Mobile Game Consoles

Peter Lewis of Fortune takes a look at the new consoles from Sony and Nintendo:

Sony unveiled its long-awaited PlayStation Portable (PSP), which won’t show up in the U.S. until next spring. Nokia revealed its N-Gage QD, a phone-and-games device that fixes many of the problems that doomed the original taco-shaped N-Gage. Microsoftcue the Darth Vader soundtrackbragged how its software could link all sorts of mobile devices to an Xbox console. But it was Nintendo, long the leader in handheld gaming, that stole the show.

Nintendo’s mobile devicecode-named the DSis double the fun of the current Game Boy Advance. Due to hit stores this year, the DS is Nintendo’s answer both to Sony’s planned PSP attack on its handheld monopolymore than 150 million Game Boys have been soldand to the threat from games played over ubiquitous mobile phones. Although the DS and PSP aim at different marketsanalysts expect the PSP to cost between $300 and $500, vs. less than $200 for the DSthey will inevitably be compared.

Let’s start with the PSP. It has nearly the same graphics-processing power as a PlayStation 2 console, packed into a sleek, black deck that’s about seven inches wide, three inches tall, and less than an inch thick. It weighs nine ounces. Most of the device’s face is taken up by a 4.3-inch LCD display in the widescreen ratio favored for watching DVD movies. That’s no mistake: Sony sees the PSP as much more than a game device. Its universal media disc, or UMDa new mini-CD that stores 1.8 gigabytes of audio, video, or datawill let Sony distribute feature films, music-concert videos, and other copy-protected entertainment for the PSP. Yet even if the PSP doesn’t instantly catch on as a handheld media center, it will be a force in gaming: Just about all of the world’s major videogame companies have signed up to produce games for the device. The PSP has built-in 802.11b Wi-Fi networking for surfing or multiplayer gaming, a USB 2.0 port for transferring files or adding peripherals like USB digital cameras and keyboards, and a Memory Stick Duo storage-card slot.

The Nintendo DS prototype got the biggest cheers from the audience. Slightly larger than today’s Game Boy Advance SP, the DS has dual slots to accommodate GBA cartridges as well as new postage-stamp-sized DS cartridges. It has dual backlighted LCD color screens, one in the top part of a clamshell lid and the other in the base. The screen in the base is touch sensitiveopening the way for games that involve, say, drawing or manipulating objects with a stylus. Just stab at the villains instead of shooting them! There’s also a microphone, raising the tantalizing possibility of voice-activated games.

The DS incorporates two forms of Wi-Fi wireless networking, one the standard 802.11b (hello, Internet), the other proprietary to Nintendo. The latter system can allow as many as 16 DS-toting friends to play one another or, thanks to the touch-sensitive screen, to exchange handwritten notes or drawings. It could be the biggest advance in classroom cheating since the PDA.

An article based on a conference organised by Stanford Business School looks at the challenges facing the gaming industry:

Obstacle 1: Rising costs, short life cycle. A video game is typically made for seven different platforms (computer, console, etc.) and distributed in three major North American markets, said Doug Lowenstein, president of the Entertainment Software Association. Yet its life cycle on the market may be only six weeks. That’s one shot at success, with a very expensive bullet. How expensive? Making a next-generation immersive role-playing game might cost $20 million to $30 million, said Moore. The figure is lower for sports games, “where you can keep the engine going a few years,” he said.

Obstacle 2: Piracy. The industry is essentially shut out of 90 percent of the world-regions like China, Russia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, where the black market predominates. Opening up these markets with effective international laws and firm enforcement is “a big, long-term challenge,” said Lowenstein. “But it offers hope of building more volume for more titles in far more markets than we’re able to compete in now.”

Obstacle 3: Talent pipeline. “Our biggest problem right now is [finding] talentin particular, executive producers who have background in both engineering and art and all the other things you need to do to make video games,” said Brown. “That is a very, very scarce commodity, and I do not see the pipeline to fill it.”

Obstacle 4: Cultural backlash. “We have some extraordinarily violent content today,” acknowledged Lowenstein, who has successfully negotiated regulatory challenges in the past. “In five to 10 years, it will be almost indistinguishable from reality. If you get to a point where the people you’re killing in these games look like your friends, we may face a renewed threat to our medium.”

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.