Sony’s Forgotten Console

Sony's Forgotten Console

In the west, at least, 2008 was a quiet year for PSP. But Sony’s annual Destination PlayStation event, held in Houston in February, aimed to suggest things would be different in 2009. SCEA president Jack Tretton announced major new games, claimed there was new developer interest in the console and affirmed a focus on game downloads through PlayStation Store. It was a proclamation of resurgence for a handheld that many gamers think forgotten, home to ill-fitting ports of big console favourites from Sony, all but ignored by thirdparty developers and publishers, and victim of underwhelming hardware revisions that haven’t done enough to challenge the new kid on the pocket technology block, that darling of developers and consumers alike, iPhone.

Is Destination PlayStation too late, a last gasp for a platform that is effectively moribund? Sony’s claim of a global installed base of 50 million units would suggest not. Recent high sales in Japan can be claimed as a phenomenon almost entirely driven by a tiny number of titles, particularly Capcom’s Monster Hunter Portable 2nd G, but even though last year featured few significant western releases, Sony managed to sell eight million PSPs in the US and PAL territories, according to media analyst Screen Digest. With costs of production dropping to offer a larger profit margin, Sony clearly has little need to panic about the state of the PSP – but with an installed base twice that of the PS3, shouldn’t Sony’s handheld be making the gaming headlines?


MotorStorm Arctic Edge

“I believe the concept of a multimedia gaming device was pretty far sighted at launch and still has legs,” says Screen Digest’s Piers Harding-Rolls. “Where PSP has suffered is in the infrastructure and delivery of different media to the device as well as a paucity of games. But good games are needed to drive sales of the product.” And according to Destination PlayStation, this state of affairs is about to change, with 2009 witnessing a slew of big name gaming brands for PSP – LittleBigPlanet, MotorStorm, Assassin’s Creed and Rock Band – as well as increased support through the PlayStation Store and continuing efforts to make better use of its interoperability with the PS3. But as DS and iPhone squeeze Sony’s portable offering from either side, can such efforts really encourage gamers to dust off their PSPs?

Perhaps a more immediate question is why it has taken so long for Sony to act on this issue. Mark Hardy, SCEE’s European product marketing director, says that the issues lie outside the company: “The games market is currently stronger than it has ever been, with more gaming platforms available than ever before,” he tells us. “What this means is there has been more pressure on publishers to be more selective over which platforms games should be developed for. Initially, PSP was a victim of this, and I think although we have created some great firstparty titles such as God Of War: Chains Of Olympus and LocoRoco, more could certainly have been done. This is something we have been working very hard to change, and the software line-up for this year is a clear sign that we have achieved a great deal of success in this area, both with firstparty and thirdparty games.”

When we talk to thirdparties it becomes rapidly clear that eschewing UMD in favour of digital distribution is seen as utterly vital to the platform’s continuing success. The UMD market, as a trip to any UK retailer will show, is in a difficult state: most titles on the small amount of shelf space allotted to the console are published by Sony. “If you look at the market for PSP developers, it’s impossible to find a publisher that will put money into making games for PSP,” says Sebastien Rubens, an ex-SCEE Technology Group employee who left the company last year to establish publisher Anozor, which published No Gravity by Realtech VR, solely distributed through PSN, in March. “We couldn’t have done it [without digital distribution],” he says, bluntly. “If we’d made a UMD version, we’d have needed a publisher. But that’s the great thing about targeting PSN with a 51MB game: we want people to download quickly and more cheaply.” But while such an approach could conceivably be a breath of fresh air for the PSP in the same way that independent developers have enlivened PSN and XBLA, pricing is proving problematic – with Patapon 2, for example, selling for £20 both on UMD and for download on PlayStation Store. With retailer discounting, however, the UMD is routinely available for significantly less – £15 on Amazon.co.uk as we’re posting this story. And considering trade in pre-owned games, PlayStation Store pricetags can seem even less appealing.

