If Sony Computer Entertainment America CEO Jack Tretton was aiming to stir a hornet's nest with his comments last week that Nintendo's handhelds were a "great babysitting tool,"
Gamers around the web seemed incensed when the consumer press picked up on Tretton's assertion that "self-respecting 20-somethings" are "too old" for Nintendo's portable.
But at the same time, his comments were thought-provoking on the nature of a hardware-platform's "identity" and how its market positioning correlates to the audience it addresses.
Past platform wars were often just muscle contests where the highest-performer won (if the price was accessible), but this generation has seen a significant stratification in the market, making it advisable for each hardware manufacturer to attempt to address an ever-widening audience from a slightly-different angle.
For example, Nintendo made it clear early on that it would largely bow out of the race for high-fidelity and sophisticated online features, focusing instead on a friendly, approachable market position that highlighted all-ages content and innovations on the hardware side, from the Wii's motion controls to the DS's touch screen.
Microsoft drove adoption of its Xbox platform by driving squarely for the core market, developing early on the sort of multiplayer infrastructure that made it the preferred home for the traditional player. Later, it redoubled its efforts on the "media center" billing that aimed to position it as a lifestyle hub. It finally aimed for Wii-style marketshare with the addition of Kinect.
Sony took an entirely opposite tactic, banking on the idea that consumers would desire a high-priced "lifestyle console" -- at the launch of the PlayStation 3, many gamers even felt that Sony, with the PS3's Blu-ray drive, focused too much on multimedia at the expense of gaming itself. That decision would prove costly to the company early on in the hardware cycle; the PS3 wasn't able to make its most meaningful push into the market until its price was significantly lowered and the content lineup became more compelling.
The "ten year plan" for the PS3 has been part of Sony's marketing strategy from the beginning; one could translate it as "we'll get there," building a feature-rich foundation and only later evolving on the specific vertices that its rivals went for directly from the get-go.
There's now much more overlap in the audience for the Big Three's platforms than there once might have been. Although Wii made its sales primarily in the mass market -- where it's since peaked -- while leaving a perpetually-unsatisfied core consumer to grumble, Nintendo's portables have benefited widely from a social climate where gaming in general is more prevalent and more socially-appropriate.
Much is made of the iPhone and Android platforms supposedly stealing away the audience for portable play, but perhaps that perspective gives little credit to the broad nature of the "core" label -- you don't need to be the kind of gamer who primarily plays matches of Halo
and Call of Duty
to feel that a game like Angry Birds
isn't persistent or rich enough for you, either.
But ride the subway to work or stand in line at the bank and you'll see lots of very casual players engaged in some light "snack gaming" on the iPhone. And that kind of environment makes it much more common to see adults who want even just a smidge more sustenance holding Nintendo handhelds -- or even Sony's own PSP, for that matter.
And they've stopped feeling so childish about it. Night after night, everyone sees commercials for Kinect that show adults jumping and dancing in front of their TV to play video games -- and having a grand old time of it. They don't care if they look silly. People feel Kinect looks futuristic and cool, Wii's influence is inescapable, and mobile gamers are suddenly everywhere you look.
It's more and more rare that having a video game system immediately brands you as a basement troll tapped out of the real world. New consumers now look at the industry and start to see a place for them. Gaming in public and on the go is rapidly becoming mainstream, and the person playing Cut The Rope
is unlikely to look at a peer with a DS and think, "how childish." That's where Tretton's wrong.
The strategy Sony's tried to use in the market positioning against its rivals in the past -- the high-end, grown-up alternative to the little-kid boxes everyone else is buying -- didn't work so well in the past, and it'll be even less effective now. "Self-respecting 20-somethings" are increasingly less self-conscious about playing portable video games, and about gaming in general.
No doubt Sony is setting up to angle its sleek, feature-rich NGP as a more mature, more capable choice than the DS platform. And to gain meaningful penetration, they'll have to persuade some percentage of the audience that it's worthwhile to replace that old DS, to "trade up" not to a 3DS (whose ability to inspire awe at first sight for gamers of all ages should not be underestimated) but to an NGP.
Gamers might be eager to shed the "dumb toy" image of years past, but social evolution's helping them do that already, and the NGP will launch to a market newly settled into relatively pricey portable hardware -- 3DS and smartphones -- that people may be hard-pressed to convince are worth spending to enhance.
And by implying that there's some kind of immaturity to those users of the most common portable platform -- at least the one most popular among gamers who actually like to spend money on retail hardware and software -- Sony actually risks alienating a key portion of its potential audience.
Sales numbers this gen have proven it: People care less about being "high end", and no one is very worried about their image anymore, either. They care about whether a piece of hardware has the content and features that they want, and that's it.
Of course, when Apple now famously unveiled its iPad, no one believed that anyone would shell out so much cash for something people mocked as no bigger than an upscaled iPhone (without the calling feature, no less). Those people have since stopped laughing, and have now started gazing lustfully at iPad 2s. That success was one part Apple's inimitable grace in commanding brand loyalty and desirability, but the other part was that the company saw a new market -- a device that lies in between the phone and the computer -- and seized it.
The NGP could do something like that, too. With its control scheme and innovative back touchpad, it certainly promises more than just better graphics; not only does it look gorgeous, capable of piquing true gadget-lust, but rumblings from developers suggest games on the device have tons of potential, from interface to performance. Sony's marketing lines should focus on that, and not on the dated practice of setting up one-to-one rivalries with other platform-holders.
Nintendo's players aren't being babysat, they're being engaged, and instead of sassy talk, Sony should start planning how it's going to distract them.