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Question of the Week Responses: A Third Portable?

Looking at the portable console marketplace, last week Gamasutra asked, “What hardware capabilities and software would be needed for a third company to create a competitive rival to the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP, and which companies might be capable of doing so? Should they try?”

Quang Hong, Blogger

January 18, 2006

19 Min Read

Last week Gamasutra asked our professional audience, “What hardware capabilities and software would be needed for a third company to create a competitive rival to the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP, and which companies might be capable of doing so? Should they try?”

Of the features many felt a third gaming handheld would need to be competitive, the most notable was digital distribution of games, something not even considered for most existing handheld systems, which helps explain which companies many felt were capable of creating such a system. Of the cited companies who might possibly compete in this area, Apple and Microsoft were by far the most mentioned, with many readers citing Xbox Live and iTunes as superior distribution mediums.

Regarding the question of whether or not any company should even try to create a third portable, the responses were mixed, but sometimes unconventional, with one respondent even suggesting that the best move is to create a handheld that plays current-generation games, like NEC's Turbo Express.

Historically there have always been two horses, with an occasional third: Spectrum/Commodore (+Amstrad), NES/Master System, SNES/Genesis (+PC Engine), ST/Amiga, N64/PS1, etc. I doubt you could have a "third" big product filling the same market. Two possible options would be mobile phone companies, or some sort of "modders delight," where the unit sold came with dev tools and SDKs or pre-built game engines you could...well... mod. I would certainly consider a handheld that I could create my own stuff on and put it on a site for free so people can play it, again for free or with a graded system to give incentive to the modder (top ten games downloaded are placed on a pay-to-download showcase with the cash going to the modder.). Of course, some might say we already have a third, the Gizmondo...

The hardware should be able to compete with the Sony PSP, especially in screen size. No need to duplicate the Nintendo DS's touch screen. But I like the "laptop style" of the DS. That should be copied, because it is the simple and effective solution for protecting the screen during transportation. WLAN is a must! It had best be Linux-based. Instead of trying to prevent homebrew programs, they should be encouraged and open media formats like OGG should be supported. The difficult problem to solve is good copy protection for commercial games. Java support would be nice. It would open the door for a lot of community-contributed programs. MAME and a deal to play MAME-based games legally would be cool. I think the GPX2 is on the right track. But the lack of WLAN is bad. And I think its performance cannot match the PSP. I am also looking forward to the XGP.
-Beat Kappert

I don't think that it matters what kind of hardware should have a third competitor, it all comes down to the software. The dismay of Nokia wasn't because of the clunky design of the N-Gage but the lack of good games. (Nintendo's) history taught us that it isn't even necessary to have strong third-party support if you can have good first and second parties coming steadily. Of course, it would be interesting to see what another competitor can bring to the table because competition is always good (specially for the consumer) and I think that neither Nintendo nor Sony have competition for their targeted audience. That said, I suppose it's much easier for someone to try to grab a little bit of Sony's market with a more straightforward, less innovative console/multimedia player handheld. But it doesn't seem it could happen anytime soon, because right now the only one with enough respect from developers is Microsoft and they're still working to get a strong foothold in the console market.
-Carlos Obregón, Ennoia Creations

A new handheld would need performance comparable to the PSP, but would also need to provide some avenue of differentiation to make the device a platform in its own right (like the DS), rather than merely a shrunken version of another platform (like the PSP). It would need a decent media exchange set-up, so that users don't need to go to the hassles they do currently with proper encoding for their devices. Also, a compelling industrial design is necessary, as well as wireless connectivity, and the infrastructure to support it. I think the only company that has the mindshare to be able to launch something into the consumer market would be Apple. Using the iPod reputation to build out the platform would allow them to take a chance, and push something compelling into the market. However, I don't believe any company could reasonably do so. It seems like only two companies are ever really in the market for a console generation (the third always seems to distantly trail), and Nintendo has built a very successful product that would almost never have a chance of being knocked off its pedestal. The only reason to even get involved in this type of business would be to try to take over a position, and it doesn't seem like anyone else would have that opportunity until the next change (which could be 8-10 years down the road).
-Mike Visconti, Freestanding Projects

