Archive for August, 2011

The Mobile Playground

August 22nd, 2011 2 comments

When I was growing up, there was an ever-persistent debate that had been raging on for generations before me and would rage on for at least a generation after me. I don’t mean human generations – I mean console generations. I hopped on board when I begged my parents for what must have been half of my short lifetime at that point, for a Nintendo Entertainment System. Knowing the system cost “only” $100, I even went to the trouble of collecting 100 pennies that I found around the house (and in change jars) and presented it to my parents as payment for the system (to this day, I can’t remmeber if I was being calculatedly cunning and precocious by thinking that 100 pennies = $100, or if I had just made the first of many arithmetic errors in life). And then it happened – December 25, 1988 – A shiny new Nintendo Entertainment System (with the Power Pad, orange light gun and 2 controllers – they just don’t sell consoles the way they used to…). This event, occuring 24 days after the birth of my sister, would form the pinnacle of my Christmas gift-receiving career, by the way.

But what was odd was that the Nintendo Entertainment System had a competitor, and a very worthy one, in the Sega Master System. I didn’t have a SMS – my neighbor Lacey did. I would go over her house before my NES arrived at my own and marvel at its graphics and beg to play Afterburner. After I got my NES, I decided that Afterburner was stupid and that Zelda was way better (and it turns out I was right – hey, it’s my blog, people). I had essentially received my NES banner and I was determined to carry it wherever it would go.

My parents were not without means but they also weren’t about to spend their entire savings on a child’s toy, so I completely missed out on the 16-bit era. My father always argued that I had a perfectly good video game system in the NES, so I sat on the sidelines and watched the war that raged on schoolgrounds and in the press (back then, magazines like Electronic Gaming Monthly and GamePro were the only source of information that existed about what was out, what was coming out, and how good any of it was). My experience with both systems was done in households of friends, coming in to play Mortal Kombat on my friend’s Genesis (which definitely had the better, more authentic experience) and playing Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyper Fighting edition (better than Genesis if you only had the 3-button controller, or more often, only one three-button controller) on my other friend’s SNES. I would play Super Mario All-Stars on my cousin’s SNES and Sonic and Knuckles on my other cousin’s Genesis.

The point is that we were kids and we were at the mercies of what our parents would buy us. And since kids are ridiculously competitive and petty, whatever we had was the best and whatever anyone else had was automatically the worst.

Now, I and most of the people I know who want one, have multiple systems. Even at $200-600, owning an XBox 360 and a Playstation 3 and a Wii isn’t really all that hard if it’s something we want to do. We are inundated with more information than we can possibly read about the details of each console. We can literally download demos of the games to our systems to play them, or cross-compare the different versions of each game if we really need to see how many polygons are squeezed into our 89th World War II simulation.

So, a lot of the competitiveness over consoles has ceased, at least among our generation. Which would mean that we don’t really have any of that silly competitive sniping going on anymore, right?

Au! Au!, I say! Au contraire, mon frere.

See, with our ability to own any console, we’ve had to move on to the arena where we really can’t own every version of that device, and that is precisely what’s going on in the mobile arena right now.

Video game consoles cost what they cost. There’s a one-time fee for entry. Maybe a $60/year fee if you want XBox Live, but you can get by without it. A mobile device is the gift that keeps on taking. The iPhone’s service plan will run you $100/month. Even adjusted for inflation, an iPhone is at least a new NES system every 2 months. Couple that with the lack of need to bother with having more than one phone and you’ve got yourself a recipe for a good, old fashioned system war.

And we see it all over the place. iPhone vs. Android vs. Blackberry is the war that should have been between the XBox 360, Playstation 3 and Wii. Even with Nintendo somewhat quietly winning the generation in terms of sales, the forecast on them is dismal because of their complete lack of any mobile or online strategy. As the 3DS’s struggle to gain marketshare shows, Nintendo isn’t just competing with the PSP (or whatever the hell it’s called now – Sony is in the same boat) but with the iOS and Android systems. The 3DS offers no functionality that an adult would need that they can’t meet or exceed with their phones – a device they must carry in their pockets. And the games don’t compete on the same level. A full-featured 3DS game like Pokemon Black is competing, ideally, with a console experience, but its platform is asking to be played in the mobile arena, where experiences are quick and to the point. And far, far less expensive.

For Nintendo and Sony to compete in the mobile playground, they have to give up the idea that users are looking for a single experience in their mobile devices. The Sony and Microsoft home consoles have proven themselves worthy home theater additions – most of the friends I have on XBox Live are watching Netflix, for instance. Sony is at least giving it a good ol’ large-corporation-try with the PS Vita (which I suspect will end up like the HP TouchPad), but none of the big companies are doing anything truly innovative to capture the mobile space’s attention. While Windows Phone 7 is a capable operating system, it is years behind both Android and iOS and its struggle to become adopted shows those scars. If Nintendo or Sony want to compete for space in my pocket, they need to offer an experience that eclipses both the function and the fun of the mobile offerings on the table right now. That doesn’t seem at all likely.

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