The Problem With the PSP

Sony’s Playstation Portable is not a bad machine. Though the screen can blur a bit it otherwise looks very nice, and the UI for the main system is well done. I’m not a huge fan of the analog nub but it’s not a deal breaker for me, and while the battery life may be pretty bad it’s not so terrible that the device itself is made useless. While there are legitimate problems, the issues are all fairly minor; as a whole, the PSP is a pretty good handheld gaming device.

And yet, the system has failed to excite customers. There are extremely few really good games for the platform, and while every once and a while something new and good comes out, often PSP owners are left with scaled-down versions of last year’s PS2 games. Plus, for all of the processing power, despite the beautiful display, and even though the PSP is a sleek bit of electronics, it’s losing to the not-so-sleek, not-so-powerful, inferior-screened Nintendo DS.

So what’s the problem with the PSP? Why hasn’t it done better in the marketplace? Here’s my theory.

I worked (briefly) on a PSP launch title. In connection with that title I met a number of folks from Sony America who communicated to my company what they had envisioned for the PSP. They wanted to sell it as a handheld PS2, and they wanted PS2-quality games on the PSP. They didn’t want the same games that were already available on PS2, they said, but they expected developers to be able to port existing PS2 tech to the PSP in order to make new games. This was a fine theory, but when the platform came out it was buried under a huge number of straight ports and knock-off games (one or two of which I worked on myself). For all of Sony’s intentions, the platform quickly became a place to deposit a major franchise port in-between PS2 releases. Even now, three years after the platform was released, there are no games for it that score 90% or greater in aggregate. And the top two games for the platform, Lumines and Wipeout, were launch titles.

Here’s where I think Sony screwed up. By marketing the machine as a handheld PS2, they raised the bar significantly for developers. By raising that bar they also raised cost of development; I remember that the first PSP games I worked on ended up costing three times what they were initially expected to cost when the platform was announced. Writing a high-quality PSP game isn’t all that much cheaper than making a PS2 game, mostly because the level of expectation for the platform was inflated by Sony early on.

This level of hype might have been OK, but then Sony went and priced the system at $250, which is way too expensive for most consumers. As a result the installed base for the PSP has grown incredibly slowly compared to other platforms.

So you have a platform that not very many people bought that costs a lot to develop for. The result is of course ports: they are the only way that a developer could deliver a title with strong graphics without assuming too much risk. And on top of that, the PSP is not a handheld PS2–it’s considerably slower than the PS2, and it also has less RAM than its big brother (Sony reserves 8 of the PSP’s 32 MB of RAM for the PSP OS). So it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for developers to go making new games specifically for the PSP; the size of the audience can’t sustain the cost of development.

Now, over the last three years the size of the PSP installed base has grown, and as it increases we’ve seen a small trickle of original games on the platform. If the platform continues to sell it might become commercially viable sometime in the next couple of years. But it’s already too late, really; instead of making a PSP game, a developer can make a DS game for less money and sell it to a much, much larger audience. While I think the PSP still has some life left in it, it’s already missed its prime and is on the down swing.

The reason that I’m spending all this time talking about the PSP is that I think it’s a pretty good example of what has happened to the PS3 so far. The PS3 is too expensive, and therefore the installed base is too small, and yet developing competitive games for it is incredibly expensive. The PS3 still has a lot more life in it than its handheld sibling, and if they can get the cost down and secure some very good games the platform may still have a chance. But at the moment it’s looking increasingly similar to the PSP story: too expensive to develop for given the size of the audience, which itself cannot grow because the device is too expensive. For the second time in a row, I think that Sony has been so interested in shipping fancy hardware that they’ve missed the balance between price point and performance expectation.

Why should you care about all of this? Well, the short answer is Japan. Of the games listed on this site, more than 60% of them originated in the Land of the Rising Sun. The thing about Japan is, they don’t want Xboxes. Barring some miracle marketing by Microsoft, the fight in Japan is between the PS3 and the Wii. And just like everywhere else, the Wii is winning big time. If the PS3 ends up losing enough market share (or even if its market share remains constant in the face of Wii growth), Japanese developers will likely abandon the platform. It’s already happening to some extent, but it remains to be seen if the Wii boom will sustain itself or if the Sony brand can pull itself out of its slump. If I were a betting man considering the best way to play horror games in the next three or four years, I’d probably make damn sure I had a Wii in the house.

16 thoughts on “The Problem With the PSP

  1. It’s a damn shame Konami said Silent Hill 5 would not be coming to the wii, really.
    On the other hand, it is getting Alone in the Dark and Fatal Frame 4.

  2. As much as I love the Wii, I don’t love Nintendo’s closed minded arrogance (not seen since the days of the SNES). It’s sort of relying on fad games to sustain itself between long delayed established franchises. Nintendo are hardly 3rd party friendly and that certainly explains a lot.

    Sony has basically become Sega Mk2. I had great respect for this company, even when they delivered bizarre claims…REMEMBER THE PS2’s ‘EMOTION CHIP’?! What the heck was that about?

    I think they just got a bit high and mighty (well so would you after 10 years at the top), then got drawn into Microsoft’s dick measuring contest because they feared that their prime was over and lost sight of what made them globally popular with the PSOne.

    Their ‘This Is Living’ advertisements say it all. At least back in the 90’s, it was innovative, drawing older gamers to teh machine. Now the adverts are a complete mockery. I honestly think Sony had no clue what their original adverts were designed to do and ended up creating simulacrums without realising their target audience was older now.

    The real ‘winner’ in all of this is, for me at least, is the DS. Constantly delivering pick-up-and-play games with longer story-driven titles that aren’t usually long established franchises or too kiddie-friendly. Long live that stylus, huh?