Well, if capitalism has taught us anything, it is that competition helps to drive innovation. Bringing more companies to the portable arena will only benefit us, the game crators. For a long time, Nintendo's Game Boy was so perfect that no one dared try to follow Sega's example and oppose it. We should take an in-depth look at what the current generation has to offer, and see where someone else might be able to improve. Taking the best from the competition, we will want the following in a new device: - traditional gamer appeal (D-pad and well-laid out buttons), high-quality screen, the ability to have add-on devices (stylus/microphone), wireless connectivity for data/web/multiplayer, easily supports media playback. In addition, why not try and also have it double as a mobile phone? Assuming the U.S. carriers aren't interested in this, Internet access could be used for VoIP providers like Vonage. Also, since it is going to be connected, why not allow for digital distribution? If there is one thing that both consumers and businesses like, it's impulse purchases.
That being said, I think the competition is most likely to come from one of 2 companies: Apple - arguably the best designers of electronics ever, Apple also has its iTunes service which is the de facto standard for digital delivery. I am sure that it would be very easy for them to tailor this system to allow you to purchase games through it as well. The iTunes service itself is much more intuitive than the scheme that Sony's PSP employs, so it is more likely that soccer moms will actually use the media capabilities of such a device. While they don't currently have any gaming or network-based devices, both would be steps in their natural progression towards an all-in-one entertainment device.
Microsoft - More than any other company, Microsoft truly has the best chance of making this happen. First and foremost, they have shown an interest in gaming as a viable business with the Xbox and 360. Second, they have experience with mobile & portable devices through smart phones and Pocket PC. Third, through the development of Xbox Live Arcade, Microsoft has shown that they believe that there is a definite future in digital distribution and that they want to be a part of it. They have a myriad of IP (like Halo) they could use to sell this new device. Leveraging their presence on the other two screens, TV (through the 360 or its successor) and the PC, wouldn't it also be nice if they solved that pesky problem of buying media for one of the three but not being able to display it on the other two? Perhaps it would also be possible to have a docking/charging station which would lend itself to recharging.
-Nick Smolney, Sonic Branding Solutions

Aside from the standard hardware capabilities like faster CPU and better graphics, some of the types of hardware capabilities that I would like to see (although they might not be possible, or plausible, for now) are:
1) DVDs/CDs instead of mini-discs or cartridges. I know this might make it bigger, but think about it; I wouldn't mind having a handheld the size of the CD players they have out now. With DVDs, I wouldn't have to buy a special version of the movie I want to watch, I just pop in my DVD. With CDs, I can listen to my music on my handheld gaming device.
2) Combine features from the DS and PSP: Have a touch screen and MP3/MPEG-4 functionality built in.
3) Speaking of the touch screen, which added innovation and created new experiences in gaming, I would like to see some more innovation. With the buzz about Nintendo's possible gyroscopic controllers for the Revolution, I wondered what that could do for gaming. I looked into it. In fact, there are currently out there VR trackers that use gyroscopic technologies to track positions of head movement or hand/wand/mouse/gun movements. Just imagine games that could exploit that technology, and take into account where your portable is pointed or oriented. On the same subject, how about Sony's EyeToy? Put one of those on a portable, and you've got new experiences in boxing games... action games... and whatever else you can come up with.
The list can go on and on: wireless capabilities, Internet access, built-in cameras, etc.
As for the company that might be capable of making a new hand-held device, how about Microsoft? Microsoft is about the best company I can think of that would be able to compete with Nintendo and Sony. They have proven with the Xbox and Xbox 360 that they are dedicated to gaming. Although I wouldn't want to see them rush anything out, I think they should definitely try in the future.
-Jared Dinsbach

The iRiver G10 could be a serious competitor if the gaming format was standardized and software payments worked well.

1. Anyone trying to compete with the “Big Two” better be packing a big name with big pockets, eg. Bell, Dish, Warner.
2. They must be able to provide a wide base of non-game content, ala portable television, portable music storage and downloads, Blackberry-style organization tools and communication, and wireless out of the box.
3. The DS and PSP have been out for a while now and portable gaming is hardly new, the device must give consumers something new with the ability to play games so that it excites them and developers.
4. Marketing - they need to spend more money than Microsoft did on 360, so that everyone has either seen, heard, or read about it.
-Micheal Janes, Ubisoft Inc.

