Planet of the Apps: Will App Gaming Kill Consoles?

By Bobby Miller

Peter Vesterbacka, one of the minds behind the popular Angry Birds gaming app, once remarked that gaming “consoles are really a dying breed.” For years, PC games have been viewed as almost dead, but in his eyes, consumers are going to flock to the inexpensive games available for smartphones and tablet computers, leaving behind dedicated video game systems such as the Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita. Although portable gaming systems such as the Game Boy once enjoyed phenomenal success, devices geared primarily towards gaming face a steep challenge from ever more impressive smartphones and the growing sophistication of their games.

Gaming apps certainly are becoming popular. Angry Birds has over 40 million players a month and has even broken into popular culture with merchandise such as plush toys, backpacks, and even a cartoon series. When it and many other games can be downloaded for just 99 cents, is there any reason to plop down forty bucks for a brand new Nintendo 3DS game, let alone fifty for a PlayStation Vita game? For casual gamers the answer is no. If your video game experience is mostly limited to when you’re bored for a few minutes, a cheap and easy app game may be plenty for you.

Super Paper Mario vs angry birds

Nowadays, Mario is facing a much more dangerous enemy than Bowser. But can he exist alongside Angry Birds?

Still, many of the deepest, most engaging gaming experiences are still console-only. Traditional gamers seeking to immerse themselves into the world of a video game, wouldn’t spend hours straight playing a little app game. Though it may be more expensive, a polished, full-scale game such as Mario Kart 7 offers far more depth than, say, Snake Race. Handheld games offer better graphics, higher polish, and more replay value.

Handheld consoles will likely be the first casualty if smartphone games begin usurping dedicated gaming hardware. But even these offer the precise control that only actual buttons can deliver, as opposed to a picky touchscreen. Although some peripheral makers are trying to bring dedicated controls to tablet computer games, their quality is nowhere near that of an actual controller… yet.

Nintendo’s Sales Are Still Very Strong

But if the sales of traditional there are still many gamers out there who aren’t satisfied with shallow, app-based gaming. Although the Nintendo 3DS, the company’s latest handheld gaming device, was released in March 2011, long after the gaming app scene had kicked off, it was the most pre-ordered video game system ever on Amazon UK. It was the fastest-selling video game system ever in Australia and worldwide it sold over 15 million units by the end of 2011. In the US, the 3DS sold over 4.5 million units within a year, whereas the original DS sold only 2.3 million in its first year.

These numbers might suggest the 3DS, the descendant of the almighty Game Boy franchise, is hale and hearty, but sales figures only tell part of the story. The other part of the story is the 80 dollars Nintendo slashed from the 3DS, dropping it from $250 to $170 mere months after its debut. The deep and painful cuts took place after months of lackluster sales. Analysts pinned the nosedive to a lack of quality titles.

Still, don’t count them out. Nintendo has survived worse thanks to a loyal fanbase who knows Nintendo is the only game in town for their favorite games. The big N keeps its fans on a steady morphine drip of excellent games featuring Mario, Zelda, Pokémon, and others from Nintendo’s stable of famous characters. Nintendo has always been able to garner sales through its exclusive games and the 3DS shouldn’t be the exception.

The original Nintendo DS is the second-best selling system ever (trailing the Sony PlayStation 2 by less than a million sales), and as of right now the games for the 3DS seem to be selling at roughly the rate they were on the DS. Specifically, New Super Mario Bros. for the DS sold slightly over four million units worldwide after ten weeks, while Super Mario 3D Land for the 3DS sold nearly five million units after ten weeks.

If Nintendo systems really are dying, like Peter Vesterbacka claims, they’re sure going to have one really packed funeral.

Sony’s Sales Are Still Decent

Like its predecessor, the PlayStation Portable, the PlayStation Vita hasn’t enjoyed the same success as the Nintendo 3DS. However, Sony cannot blame all of that on the rise of app-based gaming. Despite the Vita’s technological edge over the 3DS, at least part of the Vita’s problem is the legacy left by the PSP.

The Vita was only released in the US on February 22 of this year, so it is far too early to deliver a final verdict on the system. Although the hardware itself has received very positive reviews and boasts amazing graphics, it has not performed well in Japan since its release in December of 2011. After decent sales during its first week available, sales dropped 78% the next week and only continued to fall. Still, Japan is a very different market from Europe and the US, a place where dating simulators and adult-oriented content enjoy fantastic success, and western-oriented products and games meet with unexpected failure.

Nevertheless, the Vita has sold over 1.2 million units worldwide as of March 1, 2012, so there is no reason to believe that Sony is going to drop out of the handheld market. The original PlayStation Portable had five million units shipped worldwide six months after its US release, so the Vita might uphold roughly the same pace. Although games made by Sony don’t have the same quasi-religious following as those made by Nintendo, the company’s stronger roster of outside “third party” publishers should continue to deliver high-quality games.

Sony PS vita nintendo 3ds apple iPhone mobile gaming apps compared

Although both Nintendo and Sony are competing for gamers' support, some argue that their biggest opponent is app gaming with its expanding casual market.

