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Handheld Gaming as Convergence Devices - Nintendo DS

Apple iPod or Microsoft Zune? iPhone or BlackBerry -- or Windows Phone or Google Android? The portable device market seems to be framed in terms of titanic corporate battles, and emotional allegiances to our favorite products.

But while media players have evolved into wireless web devices, and smartphones are adding downloadable applications for fun and gaming, there is another class of devices that is converging from a different direction -- portable game systems like the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP lines that have extended from gaming to portable media players with wireless access.

These systems have built-in Wi-Fi and support some wireless access, albeit using game controls, but are obviously more focused on wireless gaming with others. Though the real value in wireless for these companies is to expand their portable devices from a product to subscription services, linking with the associated Sony and Nintendo online stores for buying media and games (see previous post).

And these are mass market products -- as of the beginning of this year, Sony had sold over 50 million PSP handhelds, and Nintendo had sold over 95 million DS models. Aided by new models and price cuts in these difficult economic times, U.S. sales data from the NPD Group show that the Nintendo DS was the top selling gaming system line in November, with the Nintendo Wii console second, outselling the Sony PSP, and the Microsoft Xbox 360 and Sony PlayStation 3 and PS2 lines (see below).

Nintendo reports that the DS and Wii products account for more than half of all video game systems sold in the U.S. through November in 2009.

The dual-screen Nintendo DSi, introduced in April, features two 3.2 inch screens plus two lowish-res 0.3 MP cameras (to shoot in towards you and out).

It's slightly thinner and longer than the previous DS models at 5.4 x 2.9 x 0.74 inches, and is available for around $169.

The new Sony PSPgo, introduced in October, has a 3.8 inch display that slides to access the familiar PSP gaming controls.

It removes the UMD optical drive in favor of flash memory storage, and so is a couple inches shorter and thinner than the previous PSP designs (4.8 x 2.6 x 0.6 inches, 5.6 ounces), and is available for around $239.

These systems are not just for hardcore gamers any more. As the Wii has demonstrated in the living room, there's a big place for "casual" games and fun activities in gaming systems.

For example, Rhythm Heaven from Nintendo has more than 50 rhythm-based music games -- you just tap, flick, and slide along with the catchy soundtrack.

And Scribblenauts from Warner Bros. (shown here) is a side scrolling game in which you explore and collect points -- and just type words to conjure up any of over 30,000 objects to help you, from ladders to wings to black holes.

In playing with these games to demo at my holiday gadget talks, however, I was surprised they still seem stuck on traditional structured game play with levels and points and penalties, and don't have simple, fun, non-goal-oriented, "casual" / demo modes.

It would be nice to set up the system, for example, so people could just wander around in Scribblenauts doing silly / fun stuff without worrying about the goal and limited resources, or sample the range of fun activities in Rhythm Heaven.

In particular, Rhythm Heaven traps you in training mode and doesn't let you out until you have proven yourself worthy, which does not make for a good first-brush experience when I'm handing around the DS so people can get a quick sense of its possibilities.

In any case, handheld game systems are for more than just the kids, and an interesting alternative or companion to wireless media players and smartphones -- especially for long trips where you can enjoy all the different kinds of entertainment, including commercial game titles and dedicated gaming controls.

See more on game systems in my Portable Media Player Gallery

Find the Nintendo DSi and Sony PSPgo on Amazon.com
Find Rhythm Heaven and Scribblenauts on Amazon.com

November 2009 US Gaming System Hardware Sales - (NPD Group)

Nintendo DS - 1.7 M
Nintendo Wii - 1.26 M
Microsoft Xbox 360 - 819.5 K
Sony PlayStation 3 - 710.4 K
Sony PSP - 293.9 K
Sony PlayStation 2 - 203.1 K

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