Part Two: Convenience, Casual Gaming, and Domination
“Mikey Lowell, you’re so crazy. The Nintendo 3DS isn’t about price points and market saturation and consumer psychology! Nintendo is simply doing what smart companies do: They’re making the best product they can. Companies want to milk the stereoscopic input gravy train before consumers suffer headaches thinking about the technology. That’s all. Stop being such a cynic!” Hey, I said Nintendo was stubborn. I didn’t say they were stupid. Nintendo knows the industry and they know the business. They know the history of the portable gaming market. Hell, they created it. They know that the Nintendo 3DS is a statement claiming the best of portable video games can stand with the best of console and computer games. Well, it’s always possible. There have been some great portable video games. The problem? Those great games have never dictated the sales charts. In-fact, they have been harmful in the pursuit of sales. High-quality console games have never sold portable devices and that is not going to change in the near future. Not now, it isn’t.
This was settled a very long time ago. Nintendo settled this with their Game Boy. That device made its way to the United States in July of 1989. And even in 1989, the Game Boy wasn’t much of a device. It was cheap in more ways than one. The ninety-dollar trinket could display games in four stunning shades of gray. The marketing sounded something like this: “You can play video games while you’re outside of the house!” Surely, Nintendo wasn’t claiming the games were going to match their console counterparts. But what about the competition? It wouldn’t be a discussion of video game history if we couldn’t invoke the good name of Atari. That is, “Atari finds another way to screw things up.”
After the Crash of 1983 and the complete burnout of the Atari 5200 (a “premium” video game console in a market that was still satisfied with the Atari 2600), Atari went to work on the Atari 7800. The device was slated for a 1984 release and (whether market trends or corporate bureaucracy held it back) was horribly dated by its 1986 release. By this point, Atari’s name was synonymous with the Crash. That certainly didn’t help Atari’s cause. But Nintendo kick-started that whole “Japanese make better console hardware than Americans” narrative with the Nintendo Entertainment System. It was a superior piece of hardware. Better graphics, better sound, better hardware. The console sold consumers on massive and colorful worlds that the Atari 7800 was never capable of matching. Nintendo won, Atari lost.
By 1989, Atari had enough. They were not going to get fucked over by “inferior hardware” again. By the late eighties, the first sixteen-bit video game consoles (a combination of eight-and-sixteen-bit hardware under a single roof) were making their way to consumers. At the same time, Nintendo was figuring out how to make video games portable. It was a completely untapped market. Portable video game devices dotted the late seventies and early eighties, but other than the Nintendo Game & Watch series and a constant supply of handheld devices from Tiger Electronics, this market was a non-entity. Nobody had devised a portable video game device with changeable cartridges. Atari decided they were not going to miss out on this one.
I lifted this picture from Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia anyone can lift content from. Stop me.
Making its way into the United States a month prior to the Sega Genesis, the sixteen-bit Atari Lynx made its way to American consumers in September of 1989, two months after the Game Boy hit the States. Ignore the terrible battery life (approximately six hours on six AA batteries) and you had a damn good piece of hardware. And the Lynx wasn’t a case of the Atari Jaguar, where Atari fashioned an advertising fellatio frenzy for the device’s hardware specs and forgot to secure publishers who could program decent games for the console. A number of the games on the Lynx played very, very well, including a very good air combat game in Blue Lightning and excellent ports of Ninja Gaiden, Double Dragon, Rampart, and Klax. In contrast to most of the failed hardware that dots the history of video games, the Lynx wasn’t lacking in the software department.
The Lynx was an incredible counter-point to the Game Boy. When it came to hardware, the only thing going for the Game Boy was its price point, selling for half the price of the Lynx. But better hardware allows for more complicated games, and “more complicated” usually means “more interesting”. What were companies going to do with a Game Boy that couldn’t even render color? Four shades of grey? That’s all you’re giving me? The Atari Lynx had better graphics than the Nintendo Entertainment System! And then the Game Boy kicked the ever-loving shit out of the Atari Lynx and banished it to history, “that portable device Atari released before they put the nail in the coffin with the Jaguar.”
“Wait, you’re serious? People gave up on that thing?” Nintendo did a couple of things to assure that the Lynx could not compete with the Game Boy. First off, Nintendo was still in the “If You Make Games For Competing Devices, We Will Destroy You” Mode that American courts eventually declared illegal. That cut off a number of prospective developers from creating games for the Lynx. But more importantly, Nintendo did two other things: They released Super Mario Land as a launch title. Then they made Tetris the pack-in title. Game over. Atari lost the portable gaming war before the Lynx had even made it to shelves. And by the time Sega released its Game Gear during the early nineties, Sega had also lost the portable gaming war. Nintendo would parlay this dominance into fifteen years of uncontested market control.
