The Year that Handhelds Died

Will there ever be another dedicated handheld system? The evidence in 2015 points to "no"

Editor's Note: This is one in a series of year-end content to be published daily leading up to Christmas that includes analysis, opinion and insights into the biggest news and trends of 2015.

When the history books are written on the first few decades of the video game industry, the chapter on handhelds may wrap up with the events of 2015. As continues to look back on the biggest events of the past year, one trend has become obvious: the era of handhelds is quickly coming to a close. That's not to say that there isn't an audience for these devices (Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita have loyal followings), but this industry is often a numbers game, and the numbers aren't adding up.

For all its wonderful features and indie support, the Vita has only sold somewhere in the range of 12 million units (Sony stopped reporting figures before getting to double digits, so fully accurate numbers aren't available). Vita represented a precipitous decline from the PSP, which managed to sell over 80 million units. The 3DS meanwhile is faring much better than the Vita, around 55 million units, but that also pales in comparison to its predecessor, Nintendo DS, which sold upwards of 155 million units globally.

It's no small coincidence that while this generation's dedicated handheld devices have been struggling to live up to the handhelds of years past, mobile gaming has seen a meteoric rise. The first iPhone launched in 2007; by the time the iPhone 4 launched in 2010 (a full year or more ahead of the current handhelds) researchers at Gartner already pegged the mobile games industry at $6.7 billion. The fact is that Vita and 3DS were destined for a huge uphill battle from the very start. It's only to Nintendo's credit and the immense strength of its first-party software that 3DS managed to perform moderately well in the face of the mobile juggernaut.

In 2015 both Sony and Nintendo have all but conceded defeat on the handheld front, resigned to the fact that mobile gaming is dominating the market. As Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios boss Shuhei Yoshida admitted about the handheld space, "the climate is not healthy for now because of the huge dominance of mobile gaming." The odds of Sony releasing a successor to the Vita in the years ahead are just about zero.

Likewise, for Nintendo, for the first time in the company's history, we have to wonder if a new dedicated handheld is even in the works at its R&D division currently. After years of protest about the mobile space from its executives, Nintendo has taken the plunge into mobile via a partnership with DeNA. Back in 2011, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata questioned the impact of the burgeoning mobile gaming market. "Game development is drowning. Yes, nearly every one of these downloadable games is far less expensive to create than most retail titles, but what revenues do they generate?" he asked. By 2015, Nintendo management realized that it could no longer ignore the mobile space or its shareholders pleading with the company to start making mobile titles.

"For the majority of people who are already buying a powerful smartphone, the additional expense for a handheld is no longer worth it, and by extension it becomes a foolish business endeavor for Sony or Nintendo to keep investing in those dedicated devices"

While it's true that games for touch-based devices have to be designed much differently than when your audience has buttons and a directional pad at its disposal, Nintendo has an abundance of smart game designers. Moreover, the cost to Nintendo to create mobile games (even highly polished, sophisticated ones) will be monumentally cheaper than engineering, manufacturing and supporting yet another new platform.

Besides, as Rob Fahey pointed out in an earlier column, "when the competition has a great multi-touch screen and accelerometer, a processor faster than most laptops only a few years ago, and is replaced every couple of years with a better model, the best set of buttons and sticks on earth just can't compete for most consumers." And that's precisely the point - if you're reading this website, you're not "most consumers" and neither am I. I far prefer sticks and buttons to touch screens, but for the majority of people who are already buying a powerful smartphone, the additional expense for a handheld is no longer worth it, and by extension it becomes a foolish business endeavor for Sony or Nintendo to keep investing in those dedicated devices.

That being said, there is one possible way around this for Nintendo: a hybrid console. I maintain that the Nintendo NX will look to combine the best of console and handheld technology into one platform. In a sense, Nintendo was attempting to do this with the Wii U tablet/gamepad, enabling gameplay away from the TV screen, but it wasn't fully mobile. The NX, I believe, will be a fully contained console that plays just as well on the go as it does when hooked into a 65-inch HDTV. It's the best of both worlds, a natural evolution for Nintendo's product lines that doesn't bog them down with a dedicated handheld proposition that will likely fail. At the same time, Nintendo's developers can look into placing hooks or certain cross-platform initiatives in its mobile titles to help up-sell customers on its beefier console titles.

