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Niche Appeal

Can a console survive on a hardcore fanbase alone?

In recent weeks, nothing has incited more debate around the games business than the question of Nintendo and Sony's new handheld platforms, and specifically, the question of where they will find their audiences and how large those audiences might be. It's an important discussion, because the outcome of this situation is going to be hugely influential on the shape of the games business in the years to come.

Strong opinions have been heard from all sides, some more valid than others. At one extreme we have those who claim that the rough ride experienced by Nintendo's 3DS is entirely down to mis-handling by Nintendo and is no sign of any overall malaise in the dedicated handheld market, and thus bears no ill omen for Sony's PlayStation Vita launch. At the other extreme are those who believe that both devices are doomed by the rapid rise of iOS gaming, which has left their hardware looking functionally anaemic and their software libraries looking ridiculously overpriced.

Both of these viewpoints are naive, at best, but they merely express the outer edges of a discussion which has covered all points in between. The conclusions of more moderate views in the middle are a bit more balanced. Yes, Nintendo mismanaged the 3DS launch terribly, while Sony seems to be approaching Vita with more forethought and flair, but equally there is a real threat to dedicated handhelds from iOS devices and other smartphones. This threat, however, is by no means an automatic death-knell for the sector - and while Nintendo seems much slower to react than Sony thus far, both companies have the potential to shift their business models and strategies to effectively combat or integrate iOS gaming concepts.

Sales of game consoles are only relevant in that they create a larger potential market for videogames for that platform.

Into the mix of this discussion, I'd like to throw another idea. Our concepts of what actually constitute "success" in the realms of games console sales are actually quite skewed by the sales curves of consoles over the past few years, to the extent that some quite odd pieces of conventional wisdom have emerged. The PSP is one of the most successful games consoles ever launched, in terms of unit sales, but will forever be remembered as something of a disappointment thanks to the contrast with the Nintendo DS - a system which it was originally expected to grind into the dirt. The Wii, meanwhile, is regarded with starry-eyed awe as an extraordinary success story by the mainstream press and many investors, which fails to recognise the fact that despite its immense installed base, the system has provided very few publishers with software hits.

This latter example leads on to the thought experiment which I want to propose. We all understand that games consoles are sold on the basis of the "razors and razorblades" model, in which the razor is sold as a loss leader (or at least, a not terribly profitable initial product) on the basis that subsequent purchases of razorblades will push the whole business over into profit. Printers and their ink cartridges work on essentially the same model, as do photocopiers and toner cartridges.

However much we all like to obsess over console sales figures, the reality of a razor and razorblade market is that sales of razors are only relevant in that they create a larger potential market for razorblade sales. Equally, sales of game consoles are only relevant in that they create a larger potential market for videogames for that platform. In theory, your game is more likely to sell a million units on a console with a 20 million installed base than on a console with a 10 million installed base, and so on.

As such, the concern over the rise of iOS devices and their ilk is fairly straightforward. If a large bulk of consumers are pretty happy with their smartphones from a gaming perspective, then they're unlikely to buy a dedicated handheld gaming console, which reduces the potential installed base for the next wave of devices. As a consquence, I think it's an entirely reasonable assertion that the 3DS will not match the installed base of the DS over its lifespan, and suspect that the same may also be true of PlayStation Vita.

A smaller installed base means - in theory - smaller sales of software. There's a tipping point in this equation, at which point developing software for a dedicated handheld platform becomes uneconomical, because the market you can potentially address no longer justifies the development costs. Gamers often miss this part of the argument; they don't recognise the basic fact that dedicated handheld console sales don't have to collapse to zero for this end of the market to be completely dead in the water, they merely need to collapse past an ill-defined point at which publishers and developers no longer feel confident in investing in new product development.

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Rob Fahey avatar

Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.