I've been away from my trusted trio of stationary consoles for a couple of weeks. Lost in the land of the free with only my PS Vita and iPad to keep me comfort, and it got me thinking about what I really want from gaming on the go.
First of all, the PS Vita is a brilliant device when you're missing your Playstation 3 or Xbox 360. While it may not deliver the exact same HD experience it comes bloody close and it a hotel room when you're sick of the frequent American nauseating commercials (Need a bails bond man? Have you been in a car accident recently? You may be in eligible for medical marijuana!) it certainly helps pass the time. I played lots of Lumines: Electronic Symphony, Touch my Katamari, and Super Stardust Delta in the hotel room.
On the other hand I tried turning on my Vita when out in the sun, and that was just impossible. The nature of the OLED screen just makes playing in direct sunlight a nightmare so I would probably not bring it for a vacation where I plan on spending most of my time on the beach (haven't had one of those trips in a decade, but nevermind that). But it wasn't any one game that had me turning on my Vita and bringing it along to Starbucks (for wi-fi access) - nope, it was the promise of new gifts with the Near feature. And there were lots of gifts to be had as San Francisco was littered with PS Vita users during GDC as well as the week following (it's obviously a gamer town). You may not be as lucky with that when you're in Aiya Napa, but then you may not really go to Aiya Napa to unlock new tracks for Super Stardust Delta och buddies in Touch my Katamari.
At the tail end of my San Francisco visit I made my way to the Apple Store to pick up my "new iPad" or iPad 3 as most people call it. It's Apple's trojan horse in the console race as each iteration becomes more powerful and integrates through Apple TV with your set in a way that once the hardware is powerful enough and there the controller options are there is likely to challenge Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony given the casual appeal of some of the games already on AppStore. If you're into games like Bejeweled, Tiny Tower, and Angry Birds, it makes more sense to use your iPad as a console rather than buying an Xbox for titles on Xbox Live Arcade.
But nevermind the console potential of the iPad, here and now it's mainly to be thought of as a portable gaming device and as such it provides plenty of instant action. It's better suited for gaming on long flights given it's battery time and arsenal of load free quick fix games when compared to the PS Vita, but it still struggles with some genres as touch controls have certain limitations (the virtual d-pad is an enemy of mine).
For a veteran gamer like myself the PS Vita is a definite favourite just thanks to its brilliant online features and console level gaming experiences. But in all honesty I don't see myself playing it much when I'm actually in transit and on my way somewhere. It's the kind of portable device you play with instead of reading a book before you go to sleep, the kind of device you use in the hotel room when it's raining on your vacation, but not something you whip out on that 20 minute bus ride or even during that two hour flight. The loading is one reason, but I also feel that some games are just better with the online features turned on, and you certainly can't do that on a plane (unless there is wi-fi and you're willing to pay for it, of course).
What interests me is where portable gaming is heading in the future. It doesn't really look like the console style experiences are dominating sales on AppStore or Android Marketplace, and the focus on casual experiences and micro transactions is something that opens a lucrative niche with hardcores for the likes of Nintendo 3DS and PS Vita. What should be scary for Nintendo and Sony, however, is the yearly updates of the iPad and similar devices. In a couple of years, those devices may very well be capable of things on par with the Vita, and then you have to wonder what developers and publishers will choose to focus on.
The Nintendo 3DS and the PS Vita needs top budget productions to stand out and make themselves attractive to hardcore gamers, but given their relatively small installed bases it may be hard to convince developers and publishers to commit to projects that may hit these platforms at a time when they are competing with a significantly larger install base of new iPads that are equally capable, and provide developers with a more open platform (a relative term, naturally). Portable is a volatile market these days, and the question is whether Nintendo and Sony can establish strong enough platforms to hold off the threat from future iPads.