If you’re a fan of video games and enjoy watching the corporate rivalries that go along with them, then get this: Apple execs totally dissed the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP game machines last week.
At a press conference in San Francisco, Apple senior veep Phil Schiller boasted that more than 21,000 games are now available for the iPhone and iPod Touch through the online App Store. And with only some multiple hundreds of games available to play on the DS and PSP, Schiller seems to believe Apple’s devices are now the big dogs of the handheld gaming biz.
“When you think about the companies that came before us ... when you played those other systems, they seemed so cool, but now when you look at them, they don't stack up against the iPod touch,” sniped Schiller.
Corporate smack talking and executive chest thumping aside, I have to admit, there are times when Apple’s increasingly aggressive gaming rhetoric has started to convince me. There are times when my very own iPhone — with its sleek, multi-touch surface and ability to access an App Store filled with thousands of games that cost mere pocket change — has nearly wooed me into thinking it could satisfy all my portable gaming needs.
But just when I start to fall under Apple’s magical marketing spell, there comes a week like this one — a week in which Nintendo grabs me by the lapels, shakes me to my senses and reminds me why the Nintendo DS is the mighty king of the gaming hill.
This has been a week, and really more like an entire month, that has delivered me (and a great many others) unto gaming heaven. That is, this week saw the launch of both “Scribblenauts” and “Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story” — two staggeringly awesome games that have kept me with a DS clutched in my hands for far too many hours.
This follows the launch of “ Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box ” — a brain-tingling puzzle game of top-notch proportions, as well as “Flipnote Studio,” a free downloadable animation app for the new DSi that has transformed me into a happily doodling kid again.
As I have sat, cooing at the cleverness, ingenuity and spellbinding depth of these games, my iPhone has been left untouched (save for, you know, all those phone calls and text messages that need tending to). Suddenly, the thousands of App Store games — so many of them flimsy, half-baked trifles — shrivel in the DS’s gaming shadow.
In the U.S., sales of video game hardware are down 17 percent so far this year compared to last year, according to market research firm NPD Group. And yet, NPD analyst Anita Frazier points out that sales of the Nintendo DS are up by a whopping 20 percent for 2009 so far — all of this as the DS is about to celebrate its fifth birthday.
“Though it was the first device introduced to market among the current generation of systems (DS, PSP, Xbox 360, Wii, PS3), for the last five months it has been the best-selling system, and for most other months it has either been in first place or second to Wii sales,” Frazier says. “Its continued success this far into the lifecycle is a testament to its staying power in the industry.”
Of course, with Apple huffing and puffing down Nintendo’s neck and Sony’s snappy new PSP Go game machine poised to launch on Oct. 1, the question looms: How long will the aging DS be able to sit comfortably atop the gaming hill?
'They just get it'
Nintendo first launched the DS — with its smart dual-screen design, touch-screen interactivity, a microphone and Wi-Fi — back in November of 2004. It was a bit chunky back then, but in 2006 it was redesigned to become the slimmer, sleeker DS Lite.
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This April, Nintendo spiffed up the DS design again, introducing the Nintendo DSi , which adds two tiny cameras to the clamshell and the ability to connect wirelessly to an online store and download games and apps called DSiWare.
Frazier says the DSi’s introduction has certainly helped fuel the DS’s stunning sales this year. In March, Nintendo announced that it had sold a whopping 100 million DS machines worldwide.
“They just get it,” says Jeremiah Slaczka, co-founder of 5TH Cell game development company and the man behind the accolade-swamped game “Scribblenauts.” “They understand what handhelds are about.”
Slaczka and his cohorts at 5TH Cell have developed three successful and highly original games for the DS — “Drawn to Life” and “Lock’s Quest” in addition to “Scribblenauts,” a game that allows players to summon almost any object into the game to help them solve a vast array of puzzles.
“We kind of just looked at what the DS had to offer, with the touch screen, the two screens, with the microphone and the Wi-Fi,” he says. “What I like is just the freedom. You can really go crazy with all that stuff. It offers so many different things that a lot of systems don’t.”
It was the DS’ touch screen in particular that inspired them to create their award-winning “Drawn to Life” game — a game that had players use their stylus to draw their own game characters, weapons and other objects right into the game.
Ultimately, it’s original, deep and well-executed games from developers like Slaczka — and, of course, Nintendo itself – that have made the DS such a success. Playing “Bowser’s Inside Story” — an expertly crafted role-playing game starring Nintendo’s famed Italian brothers — is an experience you just can’t get anywhere else.
“Steve Jobs was talking about how they have 21,000 games. Sure, you have 21,000 games but how many of those are quality?” Slaczka points out. “Probably five percent are worth downloading? I don’t see it competing against the DS.”
A 'serious threat' on the horizon
“What people look for most in a portable game system are the games,” says Nintendo of America VP Denise Kaigler. “Over the years, what’s fueled the popularity of Nintendo handhelds have been names like ‘Tetris,’ ‘Super Mario World,’ ‘Pokémon,’ ‘Nintendogs,’ ‘Mario Kart’ and ‘Brain Age.’ People understand that the only place to find that wide range of brands and experiences is with Nintendo.”
Still, as successful as Nintendo has been with its handheld machines, games analyst Michael Pachter of Wedbush Morgan Securities, believes it had better be looking over its shoulder right about now.
Though he doesn’t think the iPhone (an expensive device for adults) or the forthcoming PSP Go (priced at a whopping $249) is going to steal much of the DS’s thunder, “I really think the iPod Touch is a serious threat to the DS,” Pachter says.
In an interview with the New York Times, Steve Jobs said that Apple is pushing the Touch especially as a gaming device.
“Originally, we weren’t exactly sure how to market the Touch,” he said. “Was it an iPhone without the phone? Was it a pocket computer? What happened was, what customers told us was, they started to see it as a game machine. We started to market it that way, and it just took off. And now what we really see is it’s the lowest-cost way to the App Store, and that’s the big draw.”
Pachter believes the iPod Touch will start encroaching on the DS’s important youthful demographic — appealing to kids like his daughters. He believes that he’s like many parents — parents who will realize they can buy their kids a DS, which does have great games, or they can get their kids an iPod Touch, which plays games but also offers music, video and application capabilities in one convenient package. More importantly, he believes parents will be swayed toward the Touch when they realize they can either drop $30 to buy one Nintendo DS game for their kid or, for the same price, let their kid select 15 App Store games, each for only $2.
To stay competitive with Apple’s flood of content — and more importantly with its multimedia capabilities — Nintendo is going to have to refresh and rethink its hardware — offer a redesign more significant than the DSi, Pachter says. And that’s something he expects Nintendo to do next year.
“I think they need to become more like an iPod or PSP,” he says. “They need to be more of a multimedia device.”
Though I asked Kaigler what Nintendo might have in store for the DS and DSi down the road, she had no juicy details to reveal (surprise, surprise). And if Apple seems a threat to the gaming powerhouse, certainly Nintendo — which has dominated handheld gaming for decades now — isn’t letting on.
“Consumers are attracted to the best game experiences, and we remain very comfortable — but never satisfied — with our position in this respect,” Kaigler says. “We understand fun, and how to create unique experiences that enable people to have lots of it.”
When Winda Benedetti isn't busy playing games on her Nintendo DS (and her iPhone and PSP), she's busy tweeting on Twitter ... about playing games.
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