It would appear that recently a lot of companies are trying to take a pop at Nintendo in the handheld space – from the cheap Droid X360 to the comparatively expensive PlayMG. But these android gaming machines, as lovely as the tech is, will be nothing without killer games – something Nintendo is very good at.
“Many consumers no longer want to pay $40 for Nintendo games when they can get the same entertainment value from app games for free or $.99”
It’s a line we’ve heard before, this time trotted out by PlayMG founder and marketing guru T. Scott Edwards in an interview with GI.biz. Although marketing guru is perhaps a bit corny when you’re taking a potshot at the market leader, humility clearly not in this mans repertoire. The PlayMG is a pretty looking machine, it must be said, and there is certainly a wealth of talent working on it who have previously worked in all corners – from Hewlett-Packard and Sony to the disastrous Gateway. There’s no shortage of ambition either, taking it right to Nintendo with a tentative $169.99 release price – exactly the same as the Nintendo 3DS, putting it in direct contest. Not even the cheap Chinese emulation handheld – the Droid X360 – is attempting such a thing.
But of course, there’s a fly in the ointment. A very large one, and it is a lesson that no-one yet seems to be wanting to address – games.
I’ve said it before and I will say it again – Games Sell Hardware. We’ve seen this pattern every new release for nearly two decades, and I struggle to believe it will change just because someone has “ambition” – Sony clearly have no lack of ambition, and look at the Vita. It’s a gorgeous, fantastic bit of equipment and yes, it is getting better. But with few quality games on it so far, technical hiccups and a general confusion from all quarters about what the Vita is supposed to do best, it has allowed Nintendo to romp ahead to what can only be described as an unassailable lead.
It’s not just the handheld space where this has been noticeable. Take any console generation and you walk away seeing that it is the cheaper, less powerful console that does the most business and generates the most profit. The Sega Mega Drive sold in Europe on the back of style, games and that Nintendo struggled to meet demand in the US and Japan, leaving Europe to get the Super Nintendo a mere two years before we also got the Playstation. Which was also the weakest machine compared to the Nintendo 64 and the Sega Saturn. Easier to develop for, more fashionable and cheapest of them all, the Sony Playstation was the darling of the gaming community. As was the Playstation 2 – again, technically not as accomplished as the Gamecube, the Dreamcast or the X-Box. And yet it dominated the market.
Leading up to this generation, where Nintendo took the lead – quite an extensive lead. And it isn’t merely in terms of sales where Nintendo came out in front; when it comes down to money, the Nintendo Wii has been nothing short of a device to print money. Nintendo made a profit on every machine sold – every single one. The Wii even went through a period where the retail price went up – almost unheard of in the market, the price increased and it still sold out to the point people would pay over the odds on eBay.
Cheap machines sell. And when that happens, it’s down to the games.
The Wii sold largely on its social scheme – from Wii Sports to Wii Fit, and in its twilight year or so, it became home to JRPGs for the hardened gamer. Same with all other consoles – there are games. Lots of them. Lots of them that people want, exclusives and things not available elsewhere. It’s in this that anyone who takes a potshot at Nintendo had better have a damned good gameplan – because they are going to need games. Nintendo are primarily a games company these days – they make, publish and distribute games. $40 a game sounds like a lot, but in reality that’s not a fixed price either. Some sell for $25, some hold value at $40 because of their popularity. It’s not an exact science, pricing, no matter how much we like to think it is.
The Nintendo 3DS has games. Lots of them now, and lots more to come – from the popular Pokemon and Professor Layton to lesser knowns and cult favourites like Luigi’s Mansion and Paper Mario. These games are priced that high because they are WORTH that price – games with dozens of hours of content, professionally made and slickly produced. These games reek quality from every pore, every crevice. In comparison, many Android-based games are priced at $0.99 because that is what THEY are worth – an hour or so of fun and then it is over. Any game with the production values and costs of Paper Mario, Pokemon and Professor Layton cannot be priced so low – it would drive people out of business. Is $40 too high? Well, the sales rise of the 3DS on many new releases would suggest that people are quite happy to pay the money for it, and arguing that they are wrong might right now be a wasted effort.
