Published as part of our sister-site GamesIndustry.biz's widely-read weekly newsletter, the GamesIndustry.biz Editorial, is a weekly dissection of an issue weighing on the minds of the people at the top of the games business. It appears on Eurogamer after it goes out to GI.biz newsletter subscribers.
Much of the hotly anticipated unveiling of the next PSP in Tokyo this week was directly from the classic Sony playbook. In a blaze of marketing-led "future vision" videos and immense technological claims, the company revealed a console which proves that it has lost none of its ability to design extraordinarily desirable consumer hardware. Echoing the impact which the original PSP had on an audience used to the much more robust, child-friendly hardware design of Nintendo's handhelds, the PSP2 is sleek, attractive and about as close to "sexy" as a slab of plastic and silicon can get.
So far, so Sony. This is what the company does best - the day when Sony can't build an eye-catching piece of cutting edge hardware is the day when the entire company might as well pack its bags and go home. What was much more interesting about the conference was how Sony fared outside its comfort zone - to assess the firm's success or failure in the realm of things like software and services, which have previously been the Achilles' Heel of a company long ruled by engineers.
This, after all, is the first console launch of the post-Kutaragi era - the first chance that the new guard at the top of Sony Computer Entertainment, people like Kaz Hirai and Shuhei Yoshida, have had to stamp their authority on platform strategy. PlayStation Move provided a pointer to some of their thinking - an interesting attempt to leverage existing technology in a low-cost and potentially disruptive way - but it would have been a step too far to assume that future console launches from the firm would follow the same pattern.
Indeed, PSP2 (or Next Generation Portable, as it is presently known, with a more friendly moniker presumably to follow in the coming months along with other minor details like a date and a price point) is not really a departure from what we might have expected to see from Sony under Ken Kutaragi. What is, however, is the company's other announcement - PlayStation Suite, a fascinating departure for the company's platform strategy which, despite being overshadowed by PSP2, may turn out to be the more important announcement in the long term.
PlayStation Suite is Sony's attempt to grow the PlayStation brand into the mobile phone space - and in stark contrast to the strategy we might have expected from the Sony of old, it's an extraordinarily clever commercial play which shuns hardware launches in favour of a service proposition. Essentially, Sony recognises that smartphones have all reached a certain base level of performance which makes them into viable platforms for the PlayStation software library. Given that, the need to build custom "gamer phone" hardware is gone - every modern phone is a potential gaming handset. It just needs the software.
Sony's scheme, then, is to become a major supplier of gaming software and services to smartphones - specifically, smartphones running the Android operating system, which encompasses just about every worthwhile modern smartphone that isn't an iPhone. A PlayStation Store will be made available for Android, supplying a range of game software which has gone through PlayStation brand certification - and including, it seems, a range of Sony's back-catalogue titles alongside newer software.
It's a great idea, and one which finally justifies the Xperia Play handset which has looked like such a confusing product in recent weeks. It was hard to see why any developer would want to expend effort on creating software for the Xperia Play - fabled PlayStation Phone or no, it was a single smartphone product in a crowded market. Developing a high-quality Android game for distribution through the PlayStation Store, with the Xperia Play simply being one of the lead platforms, though? A much more appealing prospect, for developers and consumers alike, and one which finally explains where the Xperia Play fits into the ecosystem.
It still remains to be seen how seriously Sony will treat PlayStation Suite, but assuming that the firm is genuinely committed to this idea and willing to throw both development time and marketing dollars at it, it has the potential to change the landscape of mobile gaming significantly. At present, although Android is building up its installed base and Apple's iOS is really the only show in town with regard to gaming. A combination of factors are responsible - the fragmentation of Android devices, for example, and the fact that Android's store is seen by most developers to be far less appealing as a sales platform than the App Store.
Creating a certification and quality control system for games, along with a central PlayStation Store commercial platform, and stocking it with first-party and back catalogue titles to ensure that there's something to appeal to consumers from day one, has the potential to be a very disruptive move in this market. Some will argue, with justification, that it flies in the face of the ethos which has defined the surging success of mobile gaming in recent years - rapid development and deployment with a direct path to consumers, without the restrictions of a gatekeeper. Yet just because Sony isn't staying in line with that model doesn't mean that it can't become a serious threat to Apple's gaming dominance. Some consumers are happy to trade a little market freedom for a guarantee of quality - a concept Apple should be familiar with, given that it built its business on it.
PlayStation Suite, one might argue, is the final piece of the puzzle in Sony's strategy. It has allowed it to approach the PSP2 without the limitations which would have been imposed by having to compete directly with iOS devices - enabling it to create a device without phone functionality and even without being overly concerned with "pocketability". By extending PlayStation onto other mobile devices, the firm can safely allow PSP2 to be a premium product for the gamer demographic, without having to fear capitulation in the battle for hearts and minds among the more casual demographic.
In a sense, then, Sony has actually done something this week which few would have expected - it has outmaneuvered Nintendo. Despite the excitement around the 3DS, it would take a pretty brave commentator to expect it to match the success of the DS - whose sales figures, I suspect, represent a high water mark for dedicated handheld gaming consoles. The impact of game-capable smartphones and iPods upon the wider market has been simply too fundamental to allow a console to scale those lofty heights again.
In this context, Sony's two-pronged attack looks incredibly clever. PSP2 will delight the technophiles, the core gamers and the PlayStation faithful, and with franchises like Metal Gear and Monster Hunter apparently in the bag, it's a shoe-in for healthy sales among the existing core demographic. Meanwhile, Sony offers the casual market and the world of consumers who only want to carry one device in their pockets a different proposition - the PlayStation experience right there on their Android phone, a stab right at the heart of Apple's market, a response to an industry challenge that Nintendo hasn't yet even acknowledged.
Will it work? Only time will tell, and there's no question but that Sony faces an uphill struggle that will require a lot of time, effort and cash in the coming years. The prize, however, is a tempting one - a dominant position as the go-to place for videogames on a smartphone platform that's likely to power a healthy majority of the world's high-end phone handsets within a few years. If Sony can pull that off, it will have cornered an incredibly lucrative market and won over millions of gamers - without ever producing a piece of hardware in the process.
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