Late last year, when rumours began to swirl around the 'PlayStation Phone' which Sony Ericsson reportedly had in development, I voiced some confusion over what, exactly, Sony was planning on doing with the portable and mobile end of its console development strategy.
In the first weeks of this year, we've seen a number of new pieces of the puzzle. For one thing, we now know that the so-called 'PlayStation Phone' is real - but that it's not being called that, instead being branded as a game-focused member of Sony Ericsson's Xperia line-up. In addition, certain media reports have suggested that we're mere days away from getting a proper look at the PSP's official successor, with a briefing scheduled for Tokyo on January 27.
It would arguably be a cheap shot to characterise this as a confusing splitting of Sony's handheld gaming brands, even if there's some truth to that accusation. The Xperia Play isn't the device people expected - despite tacking closer to the PlayStation brand than any of Sony's previous phones have, it's far from being a true marriage of PSP and mobile phone, and looks like it may even lack the ability to play digital versions of PSP games.
Such a device - leveraging the PlayStation heritage to some extent, but seemingly lacking the software legacy which many people had expected - would face an uphill battle to make a serious dent in the mobile gaming market at the best of times. With that in mind, the revelation that it will be overshadowed by the (presumably) all-singing, all-dancing PSP2 from the very start of its lifespan just starts to look like a kick in the teeth.
Is this a sign of a tug of war within Sony, or of a failure to communicate and strategise between the firm's disparate divisions? Or is there an overarching strategy here which we simply don't comprehend? Will all become clear on January 27?
One way to clarify the waters already is to ignore the Xperia Play entirely, and consider where Sony stands with regard to the PSP2 in light of recent leaks and rumours. The device looks set to appear in the second half of this year, suggesting a timetable by which it will be announced later this month, heavily showcased at E3 and on shelves in Autumn.
Rumours imply a device broadly comparable in prowess to the PS3, with a high resolution screen, twin analogue nubs and, unusually, a touch sensitive panel on the back of the unit. While none of these features have actually been confirmed in a solid manner, it's worth noting that even as more and more people are exposed to the device in the run-up to the probable announcement later in the month, none of the features have been debunked either. One other interesting point is that the system is also expected to eschew the digital-only approach of the PSPgo by sporting a physical media slot of some description.
In most regards, touch-sensitive back surface aside (and this, if true, may be more designed as an OS and application navigation system than as a game control interface, judging from Sony's own patent filings), this is a pretty linear and predictable, albeit very welcome, upgrade from the PSP. It all makes perfect sense, especially when you consider that such a device would be capable, in theory, of playing PS2 games just as the existing PSP can play PS1 games - opening up a potentially lucrative revenue stream for yet more of Sony's pre-HD content.
It would also be a very clear statement of purpose in terms of Sony's market positioning. Given the success of the Nintendo DS, it's interesting that Sony has seemingly chosen to stick to its guns - delivering a handheld system which is heavily focused on power-hungry, core gaming experiences and what will presumably be excellent media functionality. Then again, it's not like the firm's choices in this regard are legion. A direct challenge to the DS' market would be extremely risky, and could alienate the PSP's own more hardcore fans, while the increasingly impressive gaming abilities of the iOS devices will force Sony to pull something pretty stunning out of the bag in technical terms.
So where, in all of this, does the Xperia Play lie? It's a competent gaming device but reportedly lacks the processing grunt required for an emulator which could directly run PSP content. Sony could leverage its first-party studios and third-party relationships to secure original content for the device, but it's not clear whether that content would be interoperable with the PSP or PSP2 - both of which, as we understand it, sport somewhat different control interfaces to the Xperia Play, which complicates matters further.
In other words, even after all the excitement surrounding the PSP Phone, it's beginning to look like it may be precisely the lowest common denominator device which cynical commentators expected from the outset - a Sony Ericsson phone which integrates aspects of PlayStation branding without actually seriously benefitting from the rich ecosystem that has developed around the PlayStation products themselves. It may well be a decent phone, but it seems likely to be a pretty terrible PlayStation.
PSP2, on the other hand, looks like it will fit into that ecosystem like a hand into a glove. The persistent talk of a second analogue nub ties into that point of view perfectly, giving the device almost exactly the control layout of a Dual Shock pad - and hence, assuming a couple more small tweaks, the ability to perfectly replicate the controls of any of Sony's PS1 and PS2 library of titles, arguably the most enviable back catalogue of entertainment software in existence.
In our haste and excitement over brand new gaming markets and experiences - everything from the Wii and the DS to iOS and Facebook - it's important not to forget that there are tens of millions of consumers out there who have been with gaming for many years, aren't intimidated by existing controllers and are willing to spend plenty of money on core gaming experiences. Not that any game companies ever really forget those consumers - you need only look at the wealth of high quality core gaming experiences which turned up in 2010 to realise that casual and social gaming has appeared in addition to, rather than as a replacement for, the core, upstream games beloved of so many gamers.
I don't doubt for a second that Sony's strategy for PSP2 will include some clever nods to the audience that have entered gaming through the Nintendo DS - but equally, I don't believe that Sony has any desire to abandon the original PSP's more hardcore market, a sense which is strongly reinforced by seeing the vast popularity of the device in Japan in the wake of the launch of Capcom's latest Monster Hunter instalment. The PSP may have lost out to the DS in the battle for the sales crown, but it's by no means a failed console - indeed, considering that it's a first effort in a struggle against a company which has utterly dominated handheld gaming for over two decades, it's been a stupendous success.
More of the same, then, is likely to be the order of the day - something to delight PSP fans and appease the PlayStation's long-standing devotees, with casual gaming titbits thrown in as a side salad rather than being the main course of the meal. Rather than trying to dethrone the DS or fire a broadside at iOS - both fools errands in the current market, even for a company of Sony's scale - the PSP2 is likely to aim for a sleek, high-tech third way.
And the Xperia Play? Let's be entirely honest - was the world really all that excited about the 'PSP Phone', or was it just starved of information about the PSP2? Time will tell, but I suspect the latter, and sense that Sony Computer Entertainment's heart may never have been in the phone project. Once the wraps are taken off PSP2, whenever that is, it's clear what the main attraction will be - and with Nintendo's 3DS only weeks away from landing in consumers' hands, there's no question but that the handheld battle is back on in earnest in 2011.
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