Downloadable games might suggest a new focus on the bite-sized chunks of play that iPhone games tend to provide, but Hardy champions the high production values of PSP titles. “There is an assumption that all handheld games need to be simplistic and ‘snack-like,’” he says. “PSP games aim to deliver more than this.” And yet it’s a stance that pinpoints the source of the handheld’s success in hardware sales and, simultaneously, its major problem with software. The PSP still possesses the most powerful graphical capabilities among handhelds, comfortably ahead of iPhone despite early claims to the contrary, and its firstparty products have tended to pursue this, attempting to position the handheld as home-console-quality gaming on the go. “The most successful [PSP games] are the more cinematic titles such as Tekken: Dark Resurrection, Daxter, Ratchet & Clank: Size Matters and Wipeout Pulse,” says Hardy. “All of these have pushed what PSP is capable of and made maximum use of the great screen and graphic capabilities.”


Capcom’s Monster Hunter Portable 2nd G

“Most developers need bigger teams to make a PSP title than those required for a DS one,” says Chris Kingsley, CTO of Rebellion, one of the most prolific PSP developers. “That’s really because of the scope of what you can do – you can make them like more traditional console games. One of the strengths, and also weaknesses, of DS is that you’re forced to do something different, but you couldn’t make use of the effort you’ve put in on other platforms, which is always a nice thing to do with PSP.” But while the use of brands may draw some consumers to the PSP, it’s a challenge to create long-term appeal with games that are found in more substantial form elsewhere. The PSP has not, like the DS, been forced to establish its own identity thanks to the limitations of an idiosyncratic control scheme and far less powerful graphical capabilities.

And the issues may go deeper than that. “I think there is a level of expectation for games on PSP,” says Rubens. “What developers and publishers wanted to do on it at the beginning was too high. People realised that the investment was too high, and you didn’t get your money back. If you look at Big Brain Academy, it took nothing to develop and it brought back millions. On the iPhone there are some great games, simple ones, repetitive ones, but at $1 people don’t mind paying that.”

Outside of games are PSP’s considerable media-playing functions and a series of add-ons that extend its use into mobile telephony and navigation. PSP-3000’s addition of a microphone would appear to be an explicit attempt to highlight its support of Skype on 2000 and 3000 models, while Go!View, a pay-per-view video download service provided by Sky Broadcasting that launched in the UK last year, lends it wider use as a media player than UMD-based and home-converted video. Meanwhile, camera and GPS add-on devices and Remote Play compatibility with PS3’s PlayTV add even more flexibility and appeal to a pocket do-anything device.

But it’s not clear how widely customers are using it all. “If you talk to people, a lot don’t know you can watch films, attach a camera and use Skype,” says Rubens. “It’s a shame.” Indeed, the clunkily implemented Go!Messenger, a collaboration with BT, was axed in March, having “not developed the base of users that we were hoping for,” according to its website. “At the moment Sony’s non-gaming solutions for the PSP are piecemeal and are less integrated than Apple’s products,” says Harding-Rolls – and it’s hard not to agree, with the need to buy and fit additional units on to the consoles for many to work and highly regional implementation turning people off.

And with 50 million owners, that’s a lot of functionality being wasted while iPhone is getting all the headlines. Persistent rumours of a ‘PSP 2’ with no UMD drive according to ex-Shiny head David Perry, and a touchscreen according to others, might suggest that Sony is rushing to at least match Apple’s wunderkind. One thing’s for sure, though, PSP doesn’t need more power to reignite the excitement it deservedly gained when it launched. Instead, it needs cohesion among all its non-gaming functions, greater care applied to the thirdparties that have been historically instrumental to Sony’s gaming consoles, and perhaps a redesign with internal storage to take advantage of the new emphasis on PlayStation Store. Should the summer herald such a turnaround, 2009 could indeed be the noisiest year for the PSP – the sound of 50 million people blowing the dust off its wide, glossy screen.