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Sony's Surprise

Sony's PSP2 held few surprises - but the PlayStation Suite could change the face of mobile gaming

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 company'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, something of a departure 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 following, 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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Latest comments (15)

Great article. Totally agree - it appears to be a huge shift in strategy and thinking from Sony who have put hardware ahead of everything else for such a long time. If they can become as good a service company as they have been as a hardware manufacturer, they have a bright future IMHO.
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Curt Sampson Sofware Developer 6 years ago
Yes, this is a fantastic analysis. Good work.

So the key question, I think, is what sort of market there really is out there for less "casual" games. Most anybody will download a copy of Angry Birds if it's free, but the number of people willing to put several hours of serious play into a game to justify a $5-10 price tag is much smaller.

That said, I think Sony's definitely aiming at the right place here. If the market does exist, it's going to be a much nicer environment than the casual gaming mass market where the acceptable price of a game is rapidly trending towards zero. I'm sure people will somehow figure out how to make money in that world, but it's not going to be any fun at all.
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Kingman Cheng Illustrator and Animator 6 years ago
Sony have a lot of work to do to make this 'work properly' but yes as said we'll see whent he time comes. It'll be interesting to see how they pull this off.
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Show all comments (15)
I like this resurgent strategy.

Solid stellar games on ones smartphone would be awesome whilst boosting the street cred of android type software/smartphones
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Nicholas Lovell Founder, Gamesbrief6 years ago
A great analysis, Rob.

As always, I think it will be most interesting if Sony allows/encourages the development of freemium games with premium upsells. That is the way to reduce barriers to entry while increasing revenues. If they aim (like Windows 7) to push the price of smartphone games back up, I think they will struggle.

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Michal Doniec R&D Engineer, The Mill6 years ago
I'd not underestimate Windows 7 when it comes to "gaming" phones. Windows phones already have full acces to windows live built in, including achievements, friends list and lots of games.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Michal Doniec on 28th January 2011 2:32pm

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Adam Campbell Studying Games Technology, City University London6 years ago
I think it's the best thing they could have done.

All the announcements and technologies were typical for me, to hear they are genuinely moving into the smart-phone space as far as apps and gaming is concerned, I'm very impressed.

That said it's something I continually stated should be their strategy.
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Roberto Allocco6 years ago
I think chat aside from experia, any other android phone will have trouble running thoes playstation game.
Optimizing them for every single piece of hardware on the market would cost tons of money.

Of course the app market is the right way to follow, but i think this is not the right one.

Ciap
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Josef Brett Animator 6 years ago
Another interesting article Rob, thanks.

I think if you (and Sony) have analysed the markets for both devices correctly, this could be a success, but Sony seem to insist that people play full console games on portable devices.

I can see the core gaming audience going for the PSP2, but I can't see the more casual smartphone gamers, who enjoy 10 minutes of gaming on the train going for Resident Evil 2 for example.

Also, there's an issue of price. I gather that PS1 games aren't going to be the only games available and PSP minis or new games could sell cheaply, but the PS1 games will probably be a little more than your average smartphone game.

Also, I think that the more 'core' smartphone gamer will find most PS1 games a bit clunky compared to the modern treats they are used to playing.
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Michael Vandendriessche Studying Computer Science, K.U. Leuven6 years ago
This is good news. When the time comes that I feel like I need a smartphone, it will definitely be one with Android. Android looked the most appealing to me and with this announcement I'll definitely get an Android.
Would be cool i can still play something if I don't have my psp(2) with me.
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Daniel Mesonero Producer, Studio 496 years ago
Maybe I haven't looked into the announcements too much, but are there any hints as to how this integrates on phones that aren't Sony? Do consumers have to install something particular or will PlayStation Suite just be a brand for the android marketplace?
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Curt Sampson Sofware Developer 6 years ago
Josef, I'm not sure that "Sony [is insisting] that people play full console games on portable devices." I see it more as they are catering to the (IMHO, currently under-served) "serious gamer" market on smartphones. And it may be a smart strategy if you're looking to make money, rather than just have an enormous user count.

Consider: I've been spending an average of $500/year or so on console gaming, almost entirely Sony products, for the last six years or so. (Exercise for the reader: that makes me the equivalent of how many average Nintendo Wii customers?) For me, once I get an Android phone, spending, say, $20-30 per year on games for it wouldn't be a big deal, being less than 10% of my total games budget, yet that sort of spending, as with the comparison above, makes me as valuable as, what a half dozen or dozen more casual phone gamers?

And while I might spend a dollar or two on a game like Angry Birds, I wouldn't spend $5 on it. But I would on Oddworld, since I know I'll get a reasonable amount of gameplay out of it.

I'm not saying that this strategy is definitely going to work, but I do see it as being a reasonable approach, especially when the alternative is a gaming market that looks like it's heading in the direction the Atari 2600 market did.

(I should note, by the way, that my console gaming habit is almost purely a consumer thing; I don't do any sort of development related to console platforms.)

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Curt Sampson on 31st January 2011 11:31pm

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Robert Barrow Information Security Analyst 6 years ago
Interesting summary of the news. It's always been a question of how Sony would respond to the additional pressure of MS entering the console market. MS's original Xbox was, for all intents and purposes, a PC in a black box that got the real platform, Windows Live, into peoples homes and heads. They're currently reaping the rewards of this with the 360. Live is streets ahead of PSN when it comes down to supporting gamers but seems to be less catered for in the media rich market. Sony effectively turning the PS brand into a software platform is, probably, the only real move they could make to combat MS and out manoeuvre Nintendo. Coupled with the rumours of Steam possibly transitioning to the PS console platform and Sony are onto a real winner, as Steam is streets ahead of Live. Couple that with the media rich support on the PS platform currently and, if they can pull it off, Sony will again be dominant come the PS4.
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Danny Gregory Studying Computer and Video Games, University of Salford6 years ago
My only real concerns with this service spny
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Danny Gregory Studying Computer and Video Games, University of Salford6 years ago
My only real concerns with this service sony will offer is that why would anyone trade in the true console experience to play games on a tiny screen. I've never been a great fan of handheld games but surely the mobile gaming Market is at it's peak. The only way forward seems to be increased graphical capabilities and longer gameplay, and as It's been mentioned above, the casual gamer probably isn't interested in playing 10 minutes of a game like resi 2. I say gd luck Sony. I'll have to see it before I'll aprove. Really can't be bothered with all the same playstation 1 games I already downloaded on the ps3. Nintendo on the other hand should do there entire back catalogue of nes and sned games on a mobile.
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