Holding the Future in your Hand

On last week's Doom Ray podcast Kyle and I finally got around to talking about the kind of handheld games that both of us grew up playing, albeit 20 years apart. One interesting aspect of our different experiences was how we'd both identified the handheld game as a kind of freedom from reliance on a shared, family device. In my case it was the handheld game that offered freedom from the need to co-opt the family television set, and thereby to play a game without the need for protracted negotiation with my parents. In Kyle's case it was the means to avoid having to negotiate with an older brother over use of the shared family computer. For both of us the handheld represented the idealised form of electronic entertainment: personal, portable, a tiny bit of the future that we could carry in a pocket.

Back in the late 1970s our handheld games were single game devices with dedicated control systems and LCD (or fluorescent LED) screens capable only of displaying a limited set of graphical elements. If we wanted to play a new game we needed to save up our pocket money for a whole new device (or more likely let our parents know what we wanted for Christmas). Nintendo was pretty much the king of this world, with their Game & Watch series which reigned supreme for a decade. Remarkably, Nintendo managed to make the leap to a second paradigm when their Game Boy system finally cracked the handheld console model. By the time Kyle was playing handheld games in the 1990s this model was well established, with Nintendo still riding high and each new game embedded on ROM in a plastic cartridge that expanded the capability and extended the life of your investment in the original hardware.

Now, of course, another model is in the ascendant. Where Nintendo took the original Atari VCS model and made it work handheld, Apple took the PC+Internet+downloadable software model and shifted gaming to an App Store paradigm, with the hardware now a generalised computing device (yes, others had done things before Apple, but as with the MP3 player market Apple made it usable and profitable). This shift feels smaller than that from 'Game & Watch' to 'Game Boy', but Nintendo has pretty much dropped the ball.

Just as Sony should have built the iPod/iTunes ecosystem (and for pretty much the first half of the iPod era the industry was telling us that Sony would step in and take Apple's early lead away from them, just because), Nintendo—with their market share, decades of gaming experience, developer base, brand awareness, and content roster—should have owned the market for handheld computers with downloadable games. And while Microsoft came in and essentially swiped the enthusiast home console market by applying (initially at least) some PC scale smarts, and while Sony has been playing catch-up (and still is), none of the established console people have really made the leap to games as apps. It's a paradigm shift that's only just begun, and when it makes the leap to the living room (things like Apple TV can be considered early experiments in that area) someone's going to really clean up. Regrettably, I wouldn't bet on it being Nintendo.