Portable gaming is dead. But not in the way you think.
I don't mean that people no longer look to gaming for diversion while standing in lines, or sitting on flights or falling asleep in a hotel room. I mean that the distinction between portable entertainment and plain old entertainment is fading.
When thinking about how I want to be entertained, I rarely consider my physical location in making that decision. I don't think: "I'm on a plane so I want to use my iPhone" or "I'm at home so I'm going to play on my Xbox 360." My entertainment choices are driven purely by my mood, my taste in diversion, what I want to do at that moment. How I scratch that itch is a distant, rarely thought about, afterthought. And increasingly, technology makes it possible for me to ignore those distinctions.
Typically, the only time I think about the platform for delivering entertainment these days is when I'm considering buying a new one like PlayStation's upcoming Vita.
The PlayStation Vita is a chunky, relatively pricey portable device whose surfeit of inputs reads like a who's who of gaming interfaces. It has the touch controls and ability to download titles of Apple's iPhone. It has the twin thumbsticks of an Xbox 360 or PS3 controller. And it has the gorgeous OLED display of an in-your-hands television.
I spent a week away from home with the Vita and my iPhone as the only lifeline to gaming. Instead of rushing to my big screen or home consoles when I got home, I ended up spending perhaps too much time over the weekend laying on a couch playing Vita games.
To succeed, the $250 to $300 Vita can't set its sights on just Nintendo's 3DS and Apple's iPhone. That's not enough anymore. It has to compete against an entire world of entertainment choices.
On the go, the Vita is a smart choice for a myriad of entertainment. Video on the device is vivid, music with headphones fairly good. Online support is powered best by WiFi, though the 3G option is meant to do a passable job of at least keeping you connected to fellow gamers and their habits. The games, which run $30 to $50, include some system-selling experiences.
My favorite among the bunch was Uncharted: Golden Abyss, which had me forgoing television, movies and games on a bigger screen to play through this latest iteration of a powerful PlayStation series.
The portability of the Vita is hampered by its over-sized body (I could slip it into some bigger pockets, but it fit so snugly in other pants that I had trouble bending my leg to tie my shoes.) The battery life, especially for so powerful a device, surprised me. On the go, with short bursts of gameplay on flights and in cabs, the Vita lasted me most of the day. Plopped on my couch, I managed to eke maybe four hours out of the system playing non-stop Uncharted before needing to go plug it in.
The size of the device and its battery life mean that the Vita isn't the sort of electronic device you're going to plop in your pocket and forget about until you're looking to kill some time. But the sorts of experiences that the Vita seems able to deliver makes that OK.
Sony seems to understand that gaming on the go isn't enough anymore, not with the popularity of smart phones that can deliver small experiences quickly and cheaply. To succeed in this realm of new portable gaming you have to make a platform that is just as enjoyable to use at home as it is in the back seat of a car.
Ultimately, the test of Vita's value isn't whether you'll use it when you have no other options, it's what you will do given a myriad of choices.