Thursday, May 15, 2008

iGame - Apple's hand held console, Part III

Swiss knife

Here’s the last part of this creamy stuff.
There’s a question that needs to be addressed. A major one, as long as a console should be made these days.

What should that machine be, by definition?

We can look at Nokia’s N-Gage (which in all honesty, would require a massive article of its own kind, but you can read that one though), which failed to work as a hardware platform twice (GD model included), because of numerous dubious decisions on the design side of things. It wasn’t all that bad, though.
In February 2007, added to a successful first party game catalogue, the platform got support from EA Mobile and Gameloft.

But it was reformulated into a smaller hardware and larger software hybrid system in August, backing off from the largely game friendly hardware design, to be integrated into a wide variety of heterogeneous S60 handsets (Smartphones).
But the problem is that no matter how good on the paper the whole gaming service might sound, it’s still associated to devices which are obviously not suited for gaming. Oh sure, you can call it a thriving, blossoming business opportunity all you want, the fact remains that these phones, and all copies, are not suited for gamers of higher quality.
They might have the power, but they still do not have the ergonomics.

The other question is… do gamers want to bother with Pocket PCs, all the more prone to bugs and colds, all the more complex and distracting from the core concepts of accessible entertainment (games, pictures and sound)?

Let’s, again, look at the PSP, touted as a super-entertainment tool (a bit like the PS3, a computer?).
Sorry, you might think I’m pulling this out of my e-hole, and maybe I am, but I’m firmly convinced that what mainly sells the PSP – besides the odd sales blips due to new fancy faceplates - is not its claimed ability to be all and everything, from internet browser to coffee machine. The MP3 compatibility is certainly a plus, but not what people look for when they want to enjoy a small and transportable gaming device, I believe (not a shiny brick).
My point being that I still believe that a great gaming machine is one which is primarily designed as such, to do one thing above all: play games.

Of course, all this talk is fine, but Apple appeared convinced that the iPhone is the all in one system everybody’s been waiting for. Well, that’s what Sony thought as well when they laid down the blueprints for their baby, but if there’s anything relatively sure to say, it’s that what sells the console is not its touted multimedia abilities. That said, Sony’s machine is a steam machine behemoth in comparison, and I mean it in a pejorative way.
However, Nintendo didn’t need to market their handheld as the next penultimate multitask tool of social entertainment. They just put all their formidable experience into the game part, and made that well.

So, as part of this topic, I say that along avoiding the mistakes of the UMD mentioned earlier, I wouldn’t exclude a classical retail-type storage format, like a proprietary memory card design, for example, or some system already in use.
Look, the small cartridges used by Nintendo are cute and easy to transport, and even smaller cards can be used to store up to 4 Gb of data nowadays (but they’re still expensive).
However, Apple should think twice about breaking standards and forcing their own media support.

Adding other slots, for other memory card formats, would be good as well. From laptops to home printers, all accept at least two different formats of cards now. If we want to be able to bring music and pictures rather easily, different card slots would be more than welcome.
The machine should include some consequent flash memory, or a mini HDD. It would be most helpful! This may require selling two versions of the console though. With the possibility of using memory cards, the internal memory would be a practical backup, which dedicated gamers would love to exploit, to store more games, music and video, but which other casual people may not see as that essential.

Also, let people use the handheld as a music player. But don’t force stupid standards. Let it accept both MP3 and AAC, and more.
It would be daft to leave the AAC format out.

Let people play videos if they want, but don’t pretend it will be exciting to watch Spiderman 2 in the bus, even if it should be able to play them. Just put the emphasis on the community aspect of life, and be satisfied with the likes of Youtube and personal videos made during parties, holidays and weddings, by supporting the H.264 for example.

If anything, don’t believe the device should be able to do everything, unless you’re planning to make the iTreoPod real.

As you probably noticed, I don’t buy all the fuzz about how mobiles should do everything. I’m a rather blasé and functional sort of fellow when it comes to such devices. I think a mobile phone is an essential tool when I really need to contact someone, or be contacted, because I know that is what matters most about these intruding phones.
As such, I’d absolutely hate to have its battery depleted because I spent one extra hour on some intoxicating Click Wheel enhanced Turrican remake, or a heavily inspired clone, you see.

So if the Apple minds would still think that their handheld should also be a mobile phone (or that there should be a model including a phone), think about including a smaller battery that only the phone part of the device could access, along the must have removable main battery. I’m thinking of a kind of power backup, or something.

I think they should keep the accelerometer. It’s an interesting tool for gameplay, a new pool of opportunities. A thing to try: putting the sensor in a x fashion, instead of a + one, so the default orientations, horizontal and vertical, would be averages of two sensors, which would bring more finesse to the detection, instead of having just one sensor. That’s for the friction I mean. Unless the small block that pushes against the sensors can slide to the sides very smoothly, with little effort at all, and be enough to record variations in orientation, I think it may be better to have the block already pressing against two oblique sensors, even when the console would be held in a yoko position.

As for connectivity, think wireless detection and linking with the obvious Wi-Fi. Apple’s machines are leaving something to be desired in that department.
The USB 2.0 is obvious.

Add to this list a very good support for Flash and Java, especially since the system is going to be used to play games. There’s a load of excellent products out there, on the web, and they run with these technologies. It would be ridiculous to ignore them. Of course, this means not locking Java support when it’s already integrated into the machine... oops.

Don’t forget the much necessary chat screen. It would be a good thing if it could be brought in-game (or during any other application), with a virtual touch-keyboard, while the game itself would be in standby, instead of having to deploy the machine to access to the crammed physical keyboard (like on LG’s very good Voyager). This, however, implies a much bigger screen to allow for a properly sized keyboard, and of course quite a lot of finger prints… but this shouldn’t be a problem considering the success of the iPhone and its largely touch screen controller interface.

Oh, besides, think of the independent developers and Taiwanese workers (no more Hon Hai controversy, thank you).

Anyway, I’m looking for a better handheld than the PSP and the DS. Not a better phone which would do plenty of things I’m not asking for.
Sometimes, specialization is good. Choking to death because you tried to take more than you could is absurd.

So what would a war look like? ^^

If that hypothetical console would sell as much as Apple’s plans for the iPhone (they had planned 10 million units in 2008), it would turn out to be a major contender in the handheld race, bringing it near, or even above PSP’s sales.

It’s a gut feeling, but Apple is in a good shape to make the move. It’s not just a question of business factors, it’s literally about the brand’s image nowadays: it would surprise no one if Apple presented a handheld, they have the spirit for this. Everything they do reminds us of what has been associated to handhelds lately: coolness, fun, good looking devices, high technology with large compatibility, and content to download and play. What you have here is basically a very nice definition of the near future’s handheld.

However, in terms of potential, the firm is certainly not the only big monster in the handheld backyard.

The evolutions of Microsoft’s Zune are interesting, enough to keep an eye on the device, especially since “it makes sense that Zune could be a part of a gaming experience”, as told by a Microsoft PR representative to Gamertell some time ago. Count the Halo 3 themed model as another positive hint. The Zune Phone can be considered another step in the right direction to include games to the package, counting the hypothetical inclusion of cheap 3D acceleration hardware.
Then all of this speculation is supposedly bullet busted by Shane Kim. Of course, that’s just PR talk, so who knows?

Read Part I | Read Part II | Part III

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