Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft: three very different takes on portable gaming at GDC 2012

Tim Cook says the darnedest things. Why, just last week Apple's head honcho suggested that iPad users are ditching their home consoles in favor of Cupertino's favorite slate. Bold words, ones that can't be sitting well with the gaming industry's big three. Steady thy rifle, hardcore gamer, Cook has a point: the console wars have shifted irreversibly. Gone are the days of bickering over somewhat similar 16-bit consoles and their supposed lack of "blast-processing"; today's gaming armies wage war with wildly different artillery. In the pursuit of your mobile gaming dollar, Nintendo toed a traditional line with a new twist. Sony, on the other hand, seems to have bundled every input method it could get its mitts on into its next-generation portable. Microsoft, however, puts the "mobile" in mobile gaming, echoing Apple's own approach with an Xbox Live platform that eschews dedicated hardware to float across Windows Phone devices as a "feature."

Take a step back, and suddenly it seems like the major players of consumer gaming aren't even driving on the same track. This war isn't about the "most powerful" console anymore; it's about creating the right experience for today's gamer. We ducked under the unspoken truce of last week's Game Developer Conference to get a bead on Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony's portable gaming strategies. Read on to see what they're doing to differentiate themselves from the competition.


Nintendo. The old guard of console gaming: it set trends, crushed enemies and even created the portable gaming market. No surprise, then, that one of the console gaming industry's most storied founders feels pressure to keep moving. "We want to not necessarily follow the trends," David Young, Nintendo's Assistant Manager of Public Relations, told us at GDC, "but we want to do something different, surprising. Something unique that will really pull people into the game." Young was talking about the Nintendo 3DS and the outfit's approach to keeping on top of the changing mobile market. "We like to offer unique experiences, something that doesn't follow a traditional path. It's all about trying to surprise the user." The idea is that something new, fresh and different will stir an interest in gaming in a new user-base. Young cited the DS' touch-screen and the Wii's waggle-riffic remote as experiences that pulled in a new crowd.

Nintendo says that the 3DS is one of the few portable 3D experiences available to consumers, excepting select smartphones, and that its portability is key. "It has a lot of little surprises that are designed to get people to carry it with them all the time" Young explained, "not like a phone, which you carry because it's a phone -- but because of things like the StreetPass function." The mention of a phone struck us, folks carry phones around for more then voice communication these days -- does Nintendo feel threatened by the smartphone's entry into the mobile gaming arena? If so, Young wasn't shaking in his boots, he wrote off the growing mobile market as an issue of quality over quantity. "Rather than having 1,000 games of varying quality, we'd rather see, maybe, 100 games of a higher quality." Young argued that the market that iPad users are seemingly choosing over their dedicated hardware may be self defeating. "You've got to wonder what you're doing to your market if you're getting your user base used to getting games for 99c or, for free. If your market has been trained for that, what growth are you going to get from your bigger, better titles?"

For all its tablet-esque controllers, resistive touchscreen devices and stereoscopic handhelds, Nintendo seems to be toeing its own traditional line. They ask what they can offer the consumer that's new, shocking and innovative. It isn't surprising: in fact, it feels like Nintendo. Maybe that's good -- but not all of its innovations have been a success, and some have even led to the birth of new rivals.


Rivals like PlayStation, which was partially born out of a failed partnership between Sony and Nintendo to create a CD-ROM accessory for Super Nintendo. Sony Computer Entertainment was formed after the SNES-CD project fell through and, well, the rest is not only history, but a series of pretty killer consoles as well. The outfit's first foray into the mobile market got caught up in a bitter rivalry with Nintendo's dual-screen wunderkind, but never managed to surpass it. The Vita, however, is a different beast with a tweaked approach to the mobile market. "The PlayStation Vita is sort of a weird hybrid," Will Powers SCEA associate PR generalist and former winner of PlayStation's The Tester reality show, told us, "it's interesting because when it was in prototype, the hardware engineers went around to studios and developers -- they went in-house with developers and asked them what they wanted to see." From the very beginning, Powers said, the Vita's design was approached from a different angle than most consoles. "This is the first time they went out to developers and asked, 'What do you want?' It's really a product of what our developers want to see, not to mention the feedback we got for the PSP and the PSP Go, from both developers and the community and consumers."

