release data: 9,11,08
Nintendo and Sony need to watch out: Apple is becoming an overnight portable gaming powerhouse.
Steve Jobs giddily called the new iPod touch "the funnest iPod ever" in his multiproduct launch announcement yesterday. Those words may have been lost in the hyperbolic talk of "genius-generated playlists" and "thinner than ever" designs, but the addition of the "fun factor" is a huge step for the company. Essentially, Apple just jumped into the portable gaming market with two big, touch-sensitive feet: the iPod touch and the iPhone 3G. And the current portable gaming leaders, Nintendo and Sony, should be very, very afraid.
Sony and Nintendo have had a huge head start in this market. There are millions of Nintendo DS Lites out there. And Sony's three-year-old-plus PlayStation Portable remains the most powerful portable gaming platform ever invented. In addition, the iPod touch 2G, with its big, beautiful, high-res screen, can certainly hold a candle to Sony's graphics dazzle. But so what? Most of us don't want to chase down and kill realistically rendered virus-infected mutant zombies on our handhelds. We just want to kill some time.
When you're waiting in line at Starbucks tomorrow for your daily caffeine fix, check out what the guy in front of you is doing on his phone (discreetly, of course). Half the time he's probably checking e-mail, but what about the other half? Take a closer look and I bet you'll see him playing some cheesy low-resolution game like Tetris. This is the future of portable gaming.
I speak from experience. Every morning on my train ride to work, I check my e-mail and my newsfeeds on my BlackBerry Curve 8330. My staff knows when I step out of the train station each morning because all of my e-mails are sent simultaneously. On the way home, though, I just want to unwind. That is when I call up BrickBreaker, a version of BrickOut, which ships with every new BlackBerry. Recently, I started looking around at the screens of my fellow passengers and discovered I'm not the only BrickBreaker player around. Everybody is playing it. If not that, then Solitaire, Scrabble, or some Sudoku clone.
Sony never really intended for the PSP to appeal to this audience. Although it has some crossover appeal among the non-gamer crowd, the PlayStation brand was always about serious gaming performance. Probably to its detriment. As a result, Nintendo has dominated the casual gaming market.
Nintendo has sold thousands of GameBoy DS and DS Lite gaming devices, not just to kids, but to ADD-afflicted adults who simply can't stand waiting without some digital distraction. Throw in the casual users, like myself, who will play any damn card game on his phone while waiting for an elevator to go up 11 floors and you have a market of millions.
Since it's always in your pocket, a cell phone can really excel as a gaming device. Or at least it could, if it just had a little more processing power, a slightly larger screen, and an easy way to download games. In other words, if it were an iPhone. Any phone will do in a pinch, but only the iPhone 3G and the iPod touch let you actually pinch the screen to move around.
Why am I so bullish on the iPod touch/iPhone 3G as a gaming platform? Four big reasons:
1. The technological edge. Not in terms of pure processing power, as the PSP kills the touch 2G in this regard. Still, a solid interface and a well-executed design can go a long way. This is why the Nintendo Wii has outsold the much-more-powerful Sony PS3 and Xbox 360. It's simply fun to use. With a multitouch screen and an accelerometer, the iPod touch offers the same edge. And as the success of Super MonkeyBall for iPhone has already proven, those technologies will let developers push the boundaries of portable game play. Granted, touch-screen-based controls may prove irksome to some, but you typically get used to the idea with time.
2. Broad platform support. Jobs showed off three new iPod touch/iPhone games yesterday: the Gameloft's Real Soccer 2009, Spore Origins, and Need for Speed Undercover by EA.
The games were a little rough, with bugs and the occasional freeze. Nonetheless, the platform is very robust. The Demo of Spore looked fantastic and really takes advantage of the device's touch screen. Of the more than 3,000 applications available on iTunes, 700 are games and more are being added every day. Many of them are fairly basic, but that's the heart of the casual gaming market.
3. Digital distribution. Apple hasn't quite opened up the iPhone/iPod touch platform the way I would like, but I have to admit, the company does simplify getting software out to users. Having the iTunes App Store loaded on millions of PCs and portable devices makes distribution a snap. To buy new PSP or Nintendo DS games, you have to go to (ahem) a retail store!
The best part, for Apple anyway, is that the company gets to keep as much as 30 percent of the sale price of every game it sells because it effectively acts as a publisher and distributor. That is a margin that Nintendo and Sony have got to envy.
4. Sales trends. The Nintendo's GameBoy and Sony's PSP may have had a big lead, but Apple is catching up fast. Sony sold 3.72 million PSP units worldwide between April and June of this year, while Nintendo sold 6.94 million GameBoy DS units in that time period. Apple, meanwhile, claims to have sold 1 million iPhone 3G handsets worldwide on the first weekend the device was available. Investment bank Piper Jaffray estimates that Apple will sell 4.47 million iPhones in the fourth quarter of this year. And that number doesn't even include the new, more affordable and AT&T-contract-free iPod touch. There are still plenty more PSPs and GameBoys on the market than iPod touches, but the sales trends favor Apple.
Don't get me wrong here. I am not entirely psyched about Apple's ascent in the portable gaming world. As I mentioned, I use a BlackBerry. Six months ago, the average BlackBerry killed the iPhone when it came to gaming. It simply had more games available. Not anymore. Since the invention of its App store, Apple is offering more games, making them easier to download, and, frankly, providing a better gaming experience, thanks largely to that touch screen and accelerometer.
Sony might be able to stay competitive if it further cuts the price of the PSP, but remember, the touch 2G is also a great music player, a video playback device, and a Web browser. The iPhone 3G, of course, has the added benefit of being able to place calls, too. This week, Jobs called the iPod touch the "best portable device for games." It's a bold statement, maybe too bold. I think he should probably give the PSP that title, especially now that prices have fallen to around 170 bucks. Now if he said it was the best device for casual gaming, I would buy it. And since my three-year-old iPod is on its last legs, I just might.