As the growing popularity of mobile devices chips away at the desktop platform, its possible we're seeing a similar trend in gaming platforms, as Nintendo announced Tuesday that its handheld 3D and 3DS systems together combined to outsell Wii consoles in 2011.
The Nintendo 3DS initially sold very slowly, with only 3 million units sold in its first six months. But since November's influx of popular new games in the Mario franchise, 3DS sales have experienced a sharp uptick. Overall sales were down in 2011 from the previous year, when Nintendo sold 8.5 million handheld devices and 7 million Wii consoles in 2010.
Nintendo bragged Tuesday that it sold over 12 million hardware units last year, the fifth straight year it could make such a claim. Nintendo sold 4 million Nintendo 3DS systems and 3.4 million Nintendo DS systems sold in the U.S., which outdid sales for Wii consoles, at 4.5 million units sold.
Still, it's unclear exactly why sales broke down this way, or if this is part of a larger trend of mobile popularity.
The use of mobile devices for Web applications could have nothing to do with the popularity of Nintendo's handheld devices in gaming, as the latter is much more strictly an entertainment passtime and thus taps into much different consumer behavior patterns. While users often use their smart phones on the go for work, handheld gaming consoles don't usually require portability with the same level of urgency.
Some question whether the growing popularity of mobile Web applications, like smart phones and tablets, have undercut the popularity of portable gaming devices, rather than increased it. For instance, the PlayStation Vita has experienced far smaller numbers than were expected, with sales plummeting in the last week of 2011, and some citing competition from smart phone games as a contributing factor, specifically that the $250 price tag for the PS Vita is higher than the $199 price of the Kindle Fire.
And the Nintendo's focus on developing their handheld may only be in response to user dissatisfaction with the Wii console. There have also been complaints surrounding the Wii console that new innovative games, geared more for hard-core gamers, have not been as forthcoming as expected. Nintendo's new console, the WiiU, which is scheduled for release in 2012, is said to be designed more for serious gamers.
The WiiU also will have a new tablet-like controller, which has equally confused and intrigued gamers. That Nintendo is trying to tap into the world's obsession with mobile devices seems clear, but whether the world's general obsession with mobile and tablet platforms are applicable to the gaming world remains to be seen.
Food for thought: Microsoft's Xbox 360 console -- with its superior Kinect motion capture technology and hands-free control and its growing catalog of innovative games -- had a banner year without the help of a handheld gaming device.
For gamers, the popularity of a given platform has more to do with the relevance of the games, and the quality of the games themselves, rather than the convenience of the platform. The Wii console delivered in 2011 with its big franchise games. The company has indicated that The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword has become the company's 45th game title to sell over 1 million units, and its Mario Kart Wii title rounded out 11 million units sold as 2011 drew to a close.
One thing is certain, the gaming world is fickle and mysterious. Whatever is coolest will rule, and what may work for one company might not for another. But Nintendo has been relevant for a long time. They always seem to find a way to put themselves in the game, as their handheld numbers indicate, and unless the WiiU is a total disaster, they will likely continue to do so.