Non-Gaming: The State of Play

Non-games are not new to video gamers. Nintendo’s Mario Paint was an early innovator that can still be seen in YouTube videos. The now-defunct GameTek released a series of titles for the original Game Boy in 1991. From DS Fanboy: “[the series] included French and Spanish dictionaries, a personal organizer, a travel guide, and a spell checker/calculator. Not a dictionary – a spell checker.”

It’s not surprising that these games didn’t sell well and also didn’t do much to expand the non-game market anywhere. More than 10 years later, though, the descendants of the original Game Boy – the Nintendo DS and the Sony PSP – have realized the early promise and potential of non-games with their greatly increased power and portability.

The PSP by its very nature is a non-gaming device. Aside from a lack of a touch-screen, the PSP feature set puts the DS to shame. It includes music and movie play back, picture display, an Internet browser and an RSS feed reader. In addition to this, owners of the PSP Slim can download and use the free VoiP software Skype.

The DS for its part is manufactured by the reigning king of non-games, Nintendo. Besides its touch-screen interface, which makes for extremely user-friendly application environments, Nintendo also included the intuitive and entertaining chat software Pictochat bundled in the hardware. Anyone who’s taken their DS to a con can attest to the humor of a lively Pictochat chatroom.

While the US market for PSP non-games is small, the DS market is almost flooded with non-games. Nintendo is at the head of the pack with their Brain Age 2 selling over 4 million copies in the 12 months ending in April, according to Next Generation. The only other portable games to outsell it in the same time period were the newest Pokémon games.

Ubisoft reigns supreme among third-party publishers with their extensive Petz series of games, Jam Sessions and the My Coach games (which includes Spanish, French, Word and the upcoming Weight Loss titles). In fact, Nintendo was so pleased with an early version of Ubisoft’s My Word Coach that, according to Ubisoft Montreal CEO Yannis Mallat, Nintendo of America President, Reggie Fils-Aime, said “You got it. You guys got exactly the type of game we want for this machine.” According to GameDaily, Mallat and the casual games team at Ubisoft Montreal also got some advice on design philosophy from Nintendo head honcho Satoru Iwata

There are signs that Ubisoft is becoming overeager as many reviews on regarding their Spanish and French Coach titles comment on blatant errors in pronunciation and semantics. This is a monumental blunder for any title that claims to improve proficiency in language use.

Despite incidents like this, Nintendo is clearly trying to expand the non-game market. It’s a strategy that makes perfect sense since it puts their DS in the hands of even more consumers.

The Japanese market for non-games is clearly booming, with a surprising number of titles that are strictly utility oriented, such as a map and travel titles Chikyuu no Arukikata DS and Maplus Portable Navi 2 for the PSP that ships with an optional GPS attachment.

You can also find a plethora of language training software such as the Talkman series from Sony that has a number of region-specific titles. Nintendo also has a series for their portable platform called Tabi no Yubisashi Kaiwachou DS, with titles covering English, German, Thai, Korean and Chinese. There are even titles that teach Japanese children how to write Kanji properly.

The American market is starting to catch up to this focus on utility in non-games, most notably with the recently announced title forged from the multi-year partnership between Aspyr and Kaplan Test Prep. “The first game under the deal will be an engaging, visually dynamic and unconventional title that is rooted solidly in Kaplan’s SAT prep curriculum.”

While the first-party players – Sony and Nintendo – are clearly optimistic about the future of the non-game market, as are third-party publishers like Ubisoft, not everyone sees a bright future for the non-game market. According to an interview given with, PaRappa the Rapper creator Masaya Matsuura says non-games have a tough future, specifically those on the DS platform: “Many titles – sequels – lost [money]. Very few titles are getting much better. This means, especially for the Brain Training titles or non-gaming content, it is getting difficult right now.”

Not everybody sees it the same way, though. David Riley, Director of The NPD Group, says “I view the U.S. as the hub of casual gaming.” He cites the growing popularity of the Wii and DS as primary factors in the growing acceptance of non-games in general. He goes on to discount the effects of any alleged market bubble burst in Japan, saying “Japan is obviously an important market to watch, but it is ridiculous to think that you can predict worldwide trends based only on happenings in Japan. Specific hardware platforms, software titles and genres perform better in some countries than in others, so to say that what’s happening in Japan will happen throughout the rest of the world can be a stretch.”

Indeed the non-game market seems to be doing just fine, especially if you take a very inclusive view of the genre. Sony and Nintendo both continue to develop new applications to use on their consoles and new ways to use them. Nintendo’s WiiWare applications are perfect examples of this. With an Internet connection and a download, Wii owners can access the internet, check the local and world weather and view local and world news.

The Playstation 3 may not come with as many slick utility applications as the Wii, but it makes up for this in brute force and versatility. From launch, Internet-enabled PS3s could participate in the folding@home project to lend their computing down-time to proteinfolding research being conducted at Stanford University. Due to the versatility of the PS3 hardware, different groups such as schools and the Air Force have been buying PS3s for research purposes.

Matsuura-san may have been correct when he said the DS bubble had burst, but Mr. Riley is also correct when he says the non-game market is far from dead. From Microsoft’s vast and robust social and economic framework in Xbox Live, to Nintendo’s revolutionary approach to interface and accessibility, to Sony’s robust multi-media and interoperability feature-set, the next-generation of promises to lead to the long-sought (but little-mentioned) convergence of portable technology.

Only, as Rob Fahey, from noted, it’s happening from a different direction than predicted. While you will find your occasional break-out iPod or cell phone game, increasingly the trend is for game consoles – especially portable systems – to assimilate the functions of other portable devices such as cell phones and PDAs. We’ve already seen the beginning of this trend with the Nokia nGage; coupled with recent advances in flash memory technology, don’t be surprised when Sony or Nintendo partners with Sprint for the next-generation portable media console/cell phone.

One thought on “Non-Gaming: The State of Play

  1. I tried very hard to get quotes from Nintendo, Ubisoft and Sony for this article but none of them ever got back to me =( Maybe for my next article.

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