Why Nintendo Owns the Handheld Market

Nov 16, 2012

Assassin’s Creed 3 has been released to the masses. Excitingly, Ubisoft has also released a PS Vita version subtitled Liberation. It is a standalone story featuring the series’ first female lead. As exciting as this is for fans of the series and Vita owners, it’s still not the killer app the Vita needs to propel sales and flip the stigma that has drowned the powerful handheld since launch. Nintendo, on the other hand, has overcome it’s challenges in several ways. Perhaps the biggest reason for their success with handhelds is the software which accompanies it. Looking across the library of Nintendo’s current and past handhelds, only a small percentage are portable versions of console titles. Even Nintendo’s first party titles, such as Mario and Zelda, are fully standalone games that have been tailored to the technology they launched with. Games that could only be enjoyed on a portable. Sony has a technically outstanding handheld, a huge back catalog of titles, but a horrible marketing plan for Vita.

Along with AC3: Liberation, Call of Duty has just launched for Vita. Unfortunately, it’s another train wreck. A short single-player campaign and bug-heavy and limited multiplayer has fans disappointed and confused. This could have been the killer app Vita needs. While Uncharted: Golden Abyss is a complete marvel, it wasn’t enough for Sony. They need to prove that Vita can be a portable console experience. Afterall, that’s their marketing plan.

Sony is left with 2 choices: focus on portable experiences and drop Vita’s price, or find a studio that can deliver a console experience on the go. Sony is trying to tote the line between these two without true identity for Vita. A business practice that confuses both internally as well as externally. Vita needs a true breakout hit and Sony must put all it’s eggs in one basket and make sure that basket is a developer that knows how to kick ass. Unfortunately, Sony has a history of being late to every party. Not fashionable late, but more like so late all the beer is gone, the pizza is cold, and all the cool people left.

Back to Nintendo, they always get it right. Partially because Sony has gotten things wrong and Nintendo has little competition. But mostly because Nintendo has rarely gone outside their marketing plan. The only game I can think of that tried to be a console experience is Metroid Prime Hunters. It wasn’t good and they didn’t try it again. From a marketing and business perspective, an organization cannot thrive without a clearly communicated identity. Nintendo nails it year after year.