tells us of the consequences for companies who fight the technological tide, and they are not positive. Nintendo has often been a technological innovator – with rumble, the analog stick, the analog shoulder trigger, motion control and AR. There is no reason they cannot do so again, but their next handheld (not to mention their next console) must do something as disruptive as the DS’ dual screens. To continue the road of a design from 11 years ago is to march willingly into irrelevance.
Increasingly the only viable route for Nintendo is to embrace mobile technology. If they’re smart, they’ll adapt it for the best of both worlds. Release small, mass market focused games based on well-known franchises for phones, while retaining a dedicated handheld produced in moderate quantities for the enthusiasts, taking advantage of the specialised market to produce in-depth and engaging games, as well as upping the power of the system (as well as the price, if necessary) to capture the ‘premium handheld’ ground Sony now leaves empty.
Sony made many mistakes which limited their appeal. A focus on unpopular hardware gimmicks was one – first the PSP Go with its download-only games that killed its appeal to retail, then the poorly executed PlayStation phone, and then the rear touchpad on the Vita which added a fair few quid to the price tag for little tangible gain. But just because they’ve tumbled off the cliff first doesn’t mean Nintendo can stand and guffaw for too long. The death of the Vita is a symptom of Nintendo’s problems, not the cure to them. They cannot be complacent – and the new order will have to start with Pokémon GO.