Well, I think that there are two companies who would be able to handle marketing and developing a competitive rival to the current handheld systems. The first is obvious... Microsoft. I know they backed Gizmondo to some degree, but that thing really wasn't nearly up to competition standards. If the big "M" released an online handheld system, with two analog sticks, USB, digital audio and video outputs, and its own little corner of Xbox Live complete with ranking and matchmaking for every game, I don't think the PSP or DS could hold a candle to it. The handheld would have to be at least as crisp as the PSP, but it wouldn't necessarily have to be graphically that much better. Although with the technologies available at this point, they might easily be able to come up with more power than the PSP. It would have to include all of the functionality of the PSP and then some.
My other choice for a capable company would be Apple. The iPod is an amazing phenomenon, and the video iPod is quite slick in itself. If Apple took multi-threaded tech and stuffed it into a sleek, dual stick handheld, they could be onto something. What if you could stream your iTunes playlist wirelessly onto the handheld and use them for custom soundtracks in any game. Apple would have to appeal to way more than just gamers by having a large hard drive and the ability to download music and movies directly to the handheld. It would need video/voice chat and the support of many third party developers before launch.
Should they try? Microsoft should, yes. They have the money and at least every Xbox owner will contemplate buying it if it is fully useful in combination with the 360. To be honest, unless the tech was mind numbingly absurd, I couldn't bring myself to purchase another cheesily-promoted Apple mass market-appealing product.
-William Nadel, Heavy Iron Studios

The only way a company can jump in the handheld market and have a chance or even dominate is to do what NEC did with the Turbo Express. This handheld unit failed but IS what gamers really want - A handheld machine that plays the same games as its big brother consoles. No more need for separate libraries of games. I want to be able to take my Xbox 360 game and play it on a handheld version of the Xbox 360. It may be too expensive to produce such a machine, but that is the only way to change the nature of the handheld market. As a consumer, I would definitely look into handheld gameplay if such a machine was available.
-Emanuel Stone, 3rd Eye Productions

The only thing that would really knock Nintendo and Sony's handhelds out is a combination of easily portable games with unique tricks. While Nintendo DS's touch sensitivity is a good gimmick, that's all it really is. The key would be software that is easily accessible (i.e. Katamari Damacy), highly repeatable (puzzle games and online games), and "pretty" graphically. For hardware, you would need a lot of onboard space, something in the 5-10GB range so that it would serve as more than just a gaming handheld. Add wireless internet using 802.11g speeds, a comfortable control scheme (PSP's analog stick is awful to use for extended periods of time), and a fast, low-power graphics hardware that lasts for more than 2 hours of continuous play and you would have a killer handheld. Companies that I would expect to move into this market would Nokia looking to justify their N-Gage division, and Apple trying to find a new market for their iPod.

Obviously the third company would need hardware that had features at least equal to Sony and Nintendo, but even then they'd just be caught playing catch up with the big boys, as I'm sure Nintendo and Sony probably both have plans for "next gen" handhelds. I'll go out on a limb here and say that even if a company came out with a handheld system that was better than Nintendo's and Sony's systems, people would probably still gravitate towards the established companies' products.
If a third company was to try and break in, I think the most important thing they'd need is the support of a big time graphics company to develop a really sophisticated, yet compact 3D GPU to gain the upper hand on both Sony and Nintendo. It's safe to say that having good games or games with good press will help to sell your system as well, so you'd need to woo developers who already have good relationships with the existing handheld creators, which would be no easy task. History tells us that consumers are unwilling to deviate from an existing, successful handheld product, (nice try Sega & Atari) but Sony bucked that trend with the PSP.
I don't think a third company would have as much luck. It could be due to the idea that because consumers view handhelds as compartmentalized and instantly gratifying, it's not that important to them to have competition. They think, "as long as there's *something* to keep entertained on the bus ride home, I'm happy." Because of that, companies who are thinking of throwing their hat in the ring ought to think about just letting Nintendo and Sony duke it for now until one of them is declared the winner.
-Tom Hanrahan

I'd be surprised if Microsoft doesn't try this within 5 years. Windows CE is already an established mobile OS.
-Joe Engalan, Operation Zero LLC

For a company to compete with the “big boys” of the industry, they will need to have hardware that is better than anything on the market, or at least has a competitive edge (IBM's Cell processor, maybe?). Of course, all the hardware in the world will not do a lick of good if no one wants to write software for it. I think IBM may have a chance of getting their processor into the hands of a mobile device maker who could then take it and develop a system that would have the potential to do well in the handheld market, and with IBM's help, said company could then get the influence they need to get game and other software developers to sign on and help the product make it to market. Now whether or not they should try is another question. Nokia tried it with the N-Gage, but that launch seemed to fizzle, and by the time the second generation device made it to market, no one cared. I think whoever does try needs to take lessons from Nokia, Sony, and Nintendo on what to and what not to do and proceed with caution.
-David Drake, Boeing

