The big lesson of the past generation of games consoles, both portable and non-, is that casual beats hardcore. Simple, low-tech, accessible games will do better than complex, expensive, fancy ones. The DS was the best-selling portable system, and the Wii the best-selling TV-attached one. Both had lower specs than their competitors, but more accessible control systems.
In the portable market, a dedicated games system can no longer position itself as casual. iOS and Android are games platforms in and of themselves, but as games platforms that run on generalized devices such as smartphones and tablets, they are already dominating the casual market. Only the hardcore will spend an extra $200+ on a portable games system when they already have a smartphone. In fact, even the hardcore may be satisfied by iOS. It was significant that EA brought a version of Dead Space to iOS, but not to the DS or PSP1.
This is not to say Sony and Nintendo’s new machines won’t sell a substantial amount of units. The Kindle, a dedicated reading device for hardcore readers, is still selling well despite the e-book capabilities of the iPad. But the Kindle’s sales are a fraction of that of the generalist device: estimates put it at the low millions over the lifetime of the Kindle, versus 14 million iPads last year. And note that the Kindle starts at $140 now, compared to the iPad’s $500.
The Playstation Suite for Android indicates that Sony realizes what it’s up against and is hedging its bets. The Suite is a games market full of old PSone titles and some new properties that will run on compatible Android handsets. One of those handsets will be a gaming-oriented phone from Sony Ericsson, the Experia Play. The fact that they haven’t announced a price for the NGP, though, which means it’s probably high, makes me worry for Sony’s plans. The 3DS’ $250 price tag is a giant misstep – the DS debuted at $150 in 2004, before the smartphone market took off.
The future may be full of battles like this. A few years ago, people like myself were buying PCs to hook up to their TVs to stream video from home libraries and from services like Netflix. Soon the games consoles added similar features. Now the TVs themselves are getting smart – I’ve been looking for a new TV, and the top-of-the-line units now have Netflix and suchlike built in. How long until they start carrying games stores? How long until Apple opens the AppleTV up to third party applications? It’s just a matter of time.
Well, at least Sony kinda has a leg up in the TV set business.
1 One article I found estimates Apple sold 120 million iOS games in 2010, compared to 130 million for the DS. And sales of iOS devices are going up dramatically, while sales of DSes and PSPs are going down.