“So Nintendo had brand recognition! That’s why they won! You even said it yourself: Atari’s name was tarnished. Anybody over the age of sixteen didn’t want anything to do with the company.” That would be a misunderstanding. See, both Tetris and Super Mario Bros. got to the public in 1985. Neither game was particularly complex. Mario needs a directional pad, a run button, and a jump button. Tetris needs a directional pad and a button to rotate the pieces. That made them ideal for a 1989 portable gaming console. With the exception of the graphics, they were totally faithful to their predecessors. (“But Super Mario Land wasn’t very good!” That had nothing to do with the conversion. Shigeru Miyamoto had nothing to do with Super Mario Land. Miyamoto equals “Good Mario Game”. Go look it up.) Super Mario Land and Tetris would combine to sell nearly fifty million units and became the killer apps for the Game Boy until Pokémon: Red and Blue were released in the mid-nineties. The first major successful portable game device taught us the most important lesson of successful portable video games: The best portable games don’t lose anything in their transition from a console or computer to a portable game device. And if a franchise began its life cycle on a portable device, it would not gain any utility if it was ported to a console. These games then offer more to the consumer because they are portable. “Game X” versus “Portable Game X”. “Portable Game X” will win every time.
So, why is that? Why do simple games rule supreme on portable gaming devices? And why has that held true for over twenty years? Portable gaming technology is now catching up with the aging seventh-generation of consoles, so this is a pretty good time to pose the question. This simply isn’t a case of “on-the-go gaming needs to be simple”. Modern portable devices have sleep modes and those devices can be adjusted to the busy lives of non-gamers. And the hardware is quite good now. After all, a Nintendo DS is simply a portable Nintendo 64. The Nintendo 3DS has been sold to consumers as a portable Nintendo Wii. And there’s a lot of good games for each of those consoles. Companies are going to be playing the marketing card. And you know what they’re going to ask? “What sounds better to you: A PlayStation 3 that can only be played in your house? Or a PlayStation 3 that you can take anywhere you would like?”
There’s a gigantic problem with the idea of a portable PlayStation and the man or woman who finds a solution will become very rich one day. Smartphones can do a lot of very useful things. Unfortunately, nearly every one of these involve data consumption. “You can surf the internet! You can read things on Facebook! You can play cheap games! What an incredible device!” These on-the-go devices are not built for data creation. Say all the wonderful things you want about your iPad, but this site was built with a desktop computer. That’s the only way it could have been done. The desktop isn’t concerned with battery life, it’s not concerned with mobility, it’s designed to kick ass. With a desktop computer, input is the important function. Video game controllers work the same way. The primary concern of a good video game controller is that it fits your hands and works well. And if that input device isn’t suitable for the genre, you can switch it out. You can buy a fightstick for Street Fighter. You can buy a plastic guitar for Rock Band. You can buy a dance pad for Dance Dance Revolution. In the video game universe where computer gamers obsess over mouse sensitivity and mouse acceleration and the number of “pixels lost” with certain mouse settings,* precision is paramount.
With a phone or portable video game device, convenience comes first. The precision, proficiency, and efficiency of input is secondary. And long-time gamers have a pretty strong opinion on video games that are too complicated for the control scheme: They suck. Game Design 101 says you can’t sacrifice the control scheme so the device can fit in someone’s pocket. But Marketing 101 says you have to do that. How else do you fulfill the “portable” in “portable video games”? That’s why the Game Boy Advance had its issues. The device was lauded as a portable Super Nintendo. When companies ported their Super Nintendo titles to the Game Boy Advance, they were then confronted with two fewer face buttons. The result was a bunch of games featuring stunted control schemes. (See: Metroid Fusion.) That’s why the Sony PSP has struggled to make due without a second thumbstick. One only has to look at Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, a game that stunts its difficulty to make sure the player has enough time to line up his shots. The control scheme simply isn’t built to aim a weapon. And then you have an iPhone where companies are forced to program their control schemes into the touchscreen. And if there’s anything worse than a sloppy control scheme, it’s a sloppy emulated control scheme. That’s why the best-selling portable games remain simple: You can’t over-exert a control scheme that isn’t capable of doing what you would like it to. Once you build a complicated game for a portable device, you end up having that product compared to the competition on computers and consoles. Once you do that, the hardcore audience you are targeting with that game asks a simple question: “Why would I want to play this game on a portable device when I can get a better experience with my home gaming center? You can’t even give me a proper control scheme!” And they will be correct.