Handhelds have come a long, long way since Nintendo's Game Boy was introduced in 1989. But no technology lasts forever. Much like Sony's Walkman, VCRs and corded telephones, handhelds can now be added to humanity's long list of technological relics.

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Latest comments (8)

Charles Herold Wii Games Guide, about.com2 years ago
So your thesis is, "there will never be another handheld gaming console except the one Nintendo will put out that won't count?"

I agree it's possible the NX will be both a home and portable console (not because I've seen any persuasive evidence, though; it's more that it seems like a good idea and Nintendo is in a good position to do it), but just because something is two things doesn't mean it's not both of them. You could just as well say Nintendo has given up on home consoles and the proof is they will now only have a handheld that will double as a home unit.

But if the NX does not have a handheld component, I don't see that as the end of Nintendo handhelds. Nintendo does not give up on things easily, usually bringing up the technological rear (look at their approach to online and HD) and usually assuming (correctly) that the current conventional wisdom is wrong as often as its right. Having a successful handheld that's not as big a seller as their previous successful handheld would hardly seem like writing on the wall to a company like Nintendo, which, according to the press, should have given up on all hardware years ago (advice given to them, for example, in the period before the monstrous success of the Wii).

Handheld consoles may well disappear. But 2015 has not seen the last of them. Although it's probably seen the last of them from Sony.
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Richard Browne Partner & Head of Interactive, Many Rivers Productions2 years ago
Yeah I can't see Nintendo giving up that sweetspot unless its mobile partnership goes ballistic, and even then they could leverage that for the next DS. Nintendo owns portable 7-12 year old gaming, as a parent I'm more than happy to plonk down a single purchase with a couple of games that my kids are still playing years later, not just hours (or minutes for the majority of FTP crap my kids want to download from the App store). Quality wins out in these situations and FTP is just not going to work for the majority of parents.
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Abraham Tatester Producer 2 years ago
Better headline: "The Year the Vita Died"
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Show all comments (8)
Paul Jace Merchandiser 2 years ago
Better headline: "The Year the Vita Died"
Outside of Japan I thought that happened two years ago.
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Connor Martin Aspiring game designer/tester 2 years ago
I can trust a child to sue a gaming device for gaming and need not worry about anything else, honestly the day I'd let a kid of mine have that much power and access with a smartphone or tablet is so unthinkable it seems imaginary.
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Bob Johnson Studying graphics design, Northern Arizona University2 years ago
The handheld is Nintendo's bigger business. And they have sold 55 million 3ds units. That's in 4 years. For some perspective on those numbers, the PS4 has sold 30 million in 2 years. The 360 and PS3 sold ~77 million each in 7 years.

Nintendo focuses on Japan first and the handheld is a priority there more than over in America.

Last Nintendo is making efforts to combine their handheld and console divisions so they aren't separate silos.

And Iwata mentioned their next direction could very well mean more form factors not less.

Plenty of evidence there will be another dedicated handheld.

I think you have to give weight NIntendo's ability to do something new and fun and surprising and unique and their luxury of being able to make a gaming first or gaming only device. Smartphones are still going to be touchscreen slabs when the NX releases.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Bob Johnson on 19th December 2015 8:17pm

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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 2 years ago
Hmph. Of course, this doesn't at all mean that anyone interested in a Vita or 3DS shouldn't pick one up. The game historian side of me laments this rush to push handhelds off a cliff in favor of devices with so called "free" games (or free to start demo builds), fake onscreen "joy(less)pads" and weird casual game mechanics that sap the fun out and replace it with busywork one can do without looking at a screen or worrying about losing. Okay, it's not that bad on the mobile front, but it's getting pretty disappointing playing the same old games over and over with different visual styles.
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Alix Bergeret Senior Lecturer in Computer Science, University of Wolverhampton2 years ago
I struggle to see how the 3DS can be considered a failure, when it has sold 50M units in 4 years (okay, nearly 5 now).

It's still in full swing, and I wouldn't be surprised if its total sales at the end of its life cycle is near that of the DS...

It makes the rest of the article a point pointless... the Vita has failed, not portable consoles as a whole. Mobile phones have made a dent in the market, obviously, but the truth lies somewhere in between...

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