Game Marketing Tips, Analysis, and News

Thursday, January 27, 2011

PSP2 (Now NGP) Vs. 3DS Vs. Smartphones: Who Wins?

2011 will go down in history as the Final War for domination of handheld gaming. The declarations of war have been made (in the guise of launch events for the gaming press), and the machines of war are heading to the battlefield. Three platforms enter... will only one leave? The situation is more complex than that.

Nintendo plays the role of Rocky Balboa, the scrappy kid who became the world champ a long time ago and has been resting on his laurels far too long. Sure, he's been in training some, had some bouts, made a few minor comebacks with the DSi and the DSi XL. But sales have been dropping... Nintendo just announced their latest numbers, and have once again revised their sales estimates downwards for the fiscal year, as their profits have dropped 74% and DS sales will end the year with about 22 million sold, for an all-time total of about 145 million.

Nintendo's war machine for this battle is the 3DS. It's basically a DS with a faster processor and a 3.5 inch 3D display, with a resolution of 400 x 240 in 3D mode. The trick is that the 3D effect doesn't need glasses, but the battery life of the 3DS is a fraction of the DS; 3-5 hours instead of 12-15. The price is $249, and games will be in the $40 to $50 range. Backwards compatibility with DS games is included. The 3DS ships at the end of March in the US. Nintendo's got Rocky Balboa who's been trying to get back into shape.

Sony has finally opened the kimono to reveal the PSP2, now called (for the time being) the NGP (Next Generation Portable). It's got a 5 inch screen at 960 x 540 resolution, dual analog controls, a back-of-the-unit touchpad for control, an Organic LED (OLED) touchscreen, a gyroscope, accelerometer, compass, GPS, front and rear facing cameras, an ARM Cortex A9 quad-core processor, an SGX543MP GPU (a PowerVR chip), 3G, Bluetooth, WiFi b/g/n, and a new flash memory storage for games. Plus backwards compatibility with PSP games. It will ship around the end of 2011, and the price is as yet undisclosed. But you can bet that it won't be cheap; with that spec list I'd put it around $399 at least, that's if Sony wanted to make money on the device from the hardware sales alone. Sony has Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren from Rocky 4), the incredible physical specimen with unreal stats.

A glimpse of Sony's NGP.
The final contender is the iPhone 4, and probably this summer the iPhone 5 (as yet, still just a speculation). The current iPhone 4 has an Arm Cortex A8 processor (Apple's version, the A4 chip) with a PowerVR GPU, a 960 x 640 3.5 inch screen, front and rear cameras, full sensor array, and an App Store stuffed with 300,000 titles. The rumored iPhone 5 will use an ARM Cortex A9 dual core, along with a spiffier PowerVR GPU. Apple's bringing a Mixed Martial Arts expert to this boxing match. Pricing will probably be around the current iPhone 4 pricing, with the iPhone 4 moving down to $99 (subsidized) and the iPhone 5 at $199 or $299 (subsidized).

Really, Nintendo's decided to once again avoid battling on sheer technical specs of resolution, polygons, and processor speeds, and instead try to do something different. This is how they succeeded with the Wii; knowing that Microsoft and Sony would be shooting for the most power in a console, Nintendo opted to be different with the interface, and won handily. The 3DS is a hope that 3D without glasses will be a hit with gamers, much more so than mere polygon counts. It's not an unreasonable hope.

Sony's decided, apparently, that the way to win the handheld market is sheer muscle. Bigger, better, faster, stronger, as well as cooler. Interface? Sure, let's throw in all of the sensors and interface ideas we can, and perhaps something awesome will emerge. Actually, it's not an unreasonable hope; give game developers a lot of different tools and they will surprise you every time.

Apple's competing against phones, not handheld gaming devices, but their iPhone 5 will be a pretty close match to Sony's NGP, at least much closer than the 3DS. If game developers can really start to charge somewhat higher prices for really awesome games, perhaps the return on investment for iPhone game development might look more like handheld game development.

Android phones will continue to march along with a wide variety of hardware specs, but you can bet on increasing processor power and more attention to GPU strength. The best Android phones will likely be pretty competitive with Apple's iPhone offerings.

The interesting part is beyond the hardware specs; it's the software and online offerings. Nintendo is trying to advance a bit, ditching the unbelievably awkward Friend codes and moving to a somewhat easier multiplayer matching. They're touting their eShop as a way to buy less expensive games, but of course they will continue to keep those games completely separate from the full price games sold only at retail stores. Sony's got more interesting things going on, with a development environment designed to bring Playstation games to any Android device. This is a brilliant move, basically trying to coopt the smartphone market by bringing the Playstation games to them. It's not clear what pricing will be like, but the really interesting part is that Sony's trying to make it easy for developers to bring games to any platform.

Meanwhile, Apple's going to make progress in the game market without really trying, as they work to compete in the phone market.

Here's my assessment of the three contenders.

Nintendo'ssmartphones and computers. Nintendo's not really changing its business model, and mostly ignoring the digital possibilities, and that will become more and more of a problem for them in the future. They really have to put some serious effort into their digital offerings if they hope to compete. I think Nintendo will have a good launch, but I think by the summer they will be selling 3DS at a rate lower than the current DS rate unless they lower the price.

Sony's exceeded my expectations on their hardware; they are clearly swinging for the fences. They have obviously spent time thinking about the current market, and their Playstation Suite plan is a good response with lots of possibilities for the future. The major question mark is the price; if it's $399 I think it will merely be a niche product. Even at an aggressive $249, it's going to be a touch sell given its size (see below).

Still, there will be multiple SKUs and perhaps some interesting phone-like capability (built-in Skype would be amazing, especially with reasonably priced 3G connectivity options) which may make it a reasonable choice for your only pocket device. Sony will probably want to see a range of full price games, but they're liely to have many more low-cost game choices than Nintendo.

Apple's certainly going to keep introducing better devices, but they'll never add dedicated gaming controls like an analog joystick. Still, they have established themselves as a huge game market without hardly trying. If they finally activate the Apple TV app store and bring those games to the family room, the whole issue gets even more complex. Apple will be hampered if they fail to develop a market for higher priced games, but at least for the iPad and the iPhone 4 there are some encouraging signs.

For developers, it's just getting more difficult to make choices. You have to decide on allocating your development resources, and that is getting tougher. One thing's for sure, though: Develop your brands and milk the IP you create as much as you reasonably can. Any game you create should be considered as a product line, not just a product. The development is an ongoing process, and so is the marketing, not a one-off event that you fire and forget. Create something that's extensible, refine it, make it popular, then put it on everything that uses electricity.

1 comment:

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