Friday, June 06, 2008

Apple won't kill DS

Not the post I was writing, but I figure somebody needs to smack Forbes in the head with some common sense.

No, the Apple Iphone will not kill the Nintendo DS. This is not just looking at the problem from a historical point of view as Apple is not the first hardware vendor to go after Nintendo's mind-share and market-share in the mobile market. The most famous attempt so far has been Nokia with the N-Gage. Well, we all know how that turned out. The N-Gage flopped not only due to it's high price, but the first model was patently ludicrous to use as a gaming system. While Nokia eventually fixed the design issues with the N-Gage system, such as making it a proper phone, and actually giving it a real cart location, the product was already dead in the retail market. In recent events Nokia has been positioning the N-Gage branding as a platform for mobile games, not just a singular phone.

The Iphone faces much more difficult obstacles than simply getting hardware design right, although there are a few technical design flaws with the Iphone that make it a poor gaming platform. One of the problems the Iphone shares with the PSP is that it feels flimsy. There's always a sense that one drop on the concrete and the unit is bricked for good. That may not be true, but when was the last time you saw somebody handling an Iphone like a cheap Motorola? Never.

Another problem the Iphone faces is price. The Iphone starts at $400, while the DS finishes at $130. These products aren't even in the same price sector to begin with never minding anything else. The PSP's $169 base price tag hasn't done anything to catch up to the DS, although it is beating out the Wii in markets where Nintendo just flat doesn't have supplies in stock. One of the arguments between the DS and the PSP on their launches is that Sony was targeting a much different market than the DS. According to Ubisoft, Sony isn't targeting any market, and the PSP platform is described as directionless.

Then there is the price of the gaming software. The most expensive new DS game to buy is the new Guitar Hero On Tour at $50. Granted the game comes with an add-on attachment for the guitar itself. Actually, the price parity has fallen now that I look ofter the current release lists for the PSP and DS, which isn't helped by the relatively few new PSP titles available. It used to be that the average PSP game price point was ~$40 and the DS's was ~$30, but a quick look over the newly released columns for both on Gamestop is around ~$20~$30 on average. How much is the proprietary Iphone software going to cost? Is it going to match up against the impulse price points of DS and PSP software today?

Next question, if the prices do match up, how will customers actually GET the software anyways. According to Apple's official Iphone page, it's not like the Iphone has any sort of cart adapter or UMD disc drive. That means that software will have to be purchased online, and then downloaded / stored on the Iphone itself. Sure, that means saving bundles on retail promotions, but come on now, the average DS buyer isn't sitting online at Nintendo.com thinking what looks good. DS and PSP games are impulse buys. Somebody walks by the Display in Wal-Mart, thinks I've got some spare cash and that looks cool, then they buy the product. One of the very real problems Nintendo has with WiiWare and Virtual Console is getting the message out about what content is newly available. So there have been minor changes to the Wii's existing channel interface to use the Virtual Console icon to promote games that are available. There has also been an aggressive push using the message board system to inform Wii owners that the VC and WiiWare services are available.

Apple will have to overcome a very similar marketing problem in order to push retail software for the Iphone platform. There, of course, is the option of establishing a retail Apple presence and having CD-installers in stores, but given the overhead costs, Apple's not likely to pursue that method, nor many 3rd party developers or publishers.

The promotions question leads into the next very real problem Apple has. Apple loves to be exclusive, a trend that has continued throughout their history. Consider that Apple only has one official partner that Iphone owners can use phone services on, which is AT&T. Apple can, and has, enforced the one provider only method by willingly bricking out (rendering useless by software updates) other Iphones that have been hacked or converted to non AT&T networks.

Unless Apple suddenly decides to be open about allowing people to download and purchase Iphone software from any provider, whose going to be Apple's exclusive retail provider? Who wants to bet that all retail Apple Software will need to be downloaded through the AT&T network.

What about moving the software around? One of the big advantages to the Wii, Xbox 360, PSP, DS, GB, GBA, PS3, PS2, GCN, PSX, Sega Saturn, and N64 gaming platforms is that you can take your saves with you. You can take your games with you. Whenever I go over to a friends house to play a game he doesn't have, I can just copy my existing PS3 saves to an SD / Compaq Flash / USB memory card / Memory Stick and put it in. Presto, I have my saves. With a GBA or a DS game, just put it in an go. Even Xbox saves could be a copied to an external memory card. Granted, you probably needed a 3rd party tool to copy memory from a Sega Saturn, but with an Action-Replay, big deal.

So how is Apple going to handle making it easy for customers to swap content? To swap game saves? To swap games? One of the big hindrances to mobile phones now is that games downloaded for each phone are strictly for that phone only. No wonder the format hasn't taken off.

That leads to the next question. How are the games going to be developed anyways? From what I hear from people actually developing Iphone software, there are a lot of limitations that have to taken into account to use the SDK. A popular complaint is that only one application can be run at one time on the Iphone. That in itself isn't a big a deal for a gaming platform, where one application is all that is going to be run. However, many developers have said that the Iphone SDK isn't focused for specific application development.

Nintendo and Sony have many specially built tools and SDK's, as well as HDK's (hardware development kits) to allow DS and PSP programmers to build games only. Nintendo and Sony can both provide quality guidance and gaming expertise to licensed 3rd parties that Apple cannot, and will never be in a position to do so.

The idea then, that Apple will somehow kill the DS is ludicrous. There are multiple real world obstacles to turning the Iphone into a gaming system that Apple will either have to deal with, or simply ignore. That's even presuming that Apple decides to compete in the same marketspace as the DS. That's also completely ignoring that the DS launched on November 21, 2004. The Gameboy Advance launched on March 21, 2001. The Gameboy Color launched on October 21, 1998. The Gameboy pocket was released in 1996, succeeding the original Gameboy's 1989 launch. See where this pattern is going? Nintendo averages 5 years between development cycles on their consoles.

The DS is coming up on it's 4th year of being out, which means that Nintendo's probably already has prototypes for the next handheld platform.

The forbes article also ignores crucial DS history. Nintendo never intended for the platform to be more than a gimmick. Nintendo never counted on the sky-rocketing sales curve. The DS was not the Gameboy Advance 2. So, what happened to the GBA2? Has Nintendo's designers been sitting on their duffs doing nothing on hardware research?

The obvious answer is no, Nintendo has not. Forbes isn't comparing Apples to Apples. Forbes is comparing an Apple to a Cantaloupe. That's not just irresponsible journalism, it's outright stupidity.
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