It is a busy time for new consoles. This spring saw the launch of Nintendo’s new games console, the 3DS. Nintendo has just announced that a successor to the Wii is due soon, too. We’ve also had the news recently of Sony’s PSP follow-up, currently codenamed NGP, or Next Generation Portable.

For the 3DS, Nintendo held simultaneous launch events in New York and Amsterdam to let eager gamers get their hands on one, and for many this was a major event. Some New York gamers braved bitter cold until midnight. This devotion is no surprise; until now Nintendo have been the undisputed kings of handheld gaming, starting with the Gameboy and its ‘killer app’ of the day, Tetris. They consolidated this position with the GBA, and kept up the pressure with the DS.

Sony have tried to knock them from the top spot (twice) with the PSP and the (now discontinued) PSPgo. Both of Sony’s game machines out-performed their rivals in graphics, sound, memory and screen size, yet Nintendo pulled some killer gameplay moves that countered their technical disadvantages – namely Pokemon and Brain Age. The Tetris‘ (or is the plural of Tetris ‘Tetri’?) of the GBA and DS respectively kept Mario’s platforms right on top.

Today there are 146.8 million DS’s in the hands of gamers compared to 67.1 million PSPs. Into this battle marched the 3DS – all Nintendo’s mobile gaming know-how in three, yes, three dimensions!

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But the world the 3DS was born into is not the world that the DS knew. This is the post-iPhone world, and all the rules of the game have changed. The question is not so much who will win between the 3DS and the NGP, but can either of them stay relevant in a world dominated by the mobile phone? I’m not sure they can.

Before I go off on a rambling discussion I should state this will not be an either/or gaming world. I don’t doubt that lots of people will buy a 3DS, and I don’t doubt the same will be true of the NGP, and that both platforms will come with great games. Both Sony and Nintendo know a thing or two about how to make great games. But this post-iPhone world is a networked age, and in the connected world the mobile is a native whilst the 3DS is still feeling its way.

Online is an area, it’s fair to say, that Nintendo has not excelled in thus far. From personal experience I found the DS and connectivity were not natural partners, and I rarely took advantage of the online components of its games. The Wii is an amazing console which opened up gaming to a whole new audience, yet its online games market, WiiWare, failed to push enough sales to excite games developers to dive in.

My feeling is that this is because Nintendo had been a cartridge based business for decades, and one that had been very profitable. Nintendo was a closed ecosystem where if it liked you, it would allow you in on its terms. These terms were, in effect, that as a games publisher you could buy blank cartridges to put your games on and then re-sell to gamers. That method has served them well and has made Nintendo one of the most profitable companies in the business, but the post-iPhone world is not about that physicality or control. It’s about a wider, open ecosystem that lets micro-developers and gamers themselves in, giving them access to mess the tidy development space up. It means that games have been opened up to whole new avenues that would not have been allowed past the bouncers before. For example, I’ve just finished producing Filth Fair for the Wellcome Trust on iPhone and iPad, something that just could not have happened on PSP or DS.

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I’m not just picking on Nintendo here. The PSPgo has also not fared well as an online native. Its web browser is fiddly and the PSN Store lacks much of the ease of use we see with an iPhone. With Apple, once an account is set up on an iPhone buying is simple; visit the App Store, select the game, click buy, type in your password and it’s done. On a PSPgo it’s a bit more complex. You’ve got to go into the PSN Store, transfer the money into your wallet, buy the game, download it, exit the shop, go into the game area, then install it (and it’s even more fiddly if using a PC or PS3 to download them). This sounds like a minor difference, but as the competition for gamers grows and grows and games become an impulse buy, you don’t want to be putting a delay between the gamer and the impulse. This is a shame because IMHO the PSPgo is an amazing games machine, and my favourite game that Ive designed so far is only on that platform.

So while the big brains at Mario HQ and Sony’s Head Office were trying to get their heads around these young upstarts – Apple, Google, RIM and others – who’d come into the gaming world and opened doors the old school did not even know existed (last time some major gaming companies looked up from their bunkers at E3 to see mobile gaming, the nGage had just crashed and burned), Apple did a double-strike and went and launched a tablet, the iPad. This was adding kerosene onto the gaming fire.

Console gaming development was used to long cycles; 5-10 years for hardware, around 1 to 2 years to make a game but with mobile, the churn is fast and getting faster. With consoles, the big games companies were also used to having their own space and doing their own thing within it. Yet now users don’t care about closed spaces, they have things like social media and demand to use it, which ever space they are in. Some have embraced it e.g. SEGA, who abandoned hardware years ago after the Dreamcast died (such a shame, a great console, R.I.P.), can port their games onto iPhone happily (hey Sonic, meet the iPhone…) but Mario on Android? Can’t see it happening.

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Games consoles are not going to go anywhere fast. After all, Call of Duty Black Ops sold more than $1 billion worth of games, but what was once ‘the games industry’ in its entirety is now part of a bigger gaming behemoth. Make no mistake, consoles are not going to be top of the food-chain anymore. Whereas once Electronic Arts bestrode the gaming world like a colossus, they now have to compete for the no.1 spot with the makers of Farmville. It’s interesting watching them try to adapt. Microsoft are doing their own phone and linking it to the Xbox 360 in various ways. PlayStation 3 streams films, and also now has an iPhone App of its own (remember it took Sony years to finally accept that MP3 was the format for music and stop pushing their own version) and Electronic Arts bought Playfish, makers of Facebook games.

Consoles, especially handheld ones, will be here for some time – yet in the long term they will find it harder and harder to justify their almost single function role when our phones and tablets can do gaming too, and do it well. This is why the sales forecast for the 3DS is not set at over 150 million as its older sibling, the DS managed, but at a much more modest 70 million instead.

Tomas is a games designer and consultant at Auroch Digital and blogs about games and other stuff at A Great Becoming.