I think it's a matter even beyond hardware specs or exclusive software. Nintendo literally owned the portable sector for about a decade and a half by basically inventing the portable platform and dominating it through consistently innovative, original software titles. The reason why it steamrolled through all the competition (Lynx, Game Gear, Tapwave, Zodiac, GamePark, Neo Geo Pocket, and, of course, N-Gage) owes much to its nigh-spotless reputation and the pedigree of being the premiere gaming system for those on the go, with hardware updates as necessary keeping the Game Boy name relevant to the shifting gamer demographic.
The reason Sony's PSP has cracked into Nintendo's dominance is similar; with that system Sony positioned itself to serve the more sophisticated, tech-hungry gamer population, with built-in credibility in the form of the PlayStation name. The PSP is perhaps the first portable game machine/media machine that doesn't underwhelm the user base simply because buyers know that the PlayStation name guarantees quality game experiences, in addition to all the sweet on-board gadgetry. For a competitor to make it work, they'd need much more than a multi-functional hydra device, and a software library that isn't just sequels and ports. Microsoft could certainly try to market an Xbox Portable, but they seem to have their hands full trying to right the 360 after an uneasy launch.
My best bet would be if Sega released a miniaturized, portable Dreamcast model—the system has cultivated quite a following since its “death” five years ago, it's certainly logistically feasible, and some Japanese developers are even producing new content for it today. Gamers can't get enough out of home systems-turned-portable, with the Sega Nomad achieving notoriety for its novelty; all the more reason for Sega to seriously consider giving the DC a second spin. That said, any other company attempting to break into the handheld sector probably won't fare well—sorry, Gizmondo.
-Ben Serviss, Creo Ludus Entertainment

Even though I haven't owned a handheld since the original Game Boy, the necessary elements for an additional handheld platform already exist: mobile phones. As the gaming industry develops, it falls into familiar patterns--one being industry classes. From cookware to cars, there are high, middle and low-end products and one isn't necessarily better than the other. They simply cater to the needs and demands of the category of consumer.
The PSP boasts the latest in technology and graphics for the gadget junky. The DS runs the middle road with nothing special in the hardware category but stands out with innovation and a wide selection of titles which covers the currently most diverse demographic...and we have low end mobile phone games. Bargain-basement game technology with titles that a mildly interested young corporate-type would play on the commuter train, airport, waiting room, lobby, etc. This class is for those who don't hold portable/handheld gaming with a high priority but still hold a small interest. If a large enough number of people have a small interest, an industry will offer a class of products charging a small price. It's an obvious and logical fit. This answer is also an introduction to why "game-phones" don't generally succeed because they try to "bridge" two distinctly different classes.
-Matthew Allmer, Rendered Vision

- Large, bright, hi-res screen that can be used in sun
- Touchscreen (can use fingers or stylus)
- SD card slot (no more proprietary devices like Memory Stick please!)
- Cellular radio for wireless multiplayer games anytime, anywhere (also allows for location-based games, in other words, games that know where you and other players are in the real world).
- Video playback - Podcast downloads (automatic transfers with cellular radio) Construction:
- Thin and light
- Metal case that is resistant to scratches
- Screen coating that is resistant to scratches
- Nokia could take a stab at it, but the stigma of N-Gage may still be too strong to overcome at this time.
- Palm also has all the required technology. I would expect them to launch it as a separate division or at least a new brand. They would need to enter into many partnership agreements to ensure that the launch had sufficient game titles available.
Should They Bother?
- Of course! There are three main players in the console market, and I think there is certainly room for a third player in the handheld market.
-Ken Carpenter, Pervasive Media Co.

A third handheld could be produced by Microsoft. They have the knowledge and they have the games. By integrating their Xbox Live Arcade service with a handheld they could deliver their well-known exclusive Xbox/Xbox 360 titles along with the Live Arcade casual and retro games and make it possible to earn Gamer Points while you're on the move.
-Soren B. Andersen


[Please note that the opinions of individual employees responding to the Question Of The Week may not represent those of their company.]

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Quang Hong


Quang Hong is the Features Editor of Gamasutra.com.

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