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Are gaming handhelds really doomed? What keeps them alive?

Are gaming handhelds really doomed? What keeps them alive?

Earlier today someone on Facebook asked about the growing discussion that handheld consoles like the Nintendo 3DS and the PS Vita are slowly fading away, getting lost in the incredibly successful market of smartphones and tablets like the iPhone and iPad. I replied with a very long comment for a Facebook post and I thought that I could re-purpose my text for a new post here.

The thing here is that there’s no doubt now that smartphones and tablets are affecting the sales of handheld consoles. They are still not killing the market, but the incredibly slow start the Nintendo 3DS had until known franchises came to it and the big struggle the PS Vita is currently having on the market are signs that things have changed.

Taking that into account, what is the current audience of handhelds? What are the reasons one might buy a dedicated gaming console instead of a smartphone or tablet?

Let’s begin with the one age group that smartphones and tablets are still a long way from breaking into, and that is the younger audience under 14 years old. You wouldn’t buy a 10 year old kid an iPhone, a highly expensive device that is easy to break and get stolen, but you might buy him a Nintendo DS with a Super Mario game or the latest movie tie-in like a Spiderman game or a Disney character in it.

In fact, when you look at the age demographics of the iPhone and iPod Touch you can see that the age group of users from 13 to 17 years old is tiny (6%) when compared to that same age group in the iPod Touch demographics (46%) (Source from 2009). You could consider the iPod Touch as a game handheld if you will. After all it has access to apps and games, which is the main reason these users choose the iPod Touch over the more traditional iPods which are almost exclusively used to play music. Same goes for the Nintendo DS/3DS and (in a smaller way since it goes for a more mature audience) the PS Vita. They offer cheaper, contract-free devices with gaming as their main purpose and, in the mindsets of buyers, a better value proposition for a kid than an iPhone. You could add Android phones here if you want, but currently there are no low-end Android devices that could cover this space, since the cheap devices that do exist are simply too low-powered for modern phone games.

But of course that’s not the only audience of handheld consoles. When you go to ages 14+ both the DS/3DS and PSP/Vita offer a nice choice of games aimed squarely at this audience. You have Metal Gear Solid, Uncharted, Resident Evil, Silent Hill, God of War, Final Fantasy… However, and this is where the sales have been going down, those handhelds now have to compete with smartphones and, to a lesser extent (simply because not everyone sees value in having a device that some feel is a bigger smartphone), tablets.

But here is the thing, and it’s a point most media outlets seem to be missing. Let me explain a little bit first: smartphones have absolutely nothing blocking them from running blockbuster titles of the same quality as those mentioned above (touch controls aside). You just have to take a look at what French company Gameloft has been doing in the past few years, taking popular gaming franchises and creating equivalents of them for phones (N.O.V.A is a Halo clone, Modern Combat 3 is Modern Warfare 3, Hero of Sparta is God of War, StarFront is StarCraft…) or taking Ubisoft staples into bite-sized chunks (Prince of Persia, Splinter Cell, Brothers in Arms).

BUT!

Those games coexist in a marketplace full of extremely cheap offers of $0.99, the new standard for game prices (something neither Nintendo or Microsoft are very keen on, claiming it devaluates videogames as a whole). This means that if a company wanted to make a full size game with the same length, depth and quality as a console or handheld game they would need to price it higher to cover the production costs. And that simply doesn’t sell very well in a flood of $0.99 titles. Gameloft and EA are able to pull that off thanks to their use of big franchise names, but even then the prices don’t usually go higher than $6.99, and they quickly drop after the hardcore fans of the series have already bought it so as to attract the rest of the market.


The top 10 paid games on the US AppStore as of May 2012

The other company that is managing to pull off higher prices for its games is Square-Enix. $15.99 for a port of a DS Final Fantasy game (Final Fantasy III), which was already a remake of an old NES game. But Final Fantasy games have the advantage of being really deep and lengthy adventures (thus the price) that don’t require very precise control input: just tap and wait for the battle animation to finish.

That’s where handhelds come in for those who want a more serious gaming experience. You get the more precise controls for action games   and the higher production values, with almost console-quality graphics, story and gameplay depth in a smaller package that you can take anywhere you go.

For those who want an all-around device that does everything an iPhone will be the only device to carry around at all times. But those who want a deeper experience on the go (and I’m not talking about just something to play on the train, but also when visiting their parents for a week, going on a trip and so on) will also carry with them a handheld.

