Zath: Portable handheld gaming is something that I’ve never really got into myself despite being a big fan of various types of gaming, back in the early days I never ended getting a Game Boy – there was always some other expensive gaming hardware to buy, usually PC-related that my money went on. Even to this day I’ve still not embraced portable gaming with either the Nintendo DS or Sony PSP, or even with games on mobile phones – perhaps I’m too much of a purist? Anyway, with that in mind, this post is a guest post written by Daniel Johnson who covers a wide variety of gaming commentary on his website; Daniel Primed – if you’ve not already seen it, I’d suggest you taking some time out and read some of his thoughts on gaming – he has a lot of quality content such as How Does it Feel to Play a Video Game?!
The portable gaming space has been continuously growing in size since hitting the mainstream with the Game Boy in 1989 (1990, PAL) and now, in 2008, this market has gained equal footing with the home console market, representing the strongest area in growth in the industry. Despite biding well with a good chunk of the market, portable games still remain an after thought for both developer and media alike.
Let’s think about this for a second. How many portable video games have ever received a Game of the Year award? What about hype? Why is it that portable games are rarely ever anticipated to the level of their console trail blazers? The truth is; portable games are still not taken seriously.
Another example, just to finalize the point. Remember the first time that you heard of the Playstation Portable, or maybe the Game Boy Advance? What were your initial reactions? I’m guessing something like; “Wow! Now I can play SNES/PS2 games on the go”. Even when we talk portables, we put consoles, at least initially.
You’d know that if you played either of those handhelds (the PSP and GBA) that the console games directly ported across never quite seem to match the quality of games specifically engineered for the platform. This is because different devices have different usages, controls and hardware hence separately developed titles can often prove superior. The PSP opened people’s eyes to this when it saw floods of Playstation 2 ports hit the system in the first two years of its life, damaging the console’s reputation with games containing awkwardly adapted controls and technical glitches. Contrast this against Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror, God of War: Chains of Olympus and Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops, all franchises that originated on the console and were then specifically retooled to the PSP’s strengths. These games generated interest for the console and have seen the PSP become a great success.
With all of the success that the portable market is entrenched in, why is it that developers and industry still treat the portable competition as second best? Let me suggest a few reasons.
Lack of Technical Appeal
Technical strength is like a rock within our industry, it’s the only sure thing that can be guaranteed about a pre-released games. We see video of gameplay, in-game screenshots and PR press releases bullet pointing the list of features and out of all of this the feeling of play is absent but the graphical sensation is mostly intact and it’s what we are attracted to. Previews themselves, the only glimmer of light able to provide a solid pre-analysis of the title, often prove inadequate due to an heavy emphasis on the possibility and not the actual. Then as consumers we use to judge our expected interest of a game even before we play it, in actuality, mostly self assured on the graphical presentation alone, it’s all we have to bank on.
Graphics are important because they compose thoughts and expectations and ultimately grab out attention. With lesser processing power and overall inferior graphics, it can be difficult to drive as much attention to yourself. Which creates a lessened interest in portable play as it’s an overall smaller production. It’s all one big power struggle, following the “bigger is better” principle where no one wishes to be left out.
Adapting currently existing franchises into a different format is a challenge, downscaling in particular. The game needs to allow for portable play otherwise it will fail as a portable game. The effort in doing so is therefore considerable.
For new IPs, the portable scene is a fantastic opportunity to test the game in shallower waters before investing in a larger production, as it minimizes the crucially important risk factor. The problem at hand is that with the previously mentioned power struggle in place, being that developers lack the enthusiasm towards smaller productions, new IPs on the portable platform are not as commonplace as the consoles, resulting in more downgrading (Metal Gear Solid, Ninja Gaiden, Resistance and the overwhelming number of brands on the portable platforms) than new IPs (Elite Beat Agents and Patapon). So basically the market is grid-locked because of the implications of adaption combined with the lack of technical appeal.
With the last point, familiarity was touched upon. Most game developers started out making console games, when the balance was swayed more in that direction. This means that most developers are better versed in console game design because it has been around longer with a larger market share. As a result there are few ‘veteran’ developers of portable games.
Market Place Assumptions
Even though portable players are still gamers, the portability factor creates a market demographic of its own. I guess the assumption is that portable gamers are often younger gamers. I’m not sure if this can necessarily be assumed as default though. Rather a side effect of portable games and consoles being cheaper than their home console counterparts, Nintendo being the main market leader and portable processors not being up to snuff for replicating complex scenarios or gameplay mechanics for a mature audience. I don’t think adult markets have been fully explored in this area just yet.
A quick example of demographics impacting game design: I read a fantastic review of Guitar Hero: On Tour recently which pointed out how the track list was targeted towards a younger audience.
The saddest conclusion to this article is that all of the above reasons for not developing on a portable platform can all be positives as well. Cheaper development, lack of blockbuster titles from rival companies, great starting point for a new IP, unfamiliar hardware and unsatisfied market segments waiting to be to targeted. There are a handful of handheld focused developers who should be commended for their continuous attempts at raising the bar of the portable blockbuster, my favourites include: Gameloft (Mobile Phones and DS), Sony Bend (PSP) and Vicarious Visions (DS).
Additional Notes: Many of these principles also apply to the Wii, it’s all a big race to out tech each other.
For more gaming insights like these, then take a look at the Daniel Primed website!