So, right before this year’s E3 started, the cat was let out of the bag and the worst kept secret in the videogame business was finally in the open. Yes, it is true, confirmed Sony’s John Koller, the leaked material was right, Sony is working on a new revision of its portable gaming platform, PSP. The new PSP, however will not be just a numeric update of a ‘thinner, lighter’ kind. The new PSP is a reimagining of the platform, a thorough look at its strengths and weaknesses as well at the state of the industry at the moment and the subsequent revision of the console.
The new PSP is branded PSP Go and it is apparently supposed to make it to the market this fall. From the looks of it and from what John Koller confirmed, Sony has taken into consideration the comments many gamers have made about the current three versions of the console and is making a more streamlined, more convenient platform. PSP Go will be having a slightly smaller screen than the current version of the console (3.8 inches) that will be sliding upwards to reveal a set of face buttons, a D-pad and a solitary analog stick (positioned rather awkwardly if the photos are to be believed). The console will have bluetooth support, built-in flash memory storage (8 and 16 Gigabyte versions) and, perhaps most importantly, no UMD drive. As a consequence, it will be some 43% lighter than the currently sold PSP 3000.
Sony is addressing a number of issues coming up repeatedly in PSP discussions with this design. First and foremost, ditching the UMD drive seems like a smart thing to do: the device has been almost nothing but trouble from the word go. Obvious mechanical and heat dissipation issues aside, the UMD drive has been siphoning the battery charge like there is no tomorrow, killing a lot of the portability that is part of the Playstation Portable name. Otherwise, the lucrative business of selling the PSP-owning folks many, many films (and TV shows, one should imagine) on the new, portable UMD format has been very much dead in the water from start. Losing the support of movie studios and seeing how the proprietary storage format has done little to stop the piracy, Sony is finally throwing the towel into the ring and admitting that digital distribution is the way to go. Integration of the PSP with Playstation 3 and PC, as well as its own considerable online capacities mean that purchasing games online might become more than just a niche market for the technologically advanced and turn into a mainstream distribution channel.
Or so the theory goes. Browsing many of the gaming forums on the Internet you will see gamers demanding digital distribution for PSP titles, claiming they are tired of being inconvenienced by UMDs and pointing out that both Nintendo (with their DSi console) and Apple with the iPhone are paving the way with their respective digital distribution services. So, Sony is merely doing a smart thing to ensure their product is, what was the term again? Ahh, yes: future-proof.
Now, I hate to be the one who kicks the man when he is down, and Sony has been down for pretty damn long, but some things are worth thinking about in advance lest we want to end up regretting them later.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not among those who have been pronouncing the PSP a failure of epic proportions for the best part of the last two years, claiming it has no games and that it sticks with outdated distribution methods. I have ‘both’ current generation portable consoles: PSP and DS and they get equal parts of my free time. I for one believe that PSP has some great technological capacities and that there are more than enough games in the market capitalising on this potential in satisfactory, sometimes even spectacular ways.
However, PSP does have a problem, as a platform, as a brand and as a consumer product. Its main problem is probably the inability of defining its core target group.
Ever since the beginning of the marketing for PSP, it was clear that Sony is trying to target more than just gamers, even gamers belonging to such a broad group as the Playstation generation. PSP was supposed to be some kind of all-purpose urban gadget, playing music, videos and games with equal conviction while emanating cool lifestyle symbolism not unlike something Apple is known of coming up with for their own products.
And yet, it failed on almost all of these fronts. Despite its large screen, large storage and strong hardware, PSP’s multimedia functionality has been almost unimportant to most consumers in this age of powerful telephones and MP3/ video players. It turned out that Sony’s technological advantage was not such an advantage after all when compared to PSP’s obvious disadvantages: size, weight, battery life, heat dissipation.
So much about the iPod killer then. However, on the game front, PSP suffered a similar fate. 50 million sold consoles apparently do not grant solid attach rates (the total number of games versus the total number of consoles sold) and this is most probably due to Sony’s repeated inability to define its target audience and core identity on the games front.
What is PSP when it comes to games? Is it a powerful, Playstation 2-like console in the palm of your hand extrapolating the IPs you have come to know and love on the living room consoles? Is it merely a port machine? Is it a console for fresh, original IP that will play on the platform’s strengths? Is it a family machine with a broad spectrum of puzzle, quiz, action and RPG games?
Well… you tell me. Because sure as hell, Sony has not been able to tell us. What they were able to say is that they are working on ensuring more games for the platform (games, we might add that demand more money and man power to produce than for any portable console ever) by talking to different developers and publishers. They also cried wolf many, many times, citing piracy as the main reason PSP is failing even though in the same breath they would be telling us how it actually goes from strength to strength and that (every) next year will be the year of the PSP.
