Have Smart Phones Already Won the Handheld Gaming War?

By Wesley Fenlon

We take a look at how Nintendo, Sony, Apple and Google are doing in the mobile gaming space.

The portable gaming market has undergone some big changes since the Nintendo DS and Sony PlayStation Portable hit stores in late 2004. In the half decade that's past, Nintendo has continued the handheld dominance it began more than 20 years ago with the Game Boy, but Sony has, at least, fared better than any other Nintendo handheld competitor.

But the Nintendo/Sony rivalry is only part of the complete picture--Apple changed everything in 2007 when it turned the smart phone into a viable gaming platform. Suddenly, phones (and mp3 players) could handle more than solitaire and poor Java renditions of Tetris or Bejewled. They'd hit the big time.

Sony recently released this TV spot chiding smart phone users for playing games on their dedicated grandma-texting devices, when downloadable games could be had on the PSP for $10. Sony’s biggest advantage in marketing the PSP has long been its exclusive titles, heavy-hitters such as God of War and Metal Gear Solid that could draw in the console gamers and lure them away from the Nintendo DS. Despite the disaster that was the overpriced, under-performing PSP Go, Sony’s still clearly interested in digital distribution.
The company’s latest ad also marks an unusual occurrence: admitting iPhone game sales are a legitimate threat. Sony and Nintendo have done their best to ignore Apple’s App Store success, but that’s only going to be possible for so long: iOS games accounted for nearly 20% of the mobile games market in 2009. While Nintendo is banking on the 3DS to keep their handheld division in the black, Sony may be facing up to the threat with their rumored Android PSP, partnering with Google to take Apple on at their own game.

We’ve already talked about Android’s gaming problems. Could a Sony/Android combination be enough to turn the corner for Google and finally bring a reliable selection of good games to their platform? We're going to say no, for two main reasons.
  • Android's marketplace simply doesn't have the infrastructure of the App Store, making it impossible to shop as effectively.
  • Android's 24 hour return program kills the impulse buy model of cheap iPhone games.
Until Google addresses those problems, developers won't be making the kind of money on Android they can make with Apple. But maybe a partnership with Sony would be the perfect move--if both companies are serious about gaming, they could make some big changes to reinvent Android as a gaming-friendly brand. Either way, Sony has to do something--once the 3DS comes out, the PSP's likely going to lose even more ground in the mobile market.

Do you game on your phone, or prefer a dedicated device for Goomba stompin’? Scared an Android gaming platform will become the next N-Gage? Let us know!