Much of the PlayStation 2’s ubiquitous success could be attributed, not to its games or graphics, but to the fact that the machine doubled as an inexpensive and stylish DVD player. In 2004 convergence was the new slogan in video game hardware manufacturing and marketing. Games? Games were no longer enough, so the story went. As such, Ken Kutaragi’s focus when developing the PlayStation Portable was primarily on what the system could do when it wasn’t playing video games.
It was this focus that drove the decision to use an optical media disc as the system’s storage media, Sony devising the Universal Media Disc as a kind of mini-DVD on which both games and movies could be stored and viewed. To emphasize the cinematic ideology behind the system, the company placed a lavish 4.3 inch widescreen display at the centre of the handheld, one that, with 16,770,000 colours, appeared to have skipped several steps ahead on the evolutionary scale to any handheld games technology on the market.
When Sony revealed the handheld’s design at E3 2004 and attendees had the chance to see the machine while running, the curious hardware innovations of Nintendo’s rival DS seemed irrelevant. The PSP was a cinema in your palm.
The feverish excitement surrounding the machine’s Japanese launch on December 12, 2004 seemed at odds with Japan’s plunge into recession. Chinese importers employed the services of Akihabara’s homeless to buy up units to sell back home for astonishing profit. 171,963 units were sold on launch day with nearly 500,000 units shifted by the New Year.
But the PSP’s initial signs of success did not bear out in the long run. At the time few would have bet against Sony’s decision to pack the most advanced technology into their first handheld in favour of Nintendo’s decision to eschew power in favour of what were ostensibly seen as gimmicks. But in commercial terms Nintendo’s courting of non-traditional game audiences paid off as the DS comfortably overtook the PSP in sales.
The final boot in the PSP’s prospects (in commercial terms, at least) came on June 15, 2005 when hackers disassembled the PSP’s firmware and released a hacked version for download on the internet. When installed the new software allowed PSP owners to run homebrew software and pirated games from the memory stick – with a clutch of emulators available for playing out-of-print games as well as titles currently on the market. The homebrew scene’s gain was Sony’s loss, as rampant piracy eroded game sales and disheartened developers abandoned the system en masse.