That isn’t to say I wouldn’t as a gamer welcome some actual competition into the handheld space – but trying to do so based on a model we already know has failed, the iPhone and Android method, which have seen a drop in purchases as social gaming and mobiles are replaced and otherwise used as mobile phones, is not going to work. A new handheld console based on $0.99 games will see games worth $0.99 on it – and if all people see is a sea of crap, they are as unlikely to approach as they are if it had no games at all, as Nintendo learned in the first few weeks and months of the 3DS.
If you’re going to take on Nintendo, why not just look to halve the cost of the games? Prove that the 3D effect the machine offers has no superior value over any other aspect. Companies will be wary of any open-source console, especially handheld, that looks to make money when it is asking so little from the consumers monetarily. The console needs to make money on sales, and if you’re taking a cut of a dollar or two, there’s really not much being divided around. Especially when many others will be trying to fight for that same marketshare – something even the open-source home console the Ouya needs to take seriously. Equality and openness sounds like a wonderful happy ideal, but it’s an ideal that might not work in practice, for many financial and indeed, legal reasons.
Likewise is the PlayMGs insistence on relying solely on the Android space. Rather than approach Sony for Playstation Mobile approval, the PlayMG team believe that the 60,000 Android titles will sustain it. But again, ignoring that the traffic and downloading has dropped, and out of those, can anyone really name something other than Angry Birds that has stood the test of time? (Minecraft started on PC, just so you know!) It seems almost naive to expect such a console to sell in the face of the more professional, heavily-marketed Nintendo output.
If it seems like I’m being unkind, it is because I really would like to see more competition in the gaming market. I know this will mean there will be losers, and lesser quality brands sneered at and jeered. But at the end, the whole point of these machines is to play games – something Microsoft and Sony forget in their hubris, trying to offer media alternatives and more on their firmware. We buy consoles to play games – Nintendo we buy for Mario, Zelda, Metroid. Sony we buy for their first party stuff like Killzone and Uncharted. Microsoft for their games such as Gears of War. All machines require quality games to sell – arguably, the reason cheaper consoles have done so well is perhaps the barrier for developers is lower. Or in the Wii’s case, it placed itself in a different spot; allowing it an unusually free reign to undermine the competition. Which it did, forcing Sony and Microsoft to invest heavily in motion controls. And spend a small fortune doing it.
It’s not that I don’t even agree there is a change looming – but it’s a change in gaming that gamers and consumers are wary and nervous about. Freemium, or F2P, will require often more investment from a player over a subscription or $40 game. People are afraid that they will be ripped off, that they will be dominated by those willing to pay money to unlock things right from the start. It’s a world that may indeed be a future for gaming, but it’s a future that isn’t in OUR interests as gamers. It’s a business movement, not a gaming movement, and I think they may be misjudging by focusing a lot of their gaming on this market sector. It inherently breeds mistrust and that’s a bad thing for a brand new, untested console trying to hit the market. If people don’t trust you – they won’t buy your machine, and then you’re really stuffed. You can’t rely or focus your marketing push on such a device. It is toxic and inherently can only damage the reputation your machine currently doesn’t even have.
Any machine from a new company that starts of trying to dig at the market leader, sadly I fear, is doomed to fail. Not because the technology and passion isn’t there… but purely because they don’t understand WHY that model works, because we know by paying $40 we are often getting what we pay for. Subscription models we know what we expect, even most F2P games have subscription models (and they’re often more popular than the F2P model itself!). If you don’t understand why these things work, trying to compete – especially when there is no specific first-party content being planned – can only lead to bankruptcy.
You will be beaten by those with experience and understanding. All the youthful and cheerful exuberance in the world cannot save you. The idea of business is to make a profit. And as Sony are learning – when it comes to gaming machines, it’s the games that sell you. Not the machine itself. This is why the Vita is struggling and Nintendo are once again dominating – a games company making games the focus, rather than a hardware focused company believing somehow shiny new plastic shells and more potent innards will somehow sell it all on its own.
It’s a lesson that anyone trying to enter the market needs to learn, and if they don’t… they’re not going to get far. Games consoles need games. They are not artworks we hang on the wall for aesthetic value. We buy a console to play games, and we expect games, and if there are no games, then you can’t expect people to buy those consoles!
It sounds childishly simple. The most obvious of any lesson to learn. But even Sony didn’t, so clearly for all the intelligence running these shows – there’s a blind spot!