Thought/Process: Proprietary Stupidity Perpetuation
Recently, Steven Kent's op-ed piece on Crispy Gamer comparing the current consoles to the legendarily extinct Sega Saturn garnered a bit of buzz on the Internet, but I think Steve forgot a contender. I'd like to posit that the next evolutionary dead end for consoles will be the PlayStation Portable.
Some early caveats: I'm not saying that the PSP will lead Sony to ruin or that there aren't a respectable number of good titles for it. What I'm trying to critique here is the philosophy, or seeming lack of one, behind Sony's mass-transit-friendly offering.
I remember the first time I saw the PSP. At E3 four years ago, displayed behind a thick slab of glass, the sleek black handheld made my fingertips itch like never before. I remember thinking, "It's like a flat-screen TV that you can hold in your hand." Sure, the promises of multimedia capability were great, but the games were what would to move this thing. The DS extended Nintendo's handheld hegemony but left graphics-obsessed core gamers wanting an experience closer to what they got on their TVs. Sony saw that opportunity and voila, enter the PSP.
Coming as it did during Sony's uncontested dominance of the home console race with the PlayStation 2, the PSP seemed to smack of an "if you build it, they will come" mentality. It worked at first, but then the library became dominated by hobbled ports and cheap-to-produce shovelware. (Pocket Pool, anyone?) So many ports of well-established franchises have had to gimp the camera control that modern-day players expect or eliminate it all together. Even Sony's first-party franchises don't fare better on their home away from home: Ratchet & Clank: Size Matters had the series' trademark fast-moving action undercut by odd camera controls.
Even now, playing new titles on the PSP still amounts to a crapshoot. Think about that. Four years after launch, most developers should have figured out ways to capitalize on a system's strengths and avoid its weaknesses, and while games like God of War: Chains of Olympus show what a good dev team can do, more and more it seems like developers' collective interest has waned for the PSP.
I got a little insight into how this might play out when I interviewed Yosuke Hayashi, the new head of Tecmo's Team Ninja studio. After tapping and sliding the stylus all over a DS touch-screen with Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword, I asked him why the team didn't create a handheld Ryu Hayabusa experience that could've worked on both the PSP and DS. It'd mean twice the audience (and possibly twice the profit) if they'd built a game that would work on both systems, using face buttons for offense/defense and a d-pad for movement. I added that Team Ninja always seemed to gravitate to systems with the most robust technical specifications. Hayashi-san chuckled while answering, replying that while Team Ninja feels like it knows what the landscape for designing button-based games looks like, the possibilities for game design ideas on a system like the DS was undiscovered territory for them, and far more intriguing as a result.
Unlike the DS, the PSP's unique technical specs don't scream for singularly differentiating gameplay design. The only games I can think of that innovated with a PSP-specific design in mind are Crush, the clever platformer that used switching between 2-D and 3-D camera views as a gameplay element and Every Extend Extra. (Yes, I know I spent a whole column extolling that game last month, but it's worth nothing that something about the springy resistance of the PSP's analog nub feels especially right when gliding through EEE's levels.) Crush, in particular, feels like a game trying to work around the PSP's foibles and coming up with a smart tweak as a result. And while I love Patapon, it's a game that you could have made for the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 without much discernible difference.
So where does this thought process leave Sony's powers-that-be? I would say that they just need to reimagine what the PlayStation Portable platform means, except that they already had the chance to do that, and dropped the ball.
In last month's column, I talked about losing my PSP in the spring of 2007, which caused me to fantasize over the New Glorious PSP to Come. Rumors abounded that Sony was going to introduce a new iteration of the handheld, so I waited ? and dreamed. After all, when it came to the handheld market, Sony was second in a two-player race, so they could afford to take radical risks. Herewith, Evan's Recipe for the PSP That Sony Should Have Made?
1. Ditch the optical drive and the UMD format: Non-gaming content providers have pretty much abandoned the mini-discs, especially since only Sony can make them. But how will consumers get games and the few movies or TV shows that still show up in UMD?
2. Deliver PSP content digitally: Sony Music, corporate cousin to Sony Computer Entertainment, invested tons of cash into their Sony Connect music download service. That infrastructure could serve as the skeleton for a network that would send games, music and other content to PSP owners. Where would those chunky files live?
3. Plop a 30/60 GB drive in there: The sizes don't need to be set in stone and the drives could be hard-disk or solid-state. It'd also give Sony a chance to phase out the Memory Stick, another Sony-only proprietary format like the MiniDisc and the UMD that never rose above niche status.
Heck, a physical design allotting for these changes could even include room for a second analog stick. Touch-screen, maybe? They were showing up everywhere and weren't just the province of Nintendo's DS anymore. I could dream, right?
Sony bigwig Kaz Hirai introduced the new PSP-2000 model -- since dubbed the PSP Slim -- at E3 2007. Boy, was I ever let down. I knew it was going horribly awry when Chewbacca came on stage. I've got mad love for Han Solo's Wookiee wingman, but I knew they wouldn't have trotted him out if they had a bold new direction to tout for their handheld strategy. High output to your TV? Don't want it anymore. Lighter weight and smaller size? Yawn.
What's most disappointing is that Sony has all the pieces in place to make my PSP wet dream come true. Pre-established infrastructure for digital distribution? Check. Powerful home console that can act as a secure download node? Check. Vast library of games, music, movies and other content just waiting to be made available on the PSP? Check.
For months after E3, I ranted about Evan's Dream PSP to anyone who'd listen. (Ask fellow Crispyite Scott Jones. He'll tell you.) Mostly, I was so discouraged by Sony's timidity that I had second thoughts about even writing this column. Then, I saw a gorgeous fan-made mock-up of, well, My PSP on the Internet, and my technolust was rekindled.
It's not too late for Sony to change what people expect when they pick up a PlayStation Portable. Demos are already available through an official PC-to-PSP service. Maybe they can allow it to be the only system open to homebrew media tinkering, or provide tools and infrastructure to independent designers. No matter what Sony does, they can't just keep on recycling the same old hardware ideas. Ironically, the original PlayStation came about when a Sony/Nintendo relationship soured after Nintendo balked at embracing a CD-driven machine. The PlayStation brand came out of a maverick sensibility of bucking the old ways of doing things. Here's hoping they get back some of that spirit.