Plus, now these gaming handhelds get the added experience of buying smaller games at cheaper prices, smartphone style. The 3DS will allow you to buy old Gameboy and NES games as well as new, modern titles for under $5. The PS Vita lets you download casual games like Angry Birds or get an old PS One game like Crash Bandicoot at the same price level. And at the same time you get the full range of top-tier new releases (which tend to be more on the $40 range), some as physical copies, some as downloadable games too (specially now that Nintendo is going to make their 3DS and Wii U games available online as well).

And then finally you have the more mature audiences that as far as I know only Nintendo has been able to attract so well thanks to their Brain Training series. But that’s usually the group that buys only one game or two and leaves it there.

Anyway, those are my 2 cents on the topic. It’s mostly based on my own thoughts and experience, but I believe I’m not too far off the reality. Of course I’m basing myself on articles, opinions, comparisons and a few stats, but you could hardly call every single one of those hard facts, so all this could be wrong.

But the fact is that the landscape of gaming on the go has severely changed and both Nintendo and Sony will have to step their game up if they want to survive in a market full of $0.99 games that, in the mind of many casual consumers, offers as much value as any $40 game.

A quick thought on the Samsung Galaxy SIII

A quick thought on the Samsung Galaxy SIII

So today Samsung announced the next phone in the line of its successful Galaxy S series of Android smartphones.

Usually I applaud Samsung for their impressive smartphones, which tend to be among the best out there in the market.

But seriously… I think this time they are going a little bit too far. How big does a phone need to get to be called “better” these days? Does the size of the screen really matter that much? And how long is this trend going to continue?

I decided to make this stupid little joke on the increasingly huge size of the screens on Samsung’s phones, but this could easily apply to other makers too. Please mind that I put all this together really fast, though the phone sizes are proportionally correct between one another.

The funny thing is that, as I mention in the picture, Samsung already has a tablet/phone hybrid called the Galaxy Note (which as a tablet I think is quite nice, but as a phone I think it is simply too big for anyone to carry around in their pockets), and then they also offer the Galaxy Tab in several sizes.

So what will they do next? Will the tablets increase in size to make space for even bigger phones? Or will this nonsense of “bigger is better” stop someday?

As a disclaimer, I used to have a phone with a 4″ display (the Samsung Omnia 7) and I recently switched to a phone with a smaller screen: the Nokia Lumia 800 which has a 3,7″ display, and I’m quite happy with it, not needing more than that as it is a very comfortable size to work with.

Nokia’s return to form

Nokia’s return to form

Today was quite an interesting morning that gave the first official day of the Mobile World Congress 2012 in Barcelona a nice start. And it was all because of Nokia’s keynote with head honcho Stephen Elop.

Sure, the Nokia Asha line of phones is definitely a great addition for the company’s line-up, but those are not my main interest considering that they are designed for the emergent market at very low price points.

But on the other hand there was the Nokia Lumia family of phones. In just a few months we’ve seen now a total of 4 models with different shapes and styles and each one tailored for a separate userbase: the Lumia 800 and Lumia 710 came first as both a high-range and medium-range phones respectively, then came the Lumia 900 with a bigger screen and front-camera for the US market (now heading worldwide as well) and today the Lumia 610 joins Nokia’s Windows Phone 7 line.

Now though, ever since Elop announced that Nokia was jumping into the Windows Phone bandwagon because this allowed them to stand out and differentiate themselves there have been countless blog posts and comments saying that it was a stupid move and that Nokia should have either gone full-on with Meego or changed their track to Android. And I have been disagreeing with that point of view from the very first moment. Not because I think that Windows Phone is the superior platform, but because it was the most logical move for Nokia the way things were going for them.

Let’s face it: when was the last time you were genuinely surprised by a Nokia phone? What happened to the company that was once the true innovator of mobile technologies and biggest camera manufacturer in the world? Many could point at the Nokia N95 as the last phone that truly wowed the world, with its innovative form factor and high-end multimedia capabilities. But ever since then their offerings have always had problems everywhere: slow performance, a horrible, outdated user interface, cheap materials…

Joining forces with Android would have only been a disaster for the Finish company, who would have to bake a really outstanding custom UI in Android in order to gather some attention into the already over-crowded Android phone market. But at the same time that would have alienated many Android users who prefer things untouched in the OS and ready to be customized by them. Either way it was a losing situation. And the fact that the entire US market was lost to Nokia only made things worse.