But of course, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Sony has not been able to clarify it in their own meeting rooms as to who the main target group is, who should be buying games for the PSP and why they should care. In the meantime, the hackers have given the existing users reasons to love their PSPs. Customised firmware enabled the users to rip the films from their already owned DVDs to Sony’s memory sticks, therefore bypassing the need to buy the same films again on the UMD. Also, PSP’s native support to Playstation One games, trumpeted by Sony prior to the launch of the console has been poorly followed up by releasing sporadic PS One games via Sony’s PSN store that originally demanded the user to have a Playstation 3 to purchase them. No option was given to the people already owning those games to make use of them without paying again. Unless they used customised firmware in which case they could easily rip and transfer them to the PSP.
Yes, piracy also happened, yet it is Sony’s inability to understand what their users want and, after all, who their users are that ultimately made PSP into what it is today. Not a failure, but certainly not a runaway success either.
Now, PSP Go should rectify some of the mistakes. By ditching the UMD drive altogether and selling the software digitally, Sony is cutting the middle man out and ensuring better service to the customers, more money for themselves and less problems with the pirates.
And yet, it is tempting to list all the potential reasons why PSP Go will fail. Or at least not succeed. And I am not taking any pleasure from this, rest assured.
First of all, John Koller was very quick to point out that launching PSP Go does not mean cutting the production of the traditional, UMD-driven PSP 3000. So these two versions of the console, one saddled with the now obsolete storage and distribution system and one modern and fresh thinking, these two versions are supposed to exist on the same market, share the same software and be supported equally by Sony. Koller even underlines that, while the diversification might happen in the future, PSP and PSP Go are supposed to have the same catalogue of games from start.
Which sounds almost like a fairy tale. Sony has been unable to support its one portable console properly in the past several years, failing to define its core identity and main target group. To think they can now magically do that for two different but similar systems sounds far too optimistic to me. One of the consoles will get the short end of the stick, inevitably, but being a mammoth corporation it is, Sony will probably be very slow in admitting one of the products they are supporting should be euthanized.
Also, despite what the gamers were saying on the Internet forums before about their hate for the UMD, a cursory look on those same forums now will show that those same gamers are saying that they will never accept digital-only purchases, that they love their UMDs and printed game manuals and cases. As far as they are concerned, Sony can go right to hell with their greedy digital distribution plan. Especially if the game prices do not get reduced significantly.
Now, gamers are… gamers. And Internet is… a free for all hate machine, but there is a point in there somewhere among all the fire and spit. If current situation with the digitally distributed titles on Sony’s PSN store is anything to go buy, not only that these ‘immaterial’ purchases are as expensive as ‘physical’ ones, in many cases they are more expensive as things get discounted in physical stores due to the limits of physical storage, whereas online they can stay expensive forever.
Now, another issue is this: who are the people most likely to purchase games digitally? Mostly the PSP hardcore, whoever they are, people who have already owned PSP consoles and understand the advantages of digital purchase. However, those same people have in many cases invested (in some cases heavily) into their game libraries and knowing that their UMD collection is effectively useless with their potential future PSP Go console is not going to motivate them into buying it and replacing their PSP. On the other hand, the new users, potential virgins seduced into buying PSP Go through brutal advertising campaigns and sexy aesthetics will have to be faced with the fact that the game shops do not sell any software for their shiny new console. Many games purchased as gifts will end up being returned when proverbial little Timmys discover that the UMDs purchased for them by their aunts just won’t fit into their slitless PSP Gos. Yes, both iPhone and Nintendo DSi seem to manage very well with their digital distribution, but iPhone has entered the market with an infrastructure and strategy Sony has historically demonstrated being unable to reach and Nintendo is making sure their console is much more compatible with the vanilla DS…
So, Sony is making a leap of faith and, as much as one wants to give them respect for it, that same one can not but wonder whether those knobheads have for a change thought about this stuff before leaping.
But at least the piracy will be eradicated, you say. Well, if the current rates of iPhone games available on warez sites are any indication, the situation will be quite the opposite.
I am not trying to spell doom for Sony or PSP Go. As I said, I enjoy my PSP and would like to see it thrive for many years to come. Yet, Sony’s business and marketing policies in the last several years have been shortsighted to say the least and frankly insane by many accounts. The company posted a one billion loss in the last fiscal year. And yet they are simultaneously trying to pave the way for the new, uncertain business models and preserve the models proven not to work, as if being cocky is the same thing as being smart. In the United States this is, I believe called wanting to have one’s cake and eat it too. Where I come from, we have a more colourful proverb: they want to have sex, but without penetration. As Bill Clinton taught us a decade ago: there is no such thing.