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Friday, February 27, 2009

iPhone: The Killer Handheld? Or Handheld Killer?

I've been thinking about this subject for a long time... originally I was going to title this post Did the iPhone Kill the PSP? Hence the picture... but it's a bigger issue than that: Are download-only games the future of handheld gaming?

There've been rumourangs bouncing back & forth for the last year or so about a new PSP... one of the most persistent details is "no UMD drive-- using only downloaded games".

Looking at all these rumours & gossip, the way they describe this supposed-new-PSP:

  • No UMD drive
  • hard drive or built in (flash) memory
  • touch screen

Geez... what does that sound like.....

It's bizarre that these "fanboys" don't even realize they're describing a device that's already been out on the market for the last year now... okay, I understand that if you're a single console owner --let's say you only own a PSP-- you might not pay much attention to what's going on with the DS or iPod or whatever. That's natural.

But handheld tech has changed so much since 2004-2009... really, 2005-2007 showed the most flux I'd say. When the PSP first came out in 2005 (in North America) it was bundled with a 32 MB memory stick. Shortly after, the largest memory stick available was 1 GB... and it was considered an expensive luxury. Nobody would have been predicted that flash memory would drop in price and rise in capacity as quickly as it has.

Because nobody could have predicted that, obviously Sony & Nintendo didn't either. in 2004/2005, handheld gaming looked like console gaming did, that it was cartridge/disc based. Sony's gambit was to expand their handheld to other media stored on memory stick.

Then Apple moved in with the iPhone.

Apple already has the lions share of the mp3 player market with the iPod. Last I heard, Apple was #1, with Sandisk being a *DISTANT* #2. I think that Apple has 90% share of the market. So when they moved into apps... and GAMES... they've got a solid foundation from their iTunes market to fall back on should their apps/games market fail.

But I don't think it has failed. I'm not as knowledable about iPhone/iPod Touch apps/games as I should be, but I think there are TONS of them available, with more on the way. Third parties seem to be tripping over themselves trying to get in on the "goldrush" that is iTunes Apps Store.

iPhone/iPod Touch has proven that people are willing to buy download-only games/moveis/apps. And now Sony & Nintendo are playing catch-up to that idea.

There's all this talk about a "PSP 2 that doesn't take UMDs" surfacing again, and it's starting to sound more & more likely....

People Fanboys are saying, "Well, what about stores being cut out of video games sales??? They'll never support a device that does that." Yeah, because I wonder how many of those stores that sell iPhones/iPod Touch see a SINGLE CENT from music/games/apps bought through iTunes. Yet they're still selling the hardware, aren't they? Again with the coke-bottle Fanboy glasses. Sometimes you have to look beyond just your product to see if ideas are working or not.

I'm thinking that a downloaded-games-only PSP 2 would have a touchscreen, 2 analogue nubs & face button/D-pad configuration in "classic Playstation style". It should have built in memory as well as a memory stick slot. Call it the PSPN-- as in "Network"... basically, it sounds/looks like an iPhone/iPod Touch.... but what Sony would count on is that they're Sony, and that gamers want God of War, Ratchet & Clank, etc... Sony exclusive titles.

I could easily see Sony putting their press spin control into overdrive, saying junk like, "You can still play your UMD games on your old PSPs, and use PSPN for downloaded games you buy from our PS Store!" and they could even throw a few crumbs to old PSP owners by releasing a game or 2 every year for the next couple years. it would be nasty, but it's better than the way Microsoft screwed over treated us Xbox owners when they said, "We're not developing for Xbox, we're only doing 360 stuff. But if you third party devs still want to, it's your funer--err, we mean, go right ahead."

The DS isn't immune to the "download threat" either.

Sure, it has the cameras & music playback, but I'm pretty convinced that the DSi is Nintendo's way of covering their ass in case downloaded games does take off in a big way. That's the main reason for it I think.

But I'm not sure the DSi is equipped to stand the test of time if the handheld market does shift to download-only. I'm not sure what the limits are for its SD card capacity..... again, I'm sure Nintendo is relying on them being Nintendo to combat Apple/anyone else.: "Where else you gonna get the next Mario game??"

The biggest problem with DSi's download capability as far as I can see is that you need not just an internet connection, but Wi-Fi to use it. I don't think you can download DSiWare games to an SD card plugged in your PC's card reader. That's frustrating.

But if you want the big first-party Sony & Nintendo franchises, you have to buy their systems. I think we're seeing iPhone/iPod Touch games as knockoffs of some of those big franchise games. They coould be amusing knockoffs, but they are not the "real" thing. Another factor to consider is the price for these iPhone/iPod Touch games. Seems like a lot of the games are really cheap, like $5.00 & under. Does anyone expect a Mario game to ever be that cheap? or a big Sony game? Doubtful.

I think Apple is ahead of the game in the handheld market because they have the download service (iTunes) and the hardware (iPhone/iPod Touch) while Nintendo & Sony are playing catch-up... both are going at a snails pace with their online stores.

I'm no advocate for download-only content... I've talked about my probs with PS Store, and I'm a big hater of DRM. I just find that in real-world use, it's more about breaking your legally-bought content than protecting against piracy. So this possible shift to download-only makes me nervous.

I've been thinking about getting an iPod Touch for awhile... sure glad I didn't get one last gen, since they added the volume rocker this gen... that would've pissed me off, it's something I really demand in a media player. But the main reason I'm hesitant about iPod is the same reason I chose a PSP over one in 2006: iTunes dependence, and DRM. DRM may be disappearing from iTunes, but it's the overall "you have to do everything through our software" policy that really bothers me. I like PSP's drag & drop. Plus I'm not sure that all my PSP Video 9 encoded video files would play on an iPod Touch. I have all this video that's PSP-format, and I need something that would play all that.

Still, if those things are compatible, I might just go for it. Is iPod Touch the handheld for the future?



Herrjeff said...

Interesting analysis. I recently had to replace my UMD-drive and was tempted to go customware rather than investing $50 in repairs.

Don said...

Do you have a PSP-1000 or PSP-2000? Was your UMD drive problem similar to mine?

When mine started acting up, I also considered going Custom Firmware, because other than the UMD problem, there was nothing wrong with it.... I loved that PSP *sniff*... but I really want no hassles with game systems, that's why I play gaming consoles over PCs-- I'm sure there are some great PC games out there, but I don't need the hassles. I want dedicated game machines to work with the game & not give me problems. As tempting as CFW is, it will always be finicky... I dunno....

Every week I'm becoming more & more convinced that there soon be PSP and "PSP 2" on the market... PSP won't disappear over night, but support will slowly whittle away as more games become digitally distributed for the "PSP 2".


Herrjeff said...

If that's the case, let's hope Sony will revisit the price range for their digital marketplace. Locoroco 1 and other "UMD legacy" titles on the US store are way overpriced imo, considering you would often find their regular, cased counterpart in the bargain bin for a better price. And even recent releases, like Locoroco 2 on the European store, cost more than getting them in stores.

Don said...

They might... because lowering the pricing for legacy games would be a good strategy to aggressively introduce a new handheld that was download-only. But I suspect Sony would be counting on their name brand for their exclusive franchises like LocoRoco & God of War; if we want them, there's only one place to get them, and that one place can set their price (high)......


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