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Handheld hardships | 10 Years Ago This Month

Optimism abounded around Nintendo's 3DS and Sony's Next Generation Portable in early 2011

The games industry moves pretty fast, and there's a tendency for all involved to look constantly to what's next without so much worrying about what came before. That said, even an industry so entrenched in the now can learn from its past. So to refresh our collective memory and perhaps offer some perspective on our field's history, runs this monthly feature highlighting happenings in gaming from exactly a decade ago.

NGP for "Neglected Gaming Platform"

2011 was a bad year for portable hardware. We probably should have taken it as an omen when the year began with Sony unveiling the Headman at the Consumer Electronics Show. The prototype headset with dual OLED displays promised "a theatre-like experience," with Sony's executive deputy president Hiroshi Yoshioka saying he had been playing Gran Turismo 5 with it.

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"Nobody - not even my wife - interrupted me, so I could get the highest score," he said, which was weird partly because I may have been misunderstanding how Gran Turismo works all these years, partly because the Headman didn't have any kind of a strap to keep it attached to the user's head so he would have had to use one hand to hold it up to his face and play the game with the other, and partly because it underscored the fundamental conflict of a supposedly portable piece of electronics that completely cuts the user off from the outside world. (Sony pitched it as a good way to enjoy movies on the couch or in-flight, because what could be more comfortable than holding your arms up for hours on end?)

But whatever. Like a lot of what makes headlines at CES, the Headman was more of a tech showcase than anything expected to become a consumer product.

Not so with the Next Generation Portable, which Sony unveiled later that month. The NGP was Sony's codename for the Vita, the follow-up to its successful first foray into the dedicated gaming handheld market, the PSP. The NGP had a fancy 5-inch OLED touchscreen, a touch pad on the back, and dual analog sticks (many AAA franchises ported to the PSP suffered greatly from awkward workarounds to accommodate its singular analog nub).

And even though the system was a year away from launching -- it arrived in Japan in mid-December 2011 and followed internationally in February of 2012 -- it was going to boast robust support from third-party publishers. Epic's Tim Sweeney called the system "a game-changer" and showed off the Unreal Engine 3-based Dungeon Defenders for the system. Hideo Kojima was on-hand to show off Metal Gear Solid 4 running on the NGP. Sega had a Yakuza game. Capcom had a demo of Lost Planet 2. (None of those games would actually release on the system.)

The NGP was announced with lofty aspirations, with Sony Computer Entertainment president Kaz Hirai saying, "Our goal is to transform every aspect of your everyday life into entertainment."

Even the analysts were impressed. EEDAR's Jesse Divnich said he thought the NGP would "blow away Western audiences."

"The market is ripe for portable high-end gaming. The NGP will be a serious threat to all forms of portable entertainment," Divnich said. "After seeing the specs today, if the NGP can't succeed, it is clear that the portable gaming landscape has forever changed. The future of portable entertainment is in the hands of Sony."

The market for portable high-end gaming wouldn't actually ripen until the launch of the Switch in 2017 and the NGP's portable entertainment threat level was about on par with the Zune, but Divnich was absolutely right that the system's ultimate failure would speak volumes about how the market had fundamentally changed.

The Vita name the NGP launched under wound up being ironic, as it died a very quick death, with "worryingly soft" sales even at launch. Sony quickly admitted having trouble getting third-parties to make games for the system, and two years into the system's lifespan told people not to expect first-party games, either.

3DS Sales Surprisingly Flat

The Nintendo 3DS was likewise spending January of 2011 gearing up for a let-down of a launch. Nintendo announced its glasses-free 3D handheld would debut in February in Japan, and internationally the following month.

Like Sony, Nintendo was predicting big things for its handheld, with Nintendo UK general manger David Yarnton dismissing concerns that its $249/£230 asking price was a bit steep, saying, "Indications that we've had so far from retail is that they are really happy with the price and demand indicates it will be our biggest launch in terms of hardware."

Technically, that would go down as a Good Call, as Nintendo reported 3DS launch quarter shipments of 3.61 million units, surpassing the 3.19 million put up by the Wii in 2006 and the DS' 2.8 million launch units in 2004. (The Gamecube shipped just 510,000 in its launch quarter, largely because it debuted in Japan several months ahead of North America. Nintendo's next financial report was six months after that, and showed the system having total shipments of 3.8 million.)

However, it's all about performance compared to expectations, and Nintendo had been expecting to sell 4 million units of the 3DS. In fact, 3DS sales were so slow that it would take nine more months for the 3DS to move another 400,000 units and finally reach the 4 million mark.

"The initial sales were healthy," Nintendo president Satoru Iwata said of the 3DS' initial Japanese launch. "However, the sales speed slowed down from the third week after its launch which is not what we had expected for the start-up transition."

But where Sony rolled over and played dead with Vita, Nintendo took drastic action with the 3DS, cutting the price by almost a third in the US and 40% in Japan just four months after launch. To help make the quick cut a little easier to swallow for those who paid full price, Nintendo gave 3DS early adopters a selection of 20 downloadable NES and Game Boy Advance titles. By the time Nintendo launched Super Mario 3D Land and Mario Kart 7 for the system's first holiday season, the 3DS was (mostly) back on track.