Enter Windows Phone, Microsoft’s latest mobile operating system that has received a lot of praise for being something truly fresh and with intuitive design, though lacking in the apps department. As an OS that was starting to raise awareness among people on the streets, Nokia had the chance to spearhead the advance of the Windows Phone ecosystem by leading a space that was largely left untouched. And so it did, with incredibly positive results in pretty much every country where Nokia has started selling their new Lumia phones. It has effectively become the biggest vendor of Windows Phones, surpassing both HTC and Samsung. And it has done so by simply doing what Nokia does best: creating top-notch high quality designs, while letting Microsoft do their part on the OS.

And now look at the Lumia 610: it’s bound to become the entry-level Windows Phone to look at. And as far as low-end smartphones goes, this could very well be the most interesting one of them all. Look at Android smartphones: either you take the high-end or you end up with an extremely low budget phone with cheap plastics and a horrible user experience that runs slow and has problems running every app or scrolling down a contacts list, besides having a low screen resolution that makes things look cramped in the small screen.

The Lumia 610 on the other hand represents one of the biggest advantages of the Windows Phone platform: it still runs smooth, maintains the same screen resolution as its big brothers and keeps Nokia’s characteristic design aesthetics (although with a cheaper, less color-accurate screen and a plastic case). And Microsoft claims that only 5% of the current apps in the marketplace (which is now over 70.000 apps) won’t work as they are right now, though a few tweaks could make them work. This keeps fragmentation up to a minimum in a phone that is under the 200€ mark. Imagine doing that with Android phones.

This will be the phone that will introduce many to the Windows Phone ecosystem, and maybe smartphones as a whole. And the fact that as an entry smartphone it still manages to run smooth and with all the style of the Metro user interface only makes things more amazing for Nokia.

And then there’s the Nokia 808 PureView, the other grand announcement from Nokia at the MWC12.

Now, I’m a little bit torn on this one. Nokia has created a phone that has a 41 megapixel camera. And it runs Symbian.

What?

First the camera part: do we really need a phone with such a high photo resolution? Is it going to help anyone to keep excessively huge photos taking up space on their memory cards and slowing down the experience of scrolling through the photos? I mean, it should be clear that more megapixels doesn’t necessarily have to mean better quality pictures, but rather a big host of specs that go from the lens of the camera to the software that manages it. Nokia has shown us before that they know how to make cameras so I’m not too worried about the quality of these pictures. But those 41 megapixels sound more like a marketing gimmick than a real improvement, and Nokia is risking looking like a big gimmick to its customers.

But on the other hand this camera has its advantages. With such a high resolution it is possible to perform digital zoom to high levels without compromising the quality of the final picture. Yes, I know that digital zoom is not as good as a proper optical zoom. But when you consider that including an optical zoom in a phone would immediately mean a thicker, heavier phone, this option presents itself like a nice opportunity to improve the way camera phones evolve in the future.

As for the choice of the OS… I understand that Windows Phone as it is wouldn’t allow Nokia to create the necessary software adjustments needed to use this type of camera. At least not in its current version (leaks show that Apollo will allow OEMs to do a lot more with that). So Symbian was the way to go for now. I can see Nokia marketing this phone as a camera-enthusiast phone, aimed at that specific niche and not as a mainstream device, learning from it and improving what they can until they can use this new technology for their future phones, now on Microsoft’s platform.

Or at least that is my hope for them.

But all in all Nokia has shown us today that they are far from dead. The upcoming release of the Nokia 900 to the US market with the help of Microsoft’s push could allow the Finnish company to finally make a dent in the Android-iOS filled country where it always has had trouble establishing itself. And in Europe it can once again regain the lost market share with their cool designs that definitely make a difference in this era it almost feels like phones should always be black blocks with one button on the bottom of the screen.

Personally I’m looking forward to see the effect these new phones will have in the market as a whole. And of course I’ll be waiting impatiently to play with them on my own and put them to the test.

Siri, the funniest phone assistant EVER!

Siri, the funniest phone assistant EVER!

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I’m fairly surprised with the iPhone 4S Siri assistant.

No, really. I am!

Not because it’s something absolutely new (in fact Apple is the latest one to jump into the voice recognition game) but because they have pulled it out with style.

I don’t think Siri will be useful at all besides typical functions like composing a text message or performing a basic web search. I mean, come on, are you really going to trust a voice-recognition system in scheduling your appointments without double-checking first that it hasn’t made a mistake? So in that regard it’s the same as what most competitors already have.

But Siri also has a fun factor that the others lack. As an example here are a few funny real replies of Siri taken by Joshua Topolsky from ThisIsMyNext.com:

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