3DS vs. NGP
Approximately five and a half years ago Nintendo released the DS in North America, a futuristic reimagining of what a handheld console could be. The release took a four month head start over Sony’s portable entertainment system at the time, the PSP. Nintendo had invested in dual screen touch gaming with last-gen console graphics, and Sony focused on making an entertainment system that would support a new disc-based media (UMD), play movie and music files, feature near-PS2-level graphics, and would later display digital comics. But the PSP spread itself too thin and for too high a monetary cost, while the DS focused on reinventing gameplay through original games and touch-screen remakes of classics at an affordable price. The result of all this is the DS selling approximately twice as many units as the PSP worldwide to date.
The PSP’s successor, currently codenamed the Next Generation Portable (NGP), is already on its way to repeat history as the Nintendo 3DS is slated for a March 27th North American release—way ahead of the NGP’s expected 2011 holiday season debut.
Sony has already made a critical mistake, and it comes down to simple marketing. In unveiling their new system and dubbing it the “Next Generation Portable,” they hearken back to the days when consoles had codenames to build hype. But those days have long since passed, and Sony should have carried over the popularity of PlayStation brand name and thus the expectations of quality of the PlayStation/PSOne, PlayStation 2, and PlayStation 3. While naming it the “PSP2” straight out would have brought up bad memories of the PSP’s poor release schedules and the now-burdening UMD drive loudly draining battery life, settling for something as generic as “Next Generation Portable” sounds more like a PR pitch than a product.
Unfortunately for Sony, Nintendo better thought this through. The name “3DS” is exemplary of smart marketing because it indicates all of the things the system is, even to those who don’t follow the industry very closely. The “3DS” brand name clearly indicates that it is a successor to the DS; furthermore, it can logically be assumed to be backward compatible, that it has 3D capabilities, and that it still has the dual touch screen (DS) functionality. Anyone looking to buy a portable gaming system can figure this out from just the name, but if you ask someone who doesn’t follow the industry but is interested in playing games, I doubt they’d know what the “Next Generation Portable” does without doing some research.
Poor marketing aside, the systems will make stiffer competition for each other than the DS and the PSP did. With the utter mishandling of the PSPgo’s push to create an all-digital game library, both systems will now use a combination of memory cards and digital stores to deliver games and other content (no UMDs or the like). The PSPgo included the benefits of faster loading times and a better battery life – beneficial points for a portable – however, its library was stifled by licensing hurdles which didn’t allow PSPgo owners to play some highly anticipated games like Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep. If Sony’s learned from the system’s limitations and has struck a deal that will require all PSP game publishers to bring their content digitally to the NGP, it can stand a chance at succeeding. But while Sony works to perfect systems they’ve already established: a digital marketplace, PS3-like controls, high-end graphics, and the addition of a touch screen display and touch-sensitive back surface, the 3DS will again bring something new to the market: glasses-free 3D gaming. While the 3DS is essentially a more powerful, 3D-ready DS better focused on online play and digital downloads, the NGP has what PSP fans wanted in the first place: near-PS3 graphics, dual analog sticks, a better online system, and trophy support.
Both handheld consoles have a different audience, and the NGP seems to be aiming for people who wish they could play their PS3 games on the go; it will incorporate technology that can almost match the graphics of the portable’s home console sibling, recreating experiences of franchise favorites such as Uncharted and Killzone without sacrificing the high quality visuals that complete the package.
But while most gamers interested in the PS3/PSP’s brand of action/adventure games and RPGs will probably not be motivated to buy the NGP based on its touch screen capabilities alone, its strength will be in its launch line-up. Nintendo has already botched their release by announcing a mediocre list of games that have already appeared on other consoles, leaving only nintendogs + cats, Pilotwings Resort, and Super Street Fighter IV 3D Edition as their must-buy release day games. Their marketing campaign that showed all the highly anticipated N64 3D remakes won’t come to fruition this March, and Kid Icarus: Uprising won’t be available to drive sales either. But if the NGP can launch this holiday season with some truly fantastic games it may stand a chance regardless of Nintendo’s head start. However, in order to achieve this (because the 3DS will no doubt save their major releases for the holidays), Sony will have to launch the NGP with iterations of Uncharted, Call of Duty, Killzone, Resistance, or the upcoming Metal Gear Solid game. Consumers will need the draw of established PS3 franchises that they had always wished they could play on the go without sacrificing crisp visuals, and with epic games like that at a holiday launch Sony will ensure the big numbers their release needs.
The price will be the biggest hurdle, though. With the 3DS launching at $299 for glasses-free 3D technology, the question is whether the NGP will be competitively priced. The worrisome detail of having not mentioned the cost of the unit at Sony’s launch event has given way to a range of speculation. GameStop had originally set a placeholder price of $999, but they recently began taking pre-orders on the system under the total price of $299. Of course, they could always up the price if the official announcement is higher, but retailers have been known to have pricing and release date information before the public. I have my doubts about Sony pricing the NGP that low, however. It seems a bit too risky for the graphics technology it would run coupled with the back touch surface, but perhaps Sony can now make that kind of technology inexpensively? Or maybe they’re willing to take the loss now in exchange for an early large home installation. After all, they have plenty of first party franchises to sell and can make money back through their software. I’d be surprised to see a final price tag below $400 though.