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Can the 'Funnest iPod Ever' Take on Nintendo and Sony?

Can the 'Funnest iPod Ever' Take on Nintendo and Sony?

The iPod touch can be used to play over 1,000 games available on the iTunes App Store. Apple has even dubbed the touch the "funnest" iPod ever. What threat does it pose to dedicated portable gaming machines like the DS and the PSP? The iPod's lack of buttons may preclude it from large, immersive games, but casual games are a different story.

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
10/13/08 4:00 AM PT

This season, Apple has been marketing the iPod touch as "the funnest iPod ever." Instead of leading with music or even a media experience, the latest television ad shows game after game being played on the iPod's ample screen -- a motorcycle chasing game, that funky monkey in the ball, and others. The iTunes App Store has gobs of games. Plus, the multi-touch screen and accelerometer on the iPod touch allows for a wide variety of playful fun.

To put names to the games, the iPod touch has "Moto Chaser," "Super Monkey Ball," "Crash Bandicoot," "Par 72 Golf," "Texas Hold'em," "Tap Tap Revenge," "Pac-Man," "X-Plane 9," "Spore Origins," "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?," "Air Hockey," "Asphalt 4: Elite Racing," "Missile Command," "Star Wars The Force Unleashed" ... and about 1,135 more titles.

However, can the iPod touch really play in the same league as Nintendo and Sony? Can it take on dedicated mobile gaming devices like the DS or the PlayStation Portable (PSP)? Does it have any sort of edge?

A Closer Look

Let's take a look at the features each platform offers.

  • iPod touch: The best feature of the iPod touch is its built-in accelerometer, which lets users tilt and turn to control game play. The 3.5-inch, 480-by-320 pixel widescreen is large and surprisingly bright and crisp. With a simple developer's program in place, Apple has made it easy for devs to quickly create new games. Plus, most games are fairly cheap -- most cost no more than US$10, many can be found for five bucks or less, and some are free.

    Beyond gaming, the iPod touch also includes WiFi, a Web browser, e-mail, contacts, calendaring, photo storage and playback, video playback, YouTube access, Google Maps, and thousands of available third-party applications for both fun and otherwise. It comes in three models: an 8 GB version for $229, a 16 GB for $299, and a 32 GB for $399.

  • Nintendo DS: The Nintendo DS comes in a flip-open form factor that sports two screens. It includes a touchscreen stylus, easily used buttons for each thumb, WiFi for playing with friends (or enemies) online, its own wireless LAN (local area network) capability for playing together with others anywhere, a built-in microphone, and 374 possible games to choose from.

    On the down side, the games are more expensive, typically ranging from $20 to $40, though most are larger in scope and gameplay than iPod touch games. Recently, Nintendo showed off the DSi, which sports a camera and music capabilities. The DSi will launch in Japan and won't be available in the U.S. until next year. The DS Lite retails for about $130.

  • Sony PSP: The Sony PSP comes with a large widescreen, TFT display, it's stacked with game-play buttons, has a game library of more than 350 titles, has a built-in radio, will play movies, TV, and music videos, plays music in a variety of formats, stores photos with a slideshow feature, has WiFi, a Web browser, LocationFree TV viewing, TiVo-To-Go, and RSS feeds. It retails for about $170, and games typically range from $20 to $40.

Where Are the Buttons?

One of the biggest differences between the iPod touch and the other two is iPod's lack of buttons. The touch basically doesn't have any buttons for dedicated game play. It has virtual buttons and controls built into the touchscreen. Though the touchscreen controls make for a flexible gaming experience, it may also be the iPod touch's biggest limitation in the portable gaming world.

"While the iPod touch is the -- this makes me sick to say -- 'funnest iPod ever,' it's not a game unit," Sven Rafferty, technology blogger and director of Internet technology for hyperSven, told MacNewsWorld.

"As much as Steve Jobs wants to fool himself that you don't need buttons to play games, we've seen how he finally acknowledged that a single-button mouse wasn't working when Apple released the Mighty Mouse," he explained.

"The accelerometer is nice but cannot apply to all games, if even most -- look how awful Pac-Man is to play! Tactile feedback is what gamers' fingers need, and as long as Apple tries to fool the public with glitzy posh ads and well-crafted Stevenotes, Sony and Nintendo have nothing to worry about," Rafferty explained.

Any Overlap?

Without buttons that provide tactile feedback, it is fairly safe to say that it's unlikely an iPod touch can ever provide the same kind of experience of control a gamer can get when playing fast action games. All right then, but isn't there a whole 'nother world of gaming out there? And can the iPod touch capitalize on it?

"In a word, yes, the iPhone can cannibalize some sales of the DS and the PSP -- but not many," Van Baker, a research vice president of consumer electronics for Gartner, told MacNewsWorld.

"The iPhone games are very casual and the DS and PSP games are a bit less casual. Also, the person who buys an iPhone is not buying it to do gaming but for all the other things that it does -- and gaming is just another distraction," he explained.

"The net overlap is probably less than 10 percent," he added.

The Rise of Casual Games

"One of the things we've seen in the PC gaming space in the last five years is the rise of casual gaming. Casual gaming -- online chess, sudoku, and the old standby 'Tetris" -- doesn't drive the same revenue per person, but it does attract millions more people than dedicated gaming does," James McQuivey, a Forrester analyst and vice president of research, told MacNewsWorld.

"If the iPod has any potential in the gaming space, it is in attracting the same casual gamers who would never buy a PSP or Nintendo DS but who still want to play a few games every once in a while. So I don't think the iPod needs to compete directly with dedicated handheld game units; it just needs to justify its price to the music and video enthusiasts who will be happy to see that they can also play a few games with these devices," he explained.

'Immersive' Is a Different Ball Game

"I don't feel that right now the question is whether the iPod touch or iPhone are better immersive gaming devices -- meaning that devices like the PSP and the DS are focused solely on the idea that a game is played for long period of time," Ben Bajarin, director of the consumer technology practice for Creative Strategies, told MacNewsWorld.

"I think the more productive question is what the iPod touch and iPhone bring to the table as casual gaming devices -- something people use to simply play games to pass short bursts of time and are not totally immersive like a sports, first-person shooter, or strategy game, all of which take a lot of time," Bajarin explained, noting that while Nintendo has been adding more casual games to the DS lineup, it's draw is still more on the immersive gaming experience.

"To that point, the iPhone brings a lot to the casual gaming conversation -- with the exception of poor battery life. Things like easy access to games through the iTunes store, and cheaper prices for games -- not the $19.99 and up for PSP and DS games -- make it a great platform for casual games," he said.

So, overall, it's pretty clear the iPod touch isn't competing head-to-head with Sony's PSP and Nintendo's DS ... but that doesn't mean iPod touch owners can't have a little fun.


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