There’s Room for Everyone in the Video Game Market

Ultimately, this suggests that the portable market doesn’t have to be a zero-sum situation. Traditional handhelds can exist alongside the app gaming scene.

To explain the current handheld gaming environment, Jesse Divnich of Electronic Entertainment Design and Research (EEDAR), a video game market research firm, used this analogy: chances are, you watch YouTube clips. And, chances are, you still pay to watch feature-length movies, perhaps on DVD, Blu-ray, or through Netflix. Although YouTube has tons of little videos offered for free, you’re still willing to pay for deeper experiences. The fact that you can look up videos of dancing pets for free hasn’t prevented blockbuster movies from attracting large audiences.

The handheld video game industry operates the same way. Although quick, low-price app games will receive a lot of attention, this doesn’t mean that the richer experiences of full-length games are going by the wayside. Gamers aren’t about to give up Mario Kart 7 and Uncharted: Golden Abyss just because they can play Bejeweled on their iPhones. When sitting down to play for hours, gamers want to do more than swap jewels around or flick birds.

However, this could all change if Apple or another tech juggernaut makes a serious attempt at fostering deeper games on its devices in an effort pull in the hardcore gaming crowd. Simply offering more traditional control schemes could help app gaming along as well. If the company were to go this route, Nintendo and Sony would certainly face strong competition from the deep pockets and talent pool of Apple. In such an environment, the two companies would have to rely heavily on the games exclusive to their systems, a strategy that Nintendo knows well, but Sony could struggle with.

How the Two Gaming Markets Overlap

Even right now, though, the casual and traditional video game markets aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s important to note that, even on traditional handhelds like the 3DS and Vita, the only experiences aren’t just the full-sized games. They too offer games that are small and inexpensive. Particularly, in the Nintendo eShop, players can download some of the same games available for smartphones, such as Burn the Rope and even Angry Birds, along with games from classic Nintendo systems, such as the Game Boy. The online PlayStation Store, accessible through the Vita and other Sony systems, also offers old games for low prices. So, gamers can use their handhelds for both deep experiences and quick ones. This may help the systems to earn followers even among casual gamers.

Much as app gaming has merged into traditional systems, some games designed for traditional systems have found their way into app stores, albeit in altered form. Franchises such as Dead Space and Assassin’s Creed, top-sellers on video game consoles, have also been released as apps, though they offer simpler content and limited touchscreen control.

A few portable games on systems such as the original Nintendo DS, however, have made their way onto Apple’s iOS relatively unaltered. For instance, in early 2011, video game developer Capcom released a DS game called Ghost Trick, which had underwhelming sales in spite of its critical success. So, early in 2012, Capcom released the game on Apple’s iOS as a means of getting some more money out of the game. Since it costs only $9.99 on the iOS, the company has basically given up on the $29.99 DS version.

The iOS doesn’t just receive games that struggled to sell, however. Capcom also took its visually novel game Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, which sold well on the Nintendo DS in 2005, and ported it to the iOS in 2010. Other companies have used similar strategies to get as much life out of their games as possible. While Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars started out as a Nintendo DS and PlayStation Portable game, it too found its way onto the iOS.

Although the iOS will certainly benefit from receiving older full-sized games, we should not exaggerate the effects of this trend. Many gamers thrive on what’s new: they flock to big-name games the day they’re released. Plus, games developed by Sony and Nintendo will never pop up in app stores, so the companies can continue to thrive on their systems’ exclusive content.

Also, the app gaming scene is not a paradise full of sales just waiting to happen. Although some games, such as Angry Birds, receive a lot of attention, many fly completely under the radar. Yes, the ones that squeak onto Apple’s top 25 list will continue to receive many, many downloads, but the 50,000+ other app games will hardly receive any attention at all. Competition is stiff when games can be produced so cheaply: in comparison, full-scale Nintendo 3DS games have fewer than 200 direct competitors and, of course, can be sold at higher prices.

Other Big Effects of Smaller Simpler Game Apps

Since fewer resources are needed for simpler games, the platform is fostering creativity. While the video game industry suffers from a bad case sequel-itis (here comes another Mario, another Call of Duty, another Final Fantasy…), the relatively low barriers to making a gaming app allows companies to take bigger risks on new ideas.

Finally, the existence of app stores may actually have a positive side effect for the Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita: fewer garbage games. When decent bite-sized games can be purchased for a buck or two, it’ll be even more difficult for full-priced games like High School Musical 2: Work This Out! and Fish Tycoon to sell enough copies to cover production costs. Many of the cheaply made games will have to stay in the cheap venue rather than compete for shelf-space with the triple-A titles.

Although the app gaming market and the traditional market may appear to be rivals, they may be able to exist side-by-side with minimal competition. Both Nintendo and Sony are aware that their systems need to do more than just play games in order to appeal to wide audiences, so it’s not surprising that both the 3DS and Vita can stream videos, browse the Internet, take pictures, and more. The companies are also aware that, ultimately, what gamers want are good games.

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