The NVIDIA Sheild: Whom Is This For?

NVIDIA has just announced that its new handheld gaming system, the SHIELD, will launch later this month on July 31st. The launch price of the device has been reduced from an announced $349 to $299. But even with that price reduction, many armchair analysts are left wondering exactly whom NVIDIA is targeting with this device.

NVIDIA SHIELDThe SHIELD looks like a third-party console controller with a five-inch flip-up screen attached. The screen serves as a cover when the device is closed. Naturally, the SHIELD is powered by the NVIDIA Tegra 4 processor, so it will serve as a showcase for their latest mobile CPU/GPU. But that still leaves the question of who NVIDIA believes is the market for this device. Just whom is the SHIELD for?

Right now, the mobile gaming space supports two major players -- Nintendo and Sony. After a rough first year, the Nintendo 3DS has finally gotten its legs and is consistently selling well in most regions. The PlayStation Vita is still looking for the breakout titles that will make it a must-have gaming system; or perhaps it will become a must-have accessory to complement the upcoming PlayStation 4. Either way, these are two great handhelds with lots of exclusive games between them, and they're barely staying afloat under the relentless pressure of comparatively cheap smartphone gaming apps.

It's worth noting that both the 3DS and the Vita are cheaper at retail than the SHIELD will be. Granted, part of the reason for that is that Nintendo and Sony are the exclusive channel for games on their consoles. Thus they can stand a small loss on the hardware and expect to make it up with games sold. As an Android-based device, NVIDIA will not see any revenue from the games that are played on it.

And therein lies another problem: as an Android device, the SHIELD will not be home to any gaming experiences that cannot be had anywhere else. Yes, the gameplay may be improved over smartphones with a fast gaming-centric processor with real physical controls, but if part of the advantage of Android gaming is the inexpensive apps that are available, will anybody see fit to spend $300 for improved controls? Will anybody want to carry an extra device?

Notably, one other trick that the SHEILD can do is streaming PC games to the handheld. This will require a PC with a relatively new NVIDIA GPU to be connected to the same LAN as the SHIELD, so this won't work for everyone. And again, do PC gamers who care tremendously about resolution, detail, and frame rates want to play their games on a five-inch screen?

All of this may sound like I'm really down on the SHIELD. I'm not. I'm always interested to see new players in the gaming space. And as somebody who does not own an Android phone, I have considered whether there's any easy way for me to add Android to my gaming capability. But given the price and the competition from dedicating gaming handhelds, smartphones, and other Android-based gaming devices like the OUYA or the GameStick, I can't help but wonder who the intended audience for this endeavor is supposed to be.

Why We Need the PS Vita and 3DS

Sony PlayStation Vita

The PlayStation Vita, Sony's latest entry in the handheld gaming space, is available for general release in the US today.  Retail outlets that had any unclaimed units available for sale were swarmed and sold out quickly in my area, so if you didn't pre-order, chances are that you're out of luck for now.

I don't have a PS Vita (yet) but there are already plenty of reviews that detail the high points and the low points of the Vita as a gaming device. But nearly every early review that I have read so far asks the question of why Sony made another portable game system. Is the Vita is a device that consumers will even want?

See, most people think that the PlayStation Portable (PSP) was a fine game system when it was released in 2005. Upon playing with it, I commented that it had the most beautilful screen that I had ever seen on a portable device. And although Nintendo had just released their DS (which people were still trying to understand), the PSP seemed tailored toward a higher-end part of the gaming market that wanted a console-style experience on the go. Simply put, the PSP was the closest approximation of gaming on a PlayStation 2 that could be achieved without being in front of a television.

Fast forward to 2012, and things have changed dramatically. In particular, the widespread adoption of smartphones and tablets has altered the way that we think of mobile gaming. The trend started with the original iPhone which not only had a decent-sized, attractive screen, but it had the hardware to run a pretty good 3D renderer, which is the backbone of most modern-day games. Android and Windows Phone followed suit, and now it is generally accepted that any smartphone or tablet will be a large, touch-screen display with the capability of playing games reasonably well.  Given the number of dedicated functions that have already been subsumed by the cellular phone, it appeared that mobile gaming would be next.

