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Mobile game war: How can Sony and Nintendo compete?

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Ten years ago, the thought of a battle in the portable gaming market was ludicrous. Nintendo had held such a dominant position in the space for so long that it seemed impervious to any sort of challenge.

The field was littered with failed opponents, but things started to get a little more interesting in late 2004, when Sony jumped into the market with the PSP. By the time Apple launched the App Store in 2008, a full-fledged war was underway.

That fight is still raging today, and while Nintendo still holds a leadership position, it's nowhere near as secure as it was at the start of the century. Sony, which failed to live up to expectations in round one, is about to launch a new handheld system - and has no intention of being an also-ran this time around.

It's Apple that most people see as the biggest threat, however. The App Store is flourishing, stores can't keep the iPad 2 in stock, and seeminly random iOS games are enjoying the sort of chatter and success typically reserved for well-known, triple-A game franchises.

But some analysts think the concept of the mobile game wars is really an, uh, 'Apples' to oranges comparison.

"A lot has happened in the games industry and there has been tremendous growth in the audience," says Billy Pidgeon, senior analyst of M2 Research. "Initially, people thought that meant there was a larger audience for the traditional model - packaged goods and dedicated gaming handhelds - but it worked out that many of those people don't self-identify as gamers. And I don't really see that group being a winning proposition for dedicated game machines."

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Instead of there being a single mobile gaming market, Pidgeon says there are two that are growing in parallel. While there is some crossover -- which means some competition -- the iDevices generally cater to a slightly different audience than the core community Nintendo and Sony are chasing.

It is, in some ways, a mirror of the console wars. It's easy to look at the current generation as a three-way fight, but it's really Microsoft and Sony fighting for the core audience, while Nintendo often serves a new category that core players occasionally explore.

"Nintendo and Sony need to go after that enthusiast and hardcore base and try to grow that," says Pidgeon about the mobile game space.

Of course, those efforts to woo core gamers could have a rub-off effect on some casual players as well, luring them over to the 3DS and NGP. Here's what the companies need to do to keep players focused on dedicated game machines:

Make games deep, but accessible
The iOS devices have perfected the category of 'snack' games - titles you can jump in and out of without penalty. Dedicated machines from Sony and Nintendo, meanwhile, tend to offer more immersive experiences built to keep gamers playing for longer periods of time. That's fine, but as their time dwindles, so does their interest in buying time-consuming titles. An example of a great compromise? Super Street Fighter IV 3D Edition, which offers a console-like experience that works well in bite-sized play sessions.

Portable rewards
Nintendo has been the flag-bearer of rewarding people for carrying their handheld gaming devices around with them. Pokemon games for the DS featured a "tag mode," while the original Nintendogs featured a "bark mode," letting your system communicate effortlessly with others. The 3DS StreetPass mode expands on that, swapping game information regardless of whether you have a certain game in the system or not, as does the 'play coin' feature that doles out game currency based on how many steps you take while holding the system. Those sorts of incentives could make people more likely to take their 3DS out on the town with them, rather than just relying on an iPhone for gaming on the go.

Explore new business models
With users trained to pay 99 cents for top notch iOS games like Angry Birds, there's not a lot of room for price experimenting. Nintendo and Sony, however, can explore any number of price points and ways to generate income, including subscription plays and microtransactions to supplement lower costs. It's a flexibility both should capitalize on.

Beef up online gaming
Apple's Achilles heel is a general lack of good multiplayer games. There are some, but they're typically hit or miss. Nintendo has traditionally fumbled multiplayer, but the 3DS makes some big strides with its free access to AT&T Wifi hotspots. And Sony has a strong online background. Online multiplayer games are quickly shaping up as the future of consoles. There's no reason dedicated mobile gaming devices can't capitalize on this as well.

Build an online marketplace
The App Store's biggest draw is the ability to download and play a game instantly without having to bother going to a retail store. Sony and Nintendo both have some offerings for this with their handheld devices, but need to focus more on this area to remain competitive with Apple. Sony's leading this charge, reportedly planning to have all NGP games available for download the same day they're available in stores. Nintendo, meanwhile, has yet to launch their eStore on their newly released 3DS. That delay could prove costly.

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