When the PSP was being launched in Japan I was doing everything possible to import one. I was selling off used stuff to scrape up extra money for games and accessories while I eagerly awaited Sony’s first handheld. While I didn’t end up getting a Japanese unit, I was waiting before midnight to pick up my PSP as soon as the store’s doors opened. I picked up a variety of launch titles, what I considered the best carrying case to protect my new baby, and threw some preorders on some games that were scheduled to come out later. I felt that Sony’s PSP was destined for greatness and was full of unlimited potential. So what happened? Why is the PSP limping along? Can the PSP compete with the DS? Keep reading as I explore some of these issues.
Make Sure you Have Clean Underwear!
Just like a concerned mother, I worry about my PSP. I’m constantly worried about its screen getting scratched, what will happen if I drop it, if my battery life will hold up for the entirety of a trip, and if I can safely bring some UMDs along without scratching them up. I’m a very careful person, so I manage to get my PSP out on the road with me once in a while without having problems, but the nature and design of the system still gives me reason to worry. I don’t feel like the PSP is built for heavy use on the road, and I don’t think that I’m alone. I have seen tons of people say that if they are going to toss a portable into their backpack to head out that they feel much safer throwing a DS or GameBoy in there instead of their PSP. Now this might not be completely true, but Sony hasn’t ever made an attempt to dispel these sentiments. If the PSP is truly to be that one handheld that everybody is comfortable shuttling around with, Sony needs to make people feel at ease doing so. This, however, is just the first in a long list of reasons why the PSP is currently more of an at-home portable.
So, uh, what do you do?
On paper, the PSP has a VERY impressive resume. The handheld is capable of high-quality 3D graphics, movie and music playback with a variety of formats, web browsing, RSS feed support, upgradeable firmware, WiFi support, and a variety of other features. The problem is that Sony has failed to establish the PSP as a master of any one of these features. For movie and music playback, there are a handful of other devices that do it better and have built-in hard drives for superior storage. Many prefer to go with a dedicated media player such as an iPod video due to their superior software support and flexibility when compared with the PSP.
As a web browser the PSP is serviceable, but it pales in comparison to what you can get on a nice Blackberry or Palm device. These are pretty expensive alternatives, so the PSP is a nice way to quickly check out a few things on the road, but it shouldn’t be seen as selling point for the system. To list the web browsing feature prominently on the box alongside the PSP’s primary use (gaming) is a gamble if you are going to offer less than what similar devices do. By not stating it as more of a bonus feature instead of a primary one, the PSP cannot avoid the criticisms it receives when compared to the competition. Had web browsing only been touted as a perk, people would be more willing to give it a pass.
RSS feed support on the PSP is great, but right now feeds aren’t a real reason to attract anybody outside of the geek crowd. Most web users don’t even know what an RSS feed is or how they can use them to streamline their web experience. For anybody that doesn’t know what an RSS feed is, figure it out and start subscribing to them (especially the one for this blog).
The PSP’s most important feature is its ability to play videogames. First and foremost, the PSP is a videogame platform. The biggest problem with the PSP, however, is that its games don’t seem to be adapted well to the environment they are meant to be played in. A lot (as in most) PSP games are either adaptations of already existing console games or sequels to existing franchises. Now there’s nothing wrong with a good sequel, but if you are going to develop it for a handheld, it’s important that you adapt it well to be a good handheld game, not simply a console game shoehorned to work on a handheld. Many criticize Nintendo for taking the same IPs to the DS and GameBoy that have been on the NES, SNES, N64, and GameCube for years. The difference, however, is that Nintendo properly adapts an IP to work well in a handheld environment while many of the PSP games are basically trimmed-down console games. Instead of offering something different or unique with a familiar IP, the PSP often offers much of the same, only less. This is really the biggest issue with the PSP, in my honest opinion. The software is too bulky for a handheld and it’s usually lacking that “portable feel” that I look for to give me a change of pace from console gaming.
