Handheld Gaming: The Power’s in Your Hands

All iPhone fanboys intently followed last week’s coverage of the Apple Worldwide Developer Conference to learn of the release of the 3G iPhone on July 11. A highly anticipated addition to the device is the application store, which will allow consumers to download custom applications directly to their phone. Gamers specifically took note of this news as a number of new games were announced to be released with the launch of the store.

Gamers are paying special attention to the announcement because the iPhone games in development all take advantage of iPhone’s special features such as the touch screen and tilt sensor. While Apple’s iPhone has led innovation among the top selling smartphones, one could argue that Apple’s custom features very closely mirror the already established functionality in the videogame industry.

Forbes.com’s Brian Caulfield raises an interesting argument that the Nintendo DS, currently the leading handheld gaming device on the market, should be worried about competition from the iPhone. I will not agree or disagree with that opinion here, but instead will point out the importance of the amount of attention being given to handheld devices with gaming capabilities, both by gaming and non-gaming companies.

Since the launch of Nintendo’s Game Boy in 1989, gamers have utilized handheld gaming systems to take their gaming experiences with them on the go. While gamers enjoy spending hours in front of their television playing titles such as “Madden” or “Assasin’s Creed,” the fun should not stop just because you have to run errands with the wife or sit through your brother’s clarinet recital.

Handheld systems have traditionally been targeted to tweens because they have a higher likelihood to own multiple gaming systems. However as handheld gaming has matured with the release of the Sony Playstation Portable (PSP) and games such as “Brain Age,” the average player of the handheld systems has moved beyond just the pre-teen consumer. Similar to their console brethren, handheld systems possess functionality such as wireless adapters, which allow consumers to connect to content networks and also directly with one another for cooperative gaming or content sharing.

Nintendo has remained the leader in the handheld gaming system genre despite heavy competition from the likes of Atari, Sega, and more recently Sony. With increased competition from other handheld devices that include non-gaming features, it’s evident many technology companies view this market as a key growth opportunity. The success of the current generation of systems has been a strong indicator of the growth potential, as the PSP has sold over 35 million units and the DS has sold over 70 million units.

Marketers should take note of this growth in the handheld gaming market and explore innovative programs to reach consumers for the following reasons:

  • Handheld gaming offers that always on-the-go accessibility, similar to mobile marketing, not found in traditional channels. Brands can extend their console game platforms to the handheld experience, leveraging the connection between handheld and console.
  • As digital content plays a larger role, consumers will look to brands to help alleviate the costs associated with the must-have downloads. As an example, Delta partnered with Nintendo to offer exclusive DS demos of upcoming game releases at their gates in the airport. Gamers traveling with their DS were not as bummed about their delayed flight since they were able to pull down a demo of a game that has yet to be released.
  • The devices offer unlimited opportunities to leverage the functionality for non-gaming related programs. For example, Nintendo created the Nintendo Fan Network at Safeco Field, home of the Seattle Mariners, last year that allowed DS owners to access stats, play trivia, and even order food from their seats. The program was successful enough that it’s continuing this year and is offered it free of charge as opposed to the $5 fee last year.

As speculation continues about whether the iPhone, the DS, or the next great device will win the handheld gaming system race, one thing’s certain: marketers have the chance to reach their consumers through innovative programs in the handheld gaming space. Who knew the opportunity was right there in your hands?

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