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Opinion: Panasonic Can't See The Jungle For The Trees

Opinion: Panasonic Can't See The Jungle For The Trees

October 8, 2010 | By Chris Morris

October 8, 2010 | By Chris Morris
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[In his latest opinion piece, Gamasutra editor-at-large Chris Morris tackles the just-announced Panasonic Jungle, asking some tough questions about the surprise MMO-focused handheld system launch.]

There's a line between brave and foolish - and earlier this week, Panasonic vaulted over it like an Olympic long jumper.

The Jungle, the electronics company's upcoming handheld gaming system, was unveiled Tuesday - and immediately met with a combination of skepticism, confusion and indifference.

Panasonic might dream of the Jungle being the next DS. But the odds point to it having more in common with N-Gage and Gizmondo.

While it's certainly too early to categorically say the system's hardware or game lineup will be weak - full specs haven't been announced yet - a quick look at the competitive market gives a pretty good idea of the odds Panasonic is up against.

Apple is quickly gaining ground in handheld gaming, with bite-sized games and a multifunctional device that's priced affordably. Nintendo, though not as dominant as it once was, is about to launch the 3DS, whose novelty could overcome the hurdles that come with its pricing.

Sony, meanwhile, is reportedly prepping for the launch of the PSP2, as it sifts through the lessons it learned with the disappointing performance of the PSP Go. And lurking in the background are other mobile devices powered by Android.

It's a crowded market - and one that's not exactly inviting to newcomers. To succeed, it takes a full commitment from the manufacturer, a close working relationship with quality developers and deep pockets.

Let's look at those in reverse order. Panasonic is hardly struggling as a corporation, but it does have a couple problems on its hands. It's still very much invested in the plasma TV market as LCD and LED screens become more popular. And while it's doing well in Japan, growth in other markets has not been as strong. All in all, though, there's plenty of cash in the coffers.

Developer relations might be a bit trickier. Panasonic is already promoting the Jungle will support Bigpoint's browser-based MMO Battlestar Galactica Online. Beyond that, it's not saying much.

One risk with having a handheld device that focuses on the MMO market, though, is the games cost a lot to develop. And there's little chance of Panasonic finding any team that's going to put in the time and cash required for a AAA title and offer it as a Jungle exclusive, given the non-existent installed base of the system.

Meanwhile, if Panasonic's hoping to position the Jungle as a device letting people play their favorite MMOs on the go, that means having to convince Sony Online Entertainment, Activision-Blizzard or EA to come on board - and there's not a lot of incentive for any of those companies to do so, given the development expenses of porting a title to the system.

(There's not a lot of incentive for gamers, either, since they can easily play those games on a laptop or netbook if they want online gaming on the go.)

As for focus, Panasonic is a company that already has a few fights on its hands. Most significantly, it's betting heavily on the future of 3D TVs in homes and is currently pouring millions of dollars into wooing people away from Samsung and over to its Viera line of sets. Does the company have the resources to effectively wage that war and jump into one that's even fiercer in the gaming space? It's unlikely.

Panasonic, of course, has some history in the gaming world. It was one of the licensees of the 3DO, which took a drubbing in 1993 - in part because of the crowded marketplace and lack of third-party support. (The retail price - an insane $700 at launch - certainly didn't help either.)

Normally at this point in an analytical column, this is where I'm supposed to say "if the company remembers the lessons it learned from that experience, it might be able to make things work this time." But I can't. I just can't.

From concept to its jaw-droppingly awful design, the Jungle is a dim-witted idea from what is usually a very smart company.


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