Xbox Game Pass on a handheld
Photo: Logitech

Why handheld gaming is having a renaissance

Protocol Entertainment

Hello, and welcome to Protocol Entertainment, your guide to the business of the gaming and media industries. This Friday, we’re discussing the handheld boom and what it means for mobile, the nascent cloud streaming market, and the holy grail of cross-platform gaming.

Gaming’s holy grail is within reach

I just returned from a nearly two-week vacation on Monday, and it felt like an eternity had passed in gaming time. Even though I had my Switch, an iPhone, and an iPad, leaving my gaming PC and PS5 at home meant taking extended pauses from my growing Valorant addiction, my dedicated Destiny 2 clan, and the almost nightly hangouts I have with friends over Discord and PlayStation voice chat.

My experience highlighted a persistent problem in the game industry — taking all your games (and those games’ social connections and save files) with you as you go — that a growing number of device makers and platform owners have been trying to solve for years, some more admirably than others. The holy grail, in which almost every screen you own can play or stream any game you want, is still far off. But we’re starting to move toward that ideal, and announcements this week nudged us even closer.

The Android handheld boom is here. On Wednesday, gaming peripheral maker Razer joined the growing number of hardware makers intent on entering the handheld race to compete with the likes of the Nintendo Switch and Valve Steam Deck. The company’s new handheld will be unveiled next month in partnership with Verizon and Qualcomm.

  • These devices are aiming for emulation fans and cloud gaming early adopters. Because an Android handheld can play only native games that have been ported to mobile, it instead relies on support for cloud services like Xbox Cloud Gaming, Nvidia GeForce Now, and others (but not Google Stadia, which is shutting down in January) while leaning on emulation to deliver retro titles.
  • Razer’s handheld will join rival Logitech’s G Cloud, which is also aiming to serve cloud gaming converts with an Android-based all-in-one device arriving next month.
  • Both are following Chinese firms like Aya Neo and Ayn Odin (separate companies) that have been shipping higher-powered versions since 2021 on the back of crowdfunding campaigns.
  • The audience for these devices is likely small. After all, cloud gaming isn’t yet an adequate replacement for native except in the most ideal of networking environments, and most platforms only offer a limited selection of titles.
  • For the same price or cheaper, you might as well buy a Switch, which has Mario and Zelda, or the Steam Deck, which plays PC games and supports streaming and emulation. Still, it seems likely this category will grow and perhaps one day undercut more popular platforms on cost.

The Switch and Steam Deck are to thank for our renewed handheld obsession. Portable gaming machines were pillars of the game industry throughout the ‘90s and ‘00s, with Nintendo’s dominant Game Boy and then DS and 3DS platforms inspiring plenty of doomed copycats.

  • But not until the Switch — and now Valve’s Steam Deck — has the promise of portable gaming been so fully realized. These devices succeed for slightly different audiences but serve the same goal: taking your games with you on the go.
  • Nintendo is a closed ecosystem, but its strength lies in its first-party exclusives and its support of the indie game community. The Steam Deck is wildly flexible, allowing users to install all manner of software to run retro games and support cloud platforms, all while running a growing list of Steam titles with impressive performance. The best part of the Steam Deck: You can play games you’ve already bought on PC.
  • Both of these devices have reinvigorated a handheld market that was largely supplanted by the rise of mobile gaming. And while mobile gaming has matured over the last decade, it’s also become dominated by distinct business models like free-to-play and game design that caters predominantly to touch control.
  • While some mobile ports work well on smartphones, there remains strong demand for traditional controller inputs as remote streaming and cloud gaming goes mainstream and players keep demanding better and more natural ways to play the games they already own across platforms.
  • Over the summer, Sony partnered with accessory maker Backbone to create a PlayStation-branded controller you can slot your phone into, and scores of other accessories now exist to make playing what were once console- or PC-exclusive software on smaller screens. Thanks to cloud gaming, that library is growing fast.

Mobile platforms are ceding ground to dedicated devices. One might be inclined to wonder why, in the era of ubiquitous smartphones, we need handheld gaming at all. Didn’t the iPhone solve the portability problem more than a decade ago? Well, yes and no.

  • Mobile gaming has given us some great ports over the years — I’m particularly fond of gems like Final Fantasy Tactics, Slay the Spire, Hyper Light Drifter, and Dead Cells — and scores of great originals. But the mobile gaming ecosystem is also controlled tightly by Apple and Google, which collect 30% of all digital commerce on iOS and Android.
  • Apple in particular has strict rules around cloud gaming that have forced Microsoft, Nvidia, and others to use mobile web browser workarounds to deliver their subscription platforms on the iPhone and iPad. The app store policies around gaming have also burned game developers for years; that 30% cut is why Epic sued Apple and Google over Fortnite.
  • Taken together, these app store fees and Apple’s arcane rules around what gaming companies can and cannot do on mobile are partially why we’re seeing such a resurgence of handhelds that either run some version of Android or Linux. Both platforms make it easy to install, say, cloud gaming launchers and emulators.
  • Microsoft, more so than perhaps any other company, stands to benefit from these changing tides thanks to Game Pass, which now runs on the Steam Deck and will run natively on Logitech and Razer’s new handhelds.
  • The company’s platform-agnostic approach, driven not by sales but by subscription revenue, is helping pave the way for a future where you can more easily play what you want on any screen — of course, so long as the developer cuts a deal with Xbox.

Handheld gaming doesn’t solve all of our issues with gaming on the go. For one, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to play Valorant without my gaming PC and a dedicated mouse and keyboard, and that goes for many other competitive shooters. And even if Sony gets its act together and figures out a more straightforward approach to subscription and cloud gaming, I’ll probably prefer playing the new God of War on my living room’s big-screen TV.

But a handheld screen with a built-in controller — when combined with fast internet and robust cloud gaming platforms — covers a lot of bases, and all of those pieces are getting better all the time. At some point, they could fit together into a cohesive, reliable and affordable package that rivals mobile gaming and stands toe-to-toe with consoles and PCs. Chances are it won't be a smartphone, but it will definitely be handheld.

— Nick Statt


Every great tech product that you rely on each day, from the smartphone in your pocket to your music streaming service and navigational system in the car, shares one important thing: part of its innovative design is protected by intellectual property (IP) laws.

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