As Sony tells it, it takes a consumer facing approach when it comes to product development -- every major decision is reportedly based on a simple question "Is this for the gamers?" Powers said asking this question is what led to the prevalence of region-free compatibility in PlayStation products. The same philosophy carried over to the Vita's "all-in" design, which seems to give the handheld every possible functionality a gamer might conceivably want. "We wanted to drastically reduce the barrier of entry -- when we have functionalities like the touchscreen, but also have the buttons and dual-analogs, we're trying to appease all the markets that would be interested in the system." Powers said that while the Vita is very much a core system, Sony wanted it to be inclusive of mobile games as well. Sony hopes developers will recognize this and bring their smartphone / tablet titles to the Vita. "We really built this device to be used in any situation. Sure, you might own a tablet, but have you ever tried to use it in bed? It gets kind of heavy, and you almost hit yourself in the face with it." The Vita is designed to get around that, to be able to play any kind of game comfortably. Sony wants its doors open to all possibilities, for all consumers. "We're a champion and advocate of our products," Powers summarized, "this is something that we believe in."


Despite their differences, Sony and Nintendo's portable offerings are two sides of the same coin. Microsoft, on the other hand, is trading in a different currency -- aligning more with Tim Cook's vision of gaming than Shigeru Miyamoto's. Microsoft has explicitly stated that Windows Phone is its mobile platform for games. An Xbox portable simply isn't on the way; your phone is it. The lack of a dedicated device and the physical controls that come with isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it illustrates a clear difference between Microsoft and its competitors: Redmond simply isn't trying to create a "core gaming" experience. That's not to say there aren't a few games Microsoft would happily ascribe the moniker to, of course -- games like The Harvest, Rocket Riot and Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I, for instance -- but at its heart, Xbox Live for Windows Phone is less a "mobile platform" and more of an avenue to an Xbox experience.

"Today, Xbox Live is available on Xbox 360, Windows Phone, and Windows 8, offering a range of games with something for everyone across these devices. " A Microsoft representative told us, "Our goal is to create one seamless Xbox Live service across various platforms, providing on-the-go access to your favorite games and Xbox LIVE experiences." For Microsoft, this is the crux of their mobile offering, "one seamless Xbox Live service," and that's definitely what you get. The Windows Phone's Xbox Live hub taps into your profile, friends list, messages, avatar and gamerscore -- elegantly stitched together to mesh with the console experience. Because Microsoft is more concerned with maintaining a uniform Xbox Live experience than it is with dominating the mainstream portable gaming market, however, it's the odd man out -- Microsoft isn't competing with Sony and Nintendo's mobile offerings, it's competing with Android and iOS. What's more, is that it's banking on the Xbox name and its seamless service to draw users in. The Windows Phone versions of Angry Birds and Doodle Jump may pack a handful of gamerscore bolstering achievements, but that Xbox Live integration comes at premium over the iOS and Android versions. Microsoft isn't flinching, however. "We believe the quality and consistency of what we offer with Xbox Live speaks for itself, and provides an opportunity to bring together everyone from core Xbox 360 users to first-time gamers on Windows Phone."

As we said, the console wars are very different now, particularly on the mobile front. Between Nintendo's niche innovations, Sony's all-in portable powerhouse and Microsoft's service-centric mobile apps, we wonder if these gaming giants are even fighting on the same battlefield. Maybe they aren't. On the console front, choosing between a PS3 or Xbox 360 might be a definitive choice -- they offer similar experiences and game libraries. That isn't happening here. On the mobile front, gamers are choosing between a well-integrated phone, a handheld 3D experience and a dual-analog dream, each unique enough to stand on its own without making its competition redundant. Sure, the trifecta is competing in spirit, but in reality their products are almost complimentary -- balanced parts of a dedicated gamer's collection. The portable gaming market is more diverse than ever, and we couldn't be happier. Can we stop fighting now?