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Sony's 1998 portable gaming plans revealed

How political wrangling at SCE killed Sony's handheld ambitions.

PlayStation Portable (PSP) is not the first time that Sony has developed a handheld gaming system, it has emerged, with a Japanese business publication revealing details of the company's one-time plans to release a portable platform in 2000.

According to the report, which appeared on the Nikkei BP news service, a project called "ET Project" was undertaken at Sony headquarters (as opposed to Sony Computer Entertainment) in late 1998, aimed at creating a portable console for release in 2000.

The project came incredibly close to fruition - with prototype units completed and several key developers, including Square and Capcom, working on software for the launch. However, at the last minute, SCE boss Ken Kutaragi convinced Sony president Kunitake Ando that the time was not right to launch a portable device, and the project was cancelled.

The ET Project device was a handheld gaming console roughly the same size as Nintendo's original GBA, and came with a colour LCD screen and a Memory Stick slot for loading games onto the device. Interestingly, Sony planned for Memory Sticks to be reusable in the console - gamers would be able to load new games onto their Memory Sticks at special kiosks in shops for a fee.

Perhaps more interesting than the hardware specs of the system (although it's certainly interesting to speculate over its possible impact on the success of the GBA) is the political wrangling within Sony over the project.

Given the high regard Ken Kutaragi is held in at Sony nowadays (he is regularly tipped as a future president or CEO of the company), it's hard to imagine any gaming project taking place outside his control, but it would appear that the ET Project was not just housed outside his department, Sony Computer Entertainment, but was actively hidden from SCE by its mentors, CEO Nobuyuki Idei and president Kunitake Ando.

One explanation for this bizarre move comes down to simple office politics, according to a source within Sony quoted in the Nikkei report. "One core member of this project was an SCE technician who returned to Sony after getting in a confrontation with Mr. Kutaragi over the development direction of the portable they released as the PocketStation," he explained. "Looking at it from Mr. Kutaragi's end, he must have felt betrayed by his parent company."

Indeed - and it's clear that Kutaragi was swift to kill the project as soon as possible, convincing Ando-san that pouring all of Sony's resources behind the PlayStation 2 was a more important task at the time. As another Sony source quoted in the article mentions, things might have been rather different had Kutaragi been involved from the outset. "The project wouldn't have been stranded if SCE and Sony had worked together on this."

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GamesIndustry International is the world's leading games industry website, incorporating GamesIndustry.biz and IndustryGamers.com.

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