Look, there's no denying that mobile phone gaming has come a long way since the early days when advanced phones came with a built-in copy of "Snake." Whether it's a casual classic like Angry Birds or an impressive Unreal-engine port like Infinty Blade, modern-day smartphones have made many waits in the bank line or the doctor's office more tolerable than they would be otherwise. But at this point, the smartphone is still best for short-form gaming; there's not much to recommend it for the long-form activities that most die-hard gamers prefer.

What do I mean by "long-form" gaming? Well, consider the things that you can do with a smartphone. Now consider the things that you want or prefer to do with a smartphone. For example, I can watch movies on my phone, but I prefer to watch them on my television. My wife loves to read, and even though she could read on her phone or tablet, she would much rather use her dedicated e-reader, which is less harsh on the eyes over an extended time. And if you hired a photographer for an event and he walked in and started snapping pictures with an iPhone, you would probably ask for your deposit back.  These are all examples of capabilities that the typical phone or tablet has, but which are best used within certain limitations. Gaming is no different.

Look in the iTunes App Store reviews for a game like Dead Space or Batman: Arkham City Lockdown and you'll often see comments complaining that the game is too short or needs more levels. Granted, I don't know how much entertainment these consumers expected for their $2.99, but these are usually gamers who want more from their mobile gaming experience than they can get in most apps. They were hoping for long-form entertainment even as they made a short-form purchase.

The iPhone 4S (the top model currently available) is a fantastic device with speedy hardware. Many respected game developers are on the record claiming that the iPhone 4S blows the PSP completely away in terms of sheer computational performance, and that may be true. But the iPhone 4S will always be a mobile phone first and a gaming device second. Some of its impressive CPU power must always be reserved to handle incoming calls, text messages, or emails. It will never have the fluid input scheme that most gamers view as second nature. It will usually require a two-year commitment to a monthly voice and data plan. And as much as we love to play, most of us would rather not run our battery down so low playing Where's My Water? that we aren't able to make phone calls afterward.

Nintendo 3DS

The smartphone and tablet are great gaming devices when I'm in line or waiting for someone to end a phone call. I've filled in more five to ten minute gaps with gaming apps on my phone than I can count. And for casual gamers, that's probably all the gaming device that they'll ever need. But those of us who love playing on our XBOX 360 or PlayStation 3 want a bigger experience, something that approximates the gaming experience we get in our living rooms for times when we're on a three-hour cross-country flight or an overnight stay with relatives. We want an experience that draws us in with bigger challenges and an engrossing story and online multiplayer. And for that type of experience, we need devices like the Nintendo 3DS and the Sony PlayStation Vita. No, they aren't devices that everyone will want, but until somebody perfects the marriage between a smartphone and a game controller, there will be a market for dedicated gaming handhelds.

OnLive Expanding to Tablets and Phones

OnLive is doing it again.

The leaders in cloud gaming have now created an app that allows games to be played on a touch-screen tablet. Previously, there was an app for the iPad which only allowed viewing the OnLive interface. It was good for browsing the available games list or lurking on other games in progress via the Arena. That's great, but nothing beats being able to play your own games.

Soon that dream of playing AAA games on a handheld may be real. OnLive has already released an app for Android and will soon have one for iOS and Amazon's Kindle Fire. Some of the games will be redesigned specifically with touch controls; other games will be able to make use of OnLive's forthcoming Universal Wireless Controller. The new controller looks just like the old one that came with the Microconsole, but it supports Bluetooth and comes with a USB dongle that will allow it to connect to PCs, Macs, some tablets and smarthphones, and some televisions. This will allow you to have the console experience while using whatever display you have in front of you. The new controller will cost $50 and be available on December 9th.

The OnLive streaming technology should work over both Wi-Fi and 3G networks as long as the latency isn't too high. On slower connections the software will adjust and reduce the quality of the images on the fly which shouldn't pose too much of a problem on the smaller, lower-resolutions screens of most mobile devices. Although OnLive also claims that their software won't use as much data watching YouTube videos, people don't routinely watch YouTube videos for 30 minutes at a stretch over a cellular connection. It will be up to the user to manage his 3G data use.