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Published on April 24th, 2013 | by Christian


Handhelds – The Last Middle Market

I‘ve been playing a lot of handheld games lately, more than games on home consoles.  Even obsessing over Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate (incidentally also available on the 3DS)  on the Wii U has taken a back seat to finishing up Fire Emblem: Awakening and digging into Etrian Odyssey IV.  Soul Sacrifice is coming out on the Vita in a week, and I’ve got a sealed copy of Soul Hackers sitting in my shelf next to an also un-played copy of P4G which is awaiting the day I’m done with P3P.  Muramasa Rebirth and Animal Crossing New Leaf are both due out in June, too, and SMT IV and Dragon’s Crown will be coming out later in the summer.  Handheld games, handheld games, and more handheld games are piling up around me waiting to be played while my PS3 dutifully serves as a Blu-ray player and my laptop PC lets me watch my Giant Bomb subscriber content and write posts for the site.  I thought handhelds were supposed to be dead? What’s going on here?

It would be obvious if I was traveling a lot or playing these games on the go, but I’m not.  Most of my handheld gaming is done reclining on the couch or sitting up in bed late at night.  When I am out I’m it’s usually to do something that requires leaving the house, so I don’t have time to game really.  I do travel on occasion, and have actually started to look forward to long plane and bus rides because they represent rare opportunities for hours upon hours of uninterrupted gaming bliss, but most of the time I’m just hanging out on the couch playing these games. So if it’s not that my conditions are especially conducive to handheld gaming, and it’s definitely not that the hardware is so technically amazing, it must have something to do with all these games piling up waiting to be played.

What I think it is about these games that has got me so enthralled, is that they’re the new middle market for the games industry.  Maybe they were always the middle market before the console middle market died off and now it’s just more obvious, but in any case these are games that can no longer exist anywhere else.  Your typical handheld game isn’t a bombastic AAA blockbuster like Tomb Raider, Halo 4, or Bioshock Infinite.  They have smaller budgets, a niche audience, and don’t have to meet insane sales expectations to turn a profit or be considered successful.  To illustrate this point, Fire Emblem has sold about 250k in the US since its release in February and that’s considered a smashing success for the series in North America, whereas Tomb Raider moves over 3 million units in one month and it’s performing below expectations.   Maybe that’s mostly indicative of Square Enix’s warped sense of reality, but even they couldn’t have just pulled those numbers out of thing air. They must have based those expectations on something.

Anyway, so what? Right? The point is that the middle market is mostly gone everywhere except for on handhelds.  It still exists on PC to a certain extent, but PC gaming is still inaccessible or even impenetrable to all but your most hardcore gamers.    As home consoles become more and more advanced, development costs will rise and  publishers will become even more risk averse than they are now.  Why take a risk on an unproven idea when you can just turn out a safe, sturdy product that has been focus tested all to hell so it does decent numbers at retail? I’ve been into gaming for about 25 years. I’ve played a lot of those safe games, especially during the last generation, and I’m tired of them.  As I get older, my time to game is more and more limited, so I want to spend that time playing games that prioritize solid gameplay over glossy  production.  To me it seems that handhelds is where those games are abundant right now,  so that’s where I’ll be spending my time.

Also, this may be the last Wednesday update for a few weeks. I’ll be traveling around quite a bit and don’t think I’ll be able to post to the site.  I hope to spend some more time with Etrian Odyssey IV during my travels, and also check out Soul Sacrifice, so stay tuned for some posts about those games!


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