Sony, Nintendo, and Apple Clash At E3

With E3 2010 officially history, we can’t think of a more appropriate time to reflect on and process what we saw. Handheld gaming has never been so popular or so crowded, so it’s hard to make specific predictions, but part of the fun is figuring it all out.

Granted, we’re a media outlet that’s all about iDevices, but that doesn’t mean we can’t give you a measured view of all the action. Let’s start with Nintendo.

After waiting in line for nearly two hours at E3, we finally got our hands on the Nintendo 3DS. After spending 20 minutes with the device, we’d be some major-league haters if we’d didn’t give Nintendo big props.

We won’t get into a blow-by-blow description of the handheld, but it works as advertised. Demoed in a large rectangular room in the middle of Nintendo’s E3 booth, many different units were on display featuring game and film content. A slick hardware slider on the 3DS adjusts the 3D effect, so folks who get headaches can bypass 3D altogether.

The only disappointment with Nintendo’s 3D tech is the very particular viewing angle. Move your head slightly off-center, and you’ll see some degradation in the 3D effects. Perhaps it’s a mastering issue, but we saw the same flickering on every demo we played.

Outside of 3D, there were some other observations worth mentioning. The analog ‘slider,’ as Nintendo is dubbing it, performed well as an analog stick. It has good give, and our thumbs fit it comfortably. Though we couldn’t be sure, the bottom screen on the 3DS looked exactly the same as the ones on our DSi, so no 3D there.

For the more vain gamers, apparently a beefy processor and graphics chip work in lockstep underneath the hood on the 3DS. Nintendo wasn’t talking specs, but we played and saw some gorgeous real-time demos that pump out graphics somewhere near PS2 performance.

When it comes to Sony’s PSP, things aren’t looking nearly as bright. Last E3, Sony unveiled their PSP Go along with a strategy to tackle digital distribution. Part of that strategy was rolling out PSP Minis, a program aimed at attracting indie developers to release iPhone-like games for low prices.

Long story short, both the PSP Go and PSP Minis have bombed epically. It was so bad that many insiders were speculating we’d see a new PSP at E3. A new or revised PSP wasn’t unveiled, and instead, Sony chose to feature new entries in the God of War, Hot Shots Golf, and Papaton franchises. These games, along with a new marketing campaign, doesn’t strike us as being solid enough to stop the bleeding, but we’ll see.

As for Apple, we all know that gaming on the iDevices keeps evolving on a daily basis. New and interesting surprises come from left field all the time, and Apple’s A4 processor, included in the iPad and iPhone 4, has proven to be a beast. The new gyroscope-enabled games on the iPhone 4 have us hyped as well.

We don’t know how effective Apple’s GameCenter will be in standardizing the online experience, but clearly the iPhone has fundamentally changed the whole market for better and for worse. On one hand, creating and selling a homegrown game was quite a revolution for the development community. On the other hand, those developers are finding it hard to realize profits from the perpetual pricing race to the bottom. Gaming for a buck is great for consumers, but the devaluation of gaming experiences are a scary thing for the entire industry.

The way we see it, Apple has unwittingly changed the handheld gaming space for the foreseeable future. While $30 – $40 portable games may be passable for the heavy-hitters like the Marios and Zeldas of the world, other less-notable games will not sell in big numbers at those prices.

Nintendo and Sony have reacted to this to some extent with DSiWare and the Playstation Store, but they have to do more than that to compete with Apple’s iOS-powered hardware. Nintendo creating and owning the 3D portable space ensures exclusive experiences worth its premium pricing. Sony, on the other hand, has a portable offering that’s looking increasingly stale and dated.

One thing is certain though: Competition is a beautiful thing. We didn’t even touch on the potential of Google’s Android, but they may be on the precipice of entering the conversation. The gains in market share that Android is enjoying aren’t being ignored by developers big or small.

Hardware innovations aside, we’re seeing software and services that are extending the reach and visibility of handheld gaming in unprecedented ways. There’s enough room in this sandbox for Nintendo, Sony, and Apple to flourish. But unless Sony figures out a way to justify and differentiate its mobile offering, Nintendo and Apple will completely leave them in the dust.

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