The Future of Mobile Gaming:
Whose hands is it in?

By Megan Swaine - 2005

In the beginning, there was Game Boy. The monochromatic phenomenon about the size of a pencil case, that allowed Nintendo fans to play some of their favourite games (scaled down of course) wherever they wanted. Game Boy even outlasted its battery-guzzling competitor, the Sega GameGear, and survived such oddities as the Gameboy camera. It went on to many forms- Game Boy pocket, Game Boy colour, Game Boy Advance, and Game Boy Advance SP- and dominated the market for a number of years. But somewhere in those years, the market researchers discovered that it wasn’t just children who were enjoying their products anymore.

As the gap begins to close between the PDA and the cell phone, the expanded capabilities of the modern mobile device pave the way for more complex and rich user experiences. These devices have given people on the go grown-up, Game Boy-esque entertainment ranging from books to music, to video to instant messaging.

Screen Digest found that worldwide spending on mobile games downloading jumped from 380 million in 2003, to 778 million in 2004.


The N-Gage

The first attempt at merging the portable console with the cell phone was N-gage. Introduced in 2003, it played a variety of games; included an mp3 player, possibilities for video and photo viewing, instant messaging and could be used as a cell phone. It had the same capabilities as the Nokia 3650 or 7650, and some people, when they actually did use it as a phone, remarked that it was like ‘talking into a taco’.

While the gaming experience was well reviewed, the device was far from well-sold.


Nintendo DS

Earlier this year when Nintendo DS was released. Completely unlike Nintendo’s previous handheld products, DS features double screens, the bottom of which is a touch screen. Nintendo DS sports 64 bit graphics, and wireless connectivity, which can be used for text messaging or ‘pictochat’. The touch screen can be used via a stylus. This portable console was an obvious departure from Nintendo’s Game Boy series, and they made no attempt to hide the fact that they were marketing it to a different audience. They drew a necessary separation between this product and the Game Boy line, despite the fact that the DS is technically backwards compatible with the game boy advance- a rare Nintendo feature.


The Gizmondo

On the other side of the pond, Tiger Telematics’ Gizmondo was released October 2004. Its’ processing speed is 400 MHz (faster than the PSP), and it features MS Windows CE, Windows Media Player 9 and secure Digital Flash memory cards for storage. It has a camera, a GPS system, Bluetooth, a radio and a myriad of other functions. It retails for around 129 pounds ($450), and has a questionably small selection of games, some of which merely utilize device’s features. Like the N-Gage, its success has been less than stellar.

All of these devices are brimming with features, but not all of them have done well. Why? Everyday practicality has been lost in the throes of the ‘Swiss-Army Knife approach’. It is becoming increasingly important that the companies figure out which functions are actually useful, and which are merely occasional novelties.

For example, Gizmondo dropped in price by $100 on the stipulation that “smart adds” would be displayed periodically.

Does a handheld game console NEED a camera? Will it ever use one? Some people have theorized that eventually Tiger Telematics will leverage the Gizmondo’s other functions, like GPS, through the games. Already, DS has games that utilize the touch screen.


The PSP

PSP, on the other hand, has done well. Sony released its PSP (Playstation Portable) to North America just last month. Approximately half a million units sold in the first week alone (which is about the same as the Nintendo DS). Already, PSP has gotten the exposure it needs: Paris Hilton bought one, there was a South Park episode about it, and the term “PSPcasting” is already making its rounds (due to the ingenious combo of Video 9 and Videora, which can be installed). Sony’s tagline is “Entertainment without boundaries”, and has already christened the PSP “the walkman of the 21 st century”. It has a 4.3 inch screen (with a 16:9 cinematic aspect ratio), wireless connectivity, an mp3 player (of course), a video player, a 32 mb memory stick, and other functions. PSP has so far caught on. There are already custom made ‘skins’ for the device itself, and a whole truckload of possible accessories (mostly cases); many of which are not made by Sony. The PSP is not a phone. But its other capabilities could easily make up for that- VOIP, anyone?

Is it better for a device to do many things passibly well, or a few things really well?

Macintosh’s recent attempt to market lower-end affordable hardware is a good example.

The more bells and whistles get tacked onto a mobile device, the higher the price the company can charge. The PSP currently retails for around $300, which is more than the PS2 itself. Hell, for the price of a Gizmondo, the customer could get a PS2, an Xbox, and possibly even a GameCube. Should the consumer trade affordability for added features they may never use?

Worse, what happens when multi-function devices become the norm? For instance, the Motorola A1000 3G phone already has an mp3 player, flash mem slot, SMS/MMS, GPS, a video player, and a web browser. In addition to this, 3D games may be downloaded via the Symbian website. And this is, of course, a phone that can be acquired for free with a contract. For cell phone developers, the technology advances about every nine months. The N-Gage is the perfect example of how cell phones have effectively caught up to portable consoles. The screen may be smaller, but cell phone games aren’t just ‘snake’ or ‘ribbon’ anymore.

One hopes that the added competition will warrant higher-quality products and a more complex understanding of what the consumer wants. The idea of ‘Swiss army knife’ mobile devices is a concept that is quickly becoming less-novel every time a new one is produced. The market is becoming saturated with such devices. Like in the PSP’s case, there’s more to it than simply presenting the functions, and expecting consumer to buy it.