The nature of the software on the PSP must be radically changed. Instead of bringing a trimmed-down console experience to the handheld, Sony needs to urge developers to bring a solid portable experience to the table. It sounds simple, but why isn’t it happening? Sony dumped ridiculous amounts of money into R&D when developing the PSP and they want every bit of software to show the system’s power and features as much as possible. Developers are encouraged to push the 3D graphical features of the system as well as make good use of FMV and sound with the extra storage space that the UMD offers. The result of this is that game development budgets on the PSP aren’t much cheaper (if at all) than what developers are seeing on the PS2, GameCube, and Xbox. The problem arises, however, when buyers aren’t willing to buy many portable games at the $50 and $40 price range. These developers end up developing a game that’s as expensive as a PS2 game, but are then forced to sell it at $10-$20 cheaper to a much smaller install base. So how do developers and publishers ensure that they don’t lose a bunch of money if the game misses its sales expectations? They re-use assets. We get these “remixed” or better said re-hashed releases of games that have already been out on the PS2 or PSOne. To make sure that the PSP doesn’t become a resource and money vacuum, developers and publishers are unwilling to take gambles on it with expensive development budgets until the handheld is capable of providing an environment where big sales are possible. For the same price, these titles could be released on the PS2 instead and be almost guaranteed to make a much larger return on investment.
But PSP Games Receive Higher Review Scores, Don’t They?
In the past few months PSP games have actually received higher review scores than what has been seen on either the DS or GameBoy. Thanks to UncleGuito, a NeoGAF forum user, this list shows the recent review scores for PSP and DS games. Note how long the gaps are between DS titles when compared to PSP titles:
Editor’s Choice games at IGN since March for DS:
Nintendogs: Dalmatian & Friends 8.8 – Oct 16, 2006
Clubhouse Games 8.5 – Oct 10, 2006
Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime – 8.5 Sep 18, 2006
New Super Mario Bros. 9.5 – May 6, 2006
Metroid Prime: Hunters 9.0 – Mar 21, 2006
Tetris DS 9.0 – Mar 15, 2006
Editor’s Choice games at IGN since March for PSP:
Killzone: Liberation 9.0 – Oct 16, 2006
FIFA Soccer 07 8.5 – Oct 10, 2006
Mercury Meltdown 8.5 – Oct 9, 2006
LocoRoco 9.0 – Sep 5, 2006
Ultimate Ghosts ‘N Goblins – 8.6 Aug 28, 2006
Tekken: Dark Resurrection – 9.2 Jul 20, 2006
Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth – 8.5 Jul 17, 2006
Race Driver 2006 – 8.5 May 26, 2006
Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror – 9.3 Mar 10, 2006
Daxter – 9.0 Mar 9, 2006
So the PSP games seem to review well, but the perception is still that the DS has better games overall. Well, why is that? I think that a lot of the PSP games are well-suited to play while at home on the couch or when you have tons of time to spend with them. I think they are a bit lacking in the pick up and play area (at least for me). Because of this, the games do well in a review environment where a journalist has tons of time to spend with the title and he or she is playing it much like as if it were a console game. The frustration with things like load times, lengthy intros, time consuming presentation, and a general lack of dedication to short burst gaming only comes into play when you try to take the handheld out on the road. Battery life is also only an issue once you step out the door as well. While these things don’t detract from the game itself, they do detract from the “handheld experience” outside of the home. When you choose to take something out the door with you, the streamlined hardware and software will generally win out. Also, when someone is in the mood to pick something up for a road trip, airplane flight, or a few days out of town, they will generally favor software that provides quick entertainment in their intermittent downtime.
PSP games aren’t bad videogames, they just aren’t great portable games. This can all be changed if Sony is willing to allow for (and produce themselves) software that is more in the vein of the portable gaming tradition. I don’t want to see a total change in the PSP philosophy, but I do want to see an expansion. For those that enjoy the console experience in the palm of their hand, let them have it. For those of us that are more inclined to look for an entirely different experience on the go, PLEASE GIVE IT TO US.
It’s Always Going to be an Uphill Battle
I’m afraid that in this point of time that Sony may have already cemented the PSP’s position as a console experience in the palm of your hands or as a media player with gaming capabilities instead of a portable gaming platform with some really cool bonus features. I think when the portable was first unveiled it’s what we were hoping for in the first place. Since the market has taken a view that the DS and GameBoy handhelds are more friendly to on-the-go gaming, the battle will always be tough for Sony. It’s not over, but it’s going to take a lot more effort from a company that is heavily focused in other avenues (PS3/Blu-Ray) to get things turned around.
Here’s hoping they can make it happen…