Developer Aspirations

YAPB - Yet Another Programming Blog



February 2012

An Argument For Dedicated Gaming Handhelds

by Colin Miller, on Gaming, Handhelds, iOS, mobile gaming, PSP Vita

This has nothing to do with programming, but it's still something that's been on my mind lately because I like to game. I like to play all sorts of games, from board games, card games, pen and paper role playing games, to video games. I'm going to focus on that last one here.

Prompted perhaps by the recently released PSP Vita, I'd like to talk a bit about dedicated handhelds and their place in the market. This mostly has to do with how the mobile game space has as of late been thought of as a replacement of dedicated handhelds. However, due to the price and lack of features of mobile games, I think dedicated handhelds still have a very important place in the market.

The PSP Vita launch in Japan didn't fare so well. Many members of the media mention that a dedicated handheld has no place in current society where everyone has incredibly powerful phones able to play games. They also note that the prices of games on dedicated handhelds (often $30-$50 per game), is a losing prospect in consideration of mobile games typically costing $1-$5. Why would I buy a single game for $50 when I could buy 50 games for $1? There is some sort of consumer perception shift over the value of a game, and mobile games have traditionally been very inexpensive so the mantra is that portable games are worth the cost of a coffee or donut.

I think this is really unfortunate for several reasons. The main reason is that the value of a game being shifted to very low prices ($1), means that the development costs and production values of those games will need to stay in line with those budgets. Most games do not sell as many copies as Angry Birds (I'll get to my problem with that game a bit later), but instead might sell a few thousand copies. Even a well executed game from a small independent developer might sell 10's of thousands of copies. However, with each copy costing $1, and apple taking 30 cents of each of those dollars, even a game that sells 100k copies which should be considered a fairly large success, instead only covers the salary of $70k that a median developer might make in a single year. This is just one person with no additional work done in art, sound, etc. You can easily imagine the quality and depth of such a game, they pretty much take up the top 100 games apps on all of the mobile stores. Ad supported games just piss me off, so I won't get into those.

Now of course many could point out that one of the interesting benefits of mobile gaming and the inexpensive prices of games is that it allows for more independent developers to shine where there was once only major corporations pushing games. In the current market, it is difficult for an independent developer to publish a game on the Xbox 360, PS3, or Wii. Granted with advances such as Microsoft's XNA and indie marketplace that's becoming less of an issue, but on the mobile front it's still very prevalent. Getting a game to [legally] run on a PSP or DS is an expensive proposition. The development tools aren't free and easily accessible, and the knowledge of how to develop in those environments isn't as well known. However, on the mobile front such as with the iOS and android devices, the cost to develop is fairly low. So naturally they make the target platform for independent developers.

And this is a wonderful thing. We can be exposed to and discover new and interesting things by passionate people who are willing to take chances. However it also means that the market is full of cheap knock-offs and rushed, shallow games that are just striving for a quick buck. Finding the gems in the pool of slag is a depressing prospect. The quality to quantity ratio is skewed incredibly towards the later. The fact that prices are so low that a true creative endeavor will hardly ever be attempted because the chance of recuperating the production costs of such a product becomes quite low. In essence what we are left with is a marketplace that is full of very cheap, very shallow, low quality games that mostly are clones of one another. Gameplay is often incredibly simplistic (see Angry Birds), and often lacks any real challenge or sense of accomplishment. They're fodder that are useful for minor diversions, but rarely a good rewarding experience that one can get from deep stories and deeper gameplay.

Other than the economic problems with mobile games, there exists another significant one relating to functionality. Mainly in that most mobile platforms being touch-screen only phones or tablets, the primary interface to interact with games on these platforms is through touch. Unfortunately for many genres of games, touch is a very poor interface. Often times games will use an on-screen controller; sectioning off portions of the screen with mostly transparent overlays that are visual representations of physical controls that you slide or tap as if they were an actual controller. These are often cumbersome and obviously trying to make up for something that is lacking: physical controls.

I noticed this acutely yesterday when I was on a shuttle heading towards the train. I took out my iPad and decided to try out Sonic The Hedgehog 4 Episode 1. The game is actually quite well done. Graphically it's very pretty. The levels are well constructed. But the controls are terrible. One has to use a virtual controller that's been mapped to the screen which makes playing a fast paced platformer like sonic very difficult and frustrating. A single analog stick (or even a D-pad) and one physical button would have made the game great. However, due to the poor controls, the experience was sub-par. Mostly just a 'meh' game that's disappointing in its execution due to limited inputs.

Those two factors is why I am buying a PSP Vita and why I hope that dedicated handhelds are never truly overtaken by games on touch-screen only devices such as mobile phones and tablets. The depth of a game made on a higher budget that is supported by a higher price can vastly supersede a game made on a 70 cents per sale mobile game budget. Games such as Jeanne D'Arc for the original PSP, while technically could be created for a touch device, are not due to the convention of $1-$5 game prices. Experiences like ones found in a quality game such as Jeanne D'Arc are ones that I crave however, and that bring fun and excitement to events like my commute where a mobile game may only stave off bordom for a few minutes. Sometimes I want to just play something quick and mindless like Angry Birds, but sometimes I want something of quality. A GOOD game that I can immerse myself in to the point where I miss my train stop and end up in Gilroy. Something that I'm having so much fun with that it becomes dark when I'm playing on my couch and I don't realize because I'm so involved. That has never happened for me on a mobile device, but it's something that's more probably on a dedicated handheld with the types of games those devices attract.

Having physical controls is another very important point to a dedicated handheld GAMING machine. Entire genres just don't work well on touch-only devices. Fighting games, shooters, action games, platformers, and many types of hack and slashes, are all improved with the addition of physical buttons and analog sticks. If Sonic The Hedgehot 4 Episode 1 were on the Vita, it would double the fun of the game over the iPad version just because of the controls. This is a need that has been recognized by the 3rd party peripheral manufacturers who now make controllers and additional input devices for the iPad such as the iCade. OnLive has a universal controller that works on android and may someday work on iOS to play streamed games and use real controls.

In essence, dedicated gaming hardware has a niche that it serves outside of the general 'mobile gaming' space that has been very popular lately. Mobile games are big money right now because it's capturing a huge casual game market that hasn't been exposed before. However, there is still a 'core gamer' market that, while not as large, is usually willing to spend more money for a higher quality experience. Knowing that these two segments can exist independently is why, I think, products like the PSP Vita and 3DS are still very important and relevant in today's society. Not all games need to be shallow and cheap.

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