Lessons Learned From The Original Game Boy
By James Grahame
Handheld gaming has reached a crossroads. In one corner, we have the industry's old guard -- Nintendo and Sony -- with their more-or-less traditional 3DS and NGP gaming devices. In the other corner are a couple of young and eager upstarts -- Apple's iOS and the Google Android platform. Industry pundits have wasted no time arguing the merits of each, but I suspect the winner will be the device that most closely emulates key elements of the original Game Boy's success.
Let's take a quick walk down memory lane. Unveiled in April 1989, Nintendo's gray brick was laughably simple by today's standards - the microprocessor was a pokey Z80 variant clocked at a mere 4.19 MHz and the non-backlit display offered only four shades of gray arranged in a 160 × 144 grid. It had 8 kB of internal RAM.
Nevertheless, the Game Boy went on to sell over 118 million units. Its success can be contributed to several important (but perhaps accidental) factors.
The first element was the availability of killer games -- Tetris was initially included as the pack-in title, helping to spur Christmas sales in 1989. A broad range of impressive titles followed featuring the likes of Mario, Donkey Kong and a flock of Pokemon.
The second part of the puzzle was simplicity. The Game Boy could be picked up by a six year old or a sixty year old and its five front panel controls were easily understood - a d-pad, A and B buttons and smaller Select and Start buttons.
However, the critical part of the puzzle was somewhat counter-intuitive. The Game Boy fell short against stiff competition from the impressive $189.95 Atari Lynx (with color backlit screen and networking) and the $150 Sega Game Gear (3.2" color display). So how did the Game Boy -- with a ghastly 2.6" reflective monochrome display that spat out 4 shades of olive green -- win the battle against technically superior systems?
The key difference was overall cost. The Game Boy retailed for only $89.99 and required 4 x AA batteries that lasted about 12 hours. Its more expensive competitors chewed through 6 x AA batteries in as few as 4 hours of game play -- a difference that parents quickly picked up on.
So what does this say about gaming in 2011? First and foremost, cost is king. The iPod Touch, NGP and 3DS all fall into the $229 to $299 price range, and all feature rechargable batteries. So there's no clear winner on the hardware front.
But Apple has a distinct advantage with app pricing -- most games are priced well under $5, which makes it difficult for Nintendo and Sony to justify their traditional $35+ pricing structure. It's true that many iOS games are somewhat lightweight, but I suspect many parents are far more willing to fork out $30 for ten shorter games than risking the same amount on a single 3DS title.
A third element is still up in the air: simplicity. The iPod Touch doesn't include a d-pad or physical buttons, opting instead for touch screen control and software flexibility. It fits Apple's Zen approach to product design, but makes for a less than ideal gaming system.
Perhaps this is where the Android platform will slip past the others and dominate the handheld market. Envision, if you would, an Android powered gaming device with a touch screen and physical controls that retails for under $200 and combines key elements of iOS (app pricing and software flexibility) with important handheld game attributes (low cost and physical controls). That could be the magic bullet.