In the brief history of portable video games, “scaled-down versions of established games” have proven the most forgettable products. The people anxiously waiting for Super Street Fighter IV 3D have forgotten that miniaturized versions of fighting games have all been lost to history, whether it’s Mortal Kombat for the Game Boy and Tekken for the Game Boy Advance; lest the people fawning over a sequel to Kid Icarus forget that the Game Boy already delivered on one of those.* Hardcore gamers agree with me on this. Go through any “greatest games” list. What are the usual portable suspects? We already got the love for Tetris out of the way. Next up? Pokémon: Red and Blue somehow revolutionized the Japanese Role-Playing Game by dumbing it down further than was ever thought possible. Its creators then used a robust, tradeable library of characters to create word of mouth between twelve-year-olds. Most recently? Angry Birds is built on the idea that casual gamers want something to do in the five minutes between the important Facebook comments that define their busy lives. Out of thousands of games for Nintendo devices and tens of thousands of mobile phone games, those three games are just about it. In the portable market where simple games light up the sales charts, I’m the only person who played Advance Wars and you’re the only person who played the Phoenix Wright series. Think you’ll ever find Mario Kart DS on a greatest games list? Not as long as Super Mario Kart and Mario Kart 64 get the love and Mario Kart Wii dominates the console sales charts. What about The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening? It’s not topping Link to the Past or Ocarina of Time. The hardcore gamers who argue about silly things like the “greatest games” have already determined that the portable format yields inferior versions of their favorite console games. Nintendo is now asking those same hardcore gamers to purchase a Nintendo 3DS and play scaled-down versions of their favorite console games.
Arguably the best franchise nobody is willing to acknowledge. Such is the life of a deep portable gaming franchise.
It simply doesn’t lend itself to an identity for the device. Look at the current generation of video game consoles. The Xbox 360 has a reputation as the console where you can play shooters online and aim dick jokes at your thirteen-year-old adversaries. The PlayStation 3 is a carry-over living on the reputation of the PlayStation 2. That is, “it doesn’t matter what genre you’re into, you’ll find something to like”. The Nintendo Wii is the family video game console and dust collection box. It’s the console that mom and dad can purchase for their kids and play Mario with. What identity can a video game console develop when it’s built on hand-me-downs? Nobody has found a way to make hand-me-downs play better with stereoscopic input and that’s not happening for a while. Not as long as game developers are content with developing hand-me-downs for portable gaming devices.
The Sony PSP was supposed to demonstrate that hand-me-downs can’t work on portable gaming devices. Sony sold 65 million of the damn things! It only has fifteen million units to go before it reaches the Game Boy Advance. And I mean, nobody thought ill of that device. People should be lauding Sony for finding room in the market for a second dedicated portable video game device. Instead, everyone is talking about the product like it was a colossal failure. Nobody wants to make games for the thing. (At least not in the States, they don’t. The play-on-the-go Japanese consumer culture holds some scant objections to my comments. Even in that market, they’re losing ground.) Certainly, Sony didn’t do themselves any favors by thinking their inflated sense of brand recognition (i.e. Ken Kutaragi’s infamous PlayStation 3 comment that people “will work more hours to buy one”) and their reputation for quality hardware could trump an emerging-yet-voracious market for smartphones. The Sony PSP lost its audience for a simple reason: If you had a quirky game, you published it for the Nintendo DS. You had a much better chance of turning a profit because it was a cheaper device to develop for and boasted a much larger install base. What did that leave the Sony PSP? A development cast of mega-publishers who aren’t interested in taking any risks. That meant an entire library of miniaturized console games based on established franchise. That is, “precisely what does not sell on portable devices”. That is, “what Nintendo now believes will sell the Nintendo 3DS”.
That’s Nintendo’s strategy and they’re entitled to run with it. It’s one hell of a “damned if you do” situation: If Nintendo continues extending their appeal to casual gamers, Apple will price Nintendo out of competition; if Nintendo tries to win the hardcore gamer, they will reserve their services for a niche audience. What is one of the biggest players in the history of video games supposed to do? Eh, they’ll probably sell a hundred million units because “They’re Nintendo!” I’ve found this whole “capitalism” and “free market” thing often defies logic when a company assumes “god status”. Damn the irrational consumer. Damn them.