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Will Smartphones Replace Portable Game Consoles?

Updated on January 15, 2016
Gameboy Color by Wen Zeng via Flickr
Gameboy Color by Wen Zeng via Flickr | Source

The final chapter of portable game consoles seems to be coming to a close. As of 2016 there's only two major handheld consoles on the market. Nintendo's 3DS, and Sony's PS Vita. “The rise of smartphone mobile games has created an unhealthy climate for portable game consoles”, president Shuhei Yoshida of Sony’s Worldwide Studios mentioned while talking about a PS Vita successor during a Q&A at EGX 2015. Pretty much laying to rest any hope of a Vita 2. Despite the uprise of smartphone gaming, Nintendo undoubtedly remains the king of handheld games with its 3DS and excellent lineup of titles, but for how long? Will portable game consoles eventually be overtaken by smartphones and tablets? While this question remains unanswered for now, both Nintendo and Sony are being hurt in some way.

Everyone has a phone in their hands nowadays tapping away and it's become the norm of American life. Smartphones and tablets alike have replaced things we relied on years ago like magazines, books, digital cameras, GPS, ATM, and arguably television and credit cards. While that list grows, one industry indeed being affected are portable game consoles. As smartphones get cheaper more people are buying them. That poses a cascading list of problems for Nintendo and Sony.

Smartphones vs. Portable Game Consoles

The first problem is that Apple and Android are booming off of “free” games that make money from in-game ads. Practically becoming a standard known as “freemium”. Some apps even offering in-game rewards or currency in exchange for viewing ads. Considering the millions of free games on both platforms it’s certainly enticing, and for most people ads are no big deal. It’s similar to watching a favorite show on prime time television. As long as the full game is playable and someone is hooked, ads won’t stop them. Combine that freemium factor with all the endless amounts of original games, and it’s easy to see why smartphone gaming has become a new industry with more developers joining every day.

The 3DS and PSVita fall behind on free content. Although they are game consoles specifically meant for retail games, I think having a rich community marketplace similar to Apple or Android with thousands of third party developers creating original games, priced or “freemium” based, would dramatically attract more people in. Part of that issue though is the rapid momentum of more people buying smartphones, which is almost creating a shift of developers moving from game consoles to smartphones with the attractive force being a broader audience. A broader audience in the long run equals more money and exposure.

Smartphones are foremost designed as a phone, so their structure isn’t necessarily designed to fit comfortably in hands for long periods of time unlike handheld consoles are. Touchscreen phones (majority of phones today) don’t have buttons and joysticks like a DS or Vita, resulting in less control, creativity, and gaming experience depth. Dedicated gaming hardware and software on phones is obviously an issue. The games on new, more powerful smartphones being released every year might be getting shinier and prettier, but they will never keep up with portable game consoles. Storage is also a limiting factor that smartphone developers have to design with in mind. Every phone has only so many gigs until there’s no more storage for new games, and then push comes to shove for what games matter. Portable game consoles use game cards so memory isn’t a problem.

It’s easy to say smartphones are for casual gamers, but there are great apps out there for any skill level. So good in fact, that some can become addicting or even obsessive. Suddenly casual playing turns into a more engaging and avid experience, and then I think it’s easy to say smartphones can deliver the same excitement as dedicated game consoles. That’s how the big bucks are made, particularly for “freemium” games that are free-to-play and offer in-game rewards, power-ups, or virtual items in exchange for an in-app purchase. Some popular games like this are Crossy Road, Clash of Clans, Bejeweled Blitz, Hill Climb Racing, and Candy Crush Saga.

The very thing underlying why most people play mobile games in the first place are the quality of the games themselves, and that crown without question belongs to Nintendo and Sony. Both the foundation of portable gaming, especially Nintendo with its revolutionary GameBoy at the time. Their timeless originals are unsurpassable in fan following and brand trust. Mario, Zelda, Donkey Kong, Metroid, Animal Crossing, and many more franchises can’t be found anywhere else than on a Nintendo console. The same goes for Sony with exclusive titles like Uncharted, God of War, Little Big Planet, Resistance, and the list goes on. All these games collectively make a bigger picture that assures portable game consoles are here to stay, and arguably offer a greater game experience.

My Transition to Smartphone Gaming

In order, I grew up playing the GameBoy (color and advance), DS, DS Light, and PS Vita. It was about two years ago when I lost interest and sold the Vita because my pass time for video games slipped away after graduating high school. Shortly after that I fell in a relationship and distanced myself from console games altogether. Except for the iPhone, which I found small chunks of time throughout the day to play games that only required tapping and sliding my fingers. I think that’s one thing that attracted me, and also what makes the iPhone so appealing. It has an expanding library of simple games that anyone can pick up n’ play. Many of which are free-to-play so it’s nice being able to download games without spending money. Being a cheapo this is very important to me.

Now that I’ve joined the crowd and primarily play games on my phone, I’ve found lots of fantastic apps to play during short snippets of time. Rust Bucket is a new game for iPhone I’ve found myself caught up in. I’m a fan of retro, arcade style games and Rust Bucket is just that with nicely polished pixel art graphics. It’s a dungeon crawler meets turn-based strategy game. Other great free iOS games I’d recommend include Crossy Road, Smashy Road: Wanted, Peggle Blast, and Twist. Realizing now that I’m recommending these when just over a year ago I only played home console games is a real example of how smartphones are catching up.

Final Thoughts

After researching and reading countless stories about how smartphones are dominating the market and consequently killing portable game consoles, I think it’s important to look through all the facts before assuming all is doomed for handheld systems. Games for the DS, Vita, and older consoles before, ultimately offer a better gaming experience compared to the limitations of smartphones. There’s only so many things a finger tap can do and without any buttons, joysticks, or physical game cards, that feeling I got from playing my old DS or GameBoy is way better than any phone app in terms of story, engagement, quality, and replay value. Plus there’s no ads which in today’s digital age are literally popping up everywhere.

Today’s handhelds are constantly improving with the latest and greatest technology almost too much. Not that newer is a bad thing, but maybe looking through the past success of early consoles can better shape the gaming handhelds of tomorrow. Game consoles are after all - all about the games. In the early two thousands that’s the only thing my GameBoy did. It was so simplistic. Instead of getting caught in social media, flashy camera’s, and bigger screens maybe it’s worthwhile to think on a smaller scale. One that focuses on just the games, and simplicity of design without all the shiny gadgets that distract us from the games themselves. Consoles might even be cheaper too.

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    • SolveMyMaze profile image

      SolveMyMaze 20 months ago

      I don't ever think that smartphones will truly get rid of portables such as 3DS (or whatever the next iteration from Nintendo will be).

      I personally don't like gaming or listening to music on my smartphone for the reason that I've got dedicated devices for these tasks. The other fact is that whilst Nintendo did a great job in employing the use of touchscreens for gaming, I've yet to find a touch screen game on my iPod or smartphone that works as well as it could have.

      I was pretty disappointed by how poorly GTA 3 controlled on the iPod, and I'm at a loss as to how the market has exploded. I think as well with the fact that Nintendo won't be releasing their killer apps on smartphones (pending a massive financial meltdown) that it's going to keep them in the handheld business for years to come. They know the market inside out and have dominated it for decades.

      Excellent hub!