To date, the 3DS has sold 75.94 million units, the lowest in Nintendo's storied line of dedicated handhelds but still a success by any reasonable measure. Sony isn't as forthcoming with unit sales as Nintendo, but estimates have the Vita selling less than 15 million units total.

PlayStation Immobile

One of the prime suspects for the difficulties these dedicated handhelds would face was the burgeoning mobile market. After all, how many people would be perfectly happy playing games on the phones they carry around everywhere instead of needing to buy and lug around another pocket-filling gizmo with them?

Sony and Nintendo treated their handheld struggles differently, and part of that may have been a reflection of their plans for the mobile market. While Nintendo practically had to be dragged into mobile by angry investors after the Wii U flopped (and has only shown limited interest in it now that it's there), Sony was more active about pursuing mobile opportunities.

Alongside the announcement of the NGP, Sony unveiled PlayStation Suite, an attempt at taking the PlayStation brand and console-style experiences to Android tablets and smartphones, including Sony Ericsson's then-upcoming "PlayStation Phone," the Xperia Play.

Unfortunately, the Xperia Play's console-style experiences were initially just going to be ports of old PSone games, because what these new masses of mobile players really wanted were obviously decade-old games from an era when gaming had nothing to offer them, only the games play worse now as a result of being shoehorned into a new user interface.

"We've got this huge library of PlayStation One games that are tremendous games, especially when compared to a lot of the other stuff you're seeing on smartphones. That already sets the bar very, very, high," Sony's Jack Tretton told us at the time, unconvincingly.

(Several years later, when pressed about the PS4's lack of backward compatibility, Sony's Jim Ryan would offer a different assessment of those games, saying, "I was at a Gran Turismo event recently where they had PS1, PS2, PS3 and PS4 games, and the PS1 and the PS2 games, they looked ancient, like why would anybody play this?")

Regardless, Sony's mobile gaming ambitions didn't really pan out. The Xperia Play came and went. PlayStation Suite was renamed PlayStation Mobile before it launched in the holiday quarter of 2012 with a couple dozen games. By mid-2013, a lack of developer interest had prompted Sony to waive the publisher fee associated with the platform, which was perhaps then best known as a weird sub-storefront on the Vita, itself well-established as a struggling platform by that point.

Sony dropped PlayStation Mobile entirely in August of 2014.

Of course, the mobile games market has continued to grow, so Sony has continued trying to plant its flag there. In 2016 it formed its ForwardWorks subsidiary to bring franchises like Hot Shots Golf/Everybody's Golf and Arc the Lad to mobile. It's at least still noticeably active, which is more than we can really say for the 2017 PlayLink initiative, which let players link their smartphones to a PS4 for multiplayer games. PlayLink games still work and the PS5 is even backward compatible with those titles, but it appears to be another abandoned endeavor.

Stop Me If You've Heard This One

So a company with a multi-game service announced the launch of an app for that service on one of the default mobile app stores. But the platform holder wasn't comfortable with outside parties running their own sub-platforms in their walled garden, so they nixed it. Confusion reigned. In the end, the multi-game service found a way around the platform holder's restrictions by just doing everything through a web browser, causing a fair amount of confusion, frustration, and annoyance for basically everyone and benefitting nobody at all.

A decade ago that multi-game service was Kongregate's Arcade App for Android, but the recent sagas of streaming services like Xbox Game Pass, Facebook Gaming, Stadia, and GeForce Now on iOS have mostly mirrored the path of Kongregate's Flash game portal beat-for-beat.

Good Call, Bad Call

BAD CALL: Nintendo UK marketing manager James Honeywell was talking up the copy protection features on the 3DS, saying the heyday of piracy might be over.

In some ways, Honeywell was right. In a world where games are free-to-play and service-driven, piracy is something of a meaningless concept.

The problem is that Nintendo specifically doesn't live in that world. While many of its peers have pivoted that way over the years, Nintendo still makes most of its money selling games for $60 a pop, to the point where it has become just another facet of the company's reputation.

So even if many publishers are more concerned with hackers than old school pirates these days, Nintendo plays a very public game of legal whack-a-mole with those who would mod systems, host ROMs, or enable piracy.

And just in case you think we're reading too much into a handful of recent legal cases, just a few months ago, during one such case against an Amazon seller offering a way to jailbreak the Switch, Nintendo declared that game piracy is a "serious, worsening international problem."

Putting all those cases aside, we didn't even need to wait a decade to figure out this was a bad call. As confident in the 3DS' copy protection offerings as Nintendo might have been, that didn't stop pirates from running pirated DS games on it within hours of the system's launch. And as many of those subsequent lawsuits showed, pirated 3DS games weren't far behind.

BAD CALL: 2K president Christoph Hartmann described Duke Nukem as having a "brutally honest wit" in announcing Duke Nukem Forever's May 3, 2011 launch date. After spending a few minutes reading through these quotes from the game, I'll give Hartmann brutal, but getting one out of three still makes for a bad call.

GOOD CALL: The Raspberry Pi charity project was announced 10 years ago this month as a way to lower barriers by creating credit-card sized computers for as little as £10, providing an inexpensive entry point into the world of personal computing and coding. According to its latest annual report, Raspberry Pi has now distributed more than 30 million such computers.