  3. Good analysis. I think it’s interesting how Sony, in pursuing the all purpose route for their recent game systems, has lost in the software department. The PSP itself is selling pretty well as a sort of MP3/portable movie player/game system, but like you said, there is little noteworthy software for it and what software it does has doesn’t sell especially well. Similarly, I expect the PS3 to sell alright to people as a Blu-Ray/gaming hybrid, but again, these aren’t the kind of people who are going to be buying a ton of games with the result that most software will be going to the Wii, 360, or dual platform.

    I think it’s interesting that although the XBox 360 has been selling very poorly in Japan, Japanese publishers love the system. Companies like Capcom, Namco, and Square-Enix have been putting more and more resources into the system due to its strong worldwide base, ease of development, and appealing demographic (the attachment rate for the system is unusually high; I’m guessing due to an unusually high percentage of serious gamers with disposable incomes). Capcom has been especially successful with the 360 with fantastic sales of both Dead Rising & Lost Planet, both new properties.

  4. > RD

    Yeah! The very interesting thing about Capcom is that most of their AAA games are not aimed at the Japanese market any longer. Witness the American celebrity likenesses in Resident Evil Outbreak and Onimusha 3: these games are designed to sell to the West because they’ve realized that they make more money in that market than in Japan. The Wii may or may not change that, it’s hard to tell.

  5. Its damn sad the one of the best puzzle games ever gets stuck on the most lackluster gaming system. Lumines is one of the most underrated games ever.

  6. The PSP is doing just fine; the problem is, the sales of ANYTHING will pale when you compare it to DS sales the last year or so. I suggest that the PSP and DS are only similar in that they’re both handheld gaming devices. The actual experiences the two systems deliver are divergent enough that they can’t really be considered to be ‘competing’.

    The problem with the PSP when you get outside the closed realm of internet gaming forums obsessed with DS/PSP unit measuring, is that software simply does not sell.

    I think the reasons for this are threefold. First, the PSP is terribly designed from a gaming ergonomics standpoint; most games are an unholy bitch to control or play comfortably for more than ten minutes. Even with the redesign, that analog nub and face button location can cause cramps and aches in record time. The second reason(s) is hacks and piracy.

    I myself have not one but two PSP’s(and a DS which I also love)… One hacked, and one that is not hacked. I play the hacked PSP more often than not because I can rip a PS1 game(which I own legally on disc already, thank you) on to my memory stick and play Silent Hill or RE2 on the go. I know about five other people with PSP’s, and four of those also have hacked their firmware. I’m just saying.

    And thirdly, I think there’s a huge disconnect with other developers and PSP development; portable gaming as a sub genre of gaming in general is far different than gaming on a console. In other words, gaming on the go has different requirements for the end user than gaming at home. For example, take Silent Hill 0rigins… I played the game on my computer monitor through my (unhacked)slimline PSP because the game experience on the PSP screen was a joke. I stopped playing Valkyrie Profile PSP because save points were up to two hours apart. Games like Dungeon Siege and Tekken load from the UMD regularly, which kills the battery very quickly. FF Tactics requires a commitment of fifty hours or more. I could go on. Successful games on the DS tend toward simple and streamlined graphics and interface, especially Nintendo games themselves(which should always be held up as examples of how Nintendo hardware is meant to be used since Nintendo makes hardware to sell Nintendo games and to hell with what the third parties decide to do).

    As far as Japanese development of Survival Horror games, you’re totally right, but I think we’re going to see very few on the Wii in the long term. Call me crazy, but in my mind the Wii is the most expensive and successful plug-and-play bowling game ever made. ‘Hardcore games’ for the Wii will sell as poorly as the same games sold on the Gamecube, because the vast overwhelming bulk of people who are buying the Wii are not interested in ‘hardcore games’. They’re interested in Wii Sports and Wii Fit(and hey, more power to them, they’re great games).

    It’s far too early to predict anything with the PS3 just yet. I think Sony needs to pull their heads out of their asses and start supporting third party developers again like in the early PS2 days. You can’t just design a platform with architecture as foreign as the Cell processor and assume that everyone will catch up eventually; unlike Nintendo, Sony NEEDS those third party devs to prop up their system, and in the end, how well third party games do on PS3 in relation to the 360 will determine the fate of the platform.

  7. Lumines is a fantastic game, but the 360 version is superb (albeit a little expensive if you download all the add-ons) so don’t waste too much of your pity on the franchise.

    When my 360 rrod’ed i traded in my games ,out of sheer gameing despair, and got a white psp and ive actually played it more than my ds.
    whilst i buy pokemon or hotel dusk and play it like mad for a month, after a month ill be done with teh games.
    The psp keeps bringing me back, its got some good horror games, but more would be a good idea, some good shooters and excellent rpgs and especially rtsrpg’s, plus UMD’s are great, the first time i sat down and put the amityville horror in on there i was blown away by such a fantastic picture, the nets good for webcomics and stuff and with the introduction of internet radio and such its getting better.
    its faults?, poor marketing, two mexican dustballs or something doesnt sell it to ANYONE, i assume its trying to be funny but its sad. with upcomimg games like crisis core and patapon it doesnt looktoo dark a future, but they need tog et more games out and advertise more.
    simple as.

  9. “poor marketing, two mexican dustballs or something doesnt sell it to ANYONE,”

    Ugh, I nearly wiped that collection of adverts from my mind.

    Another sign that Sony just let new advertisers do what they want as long as they’re as ‘crazy like that David Lynch one, please!’

  10. I haven’t bought any of the new consoles yet – Why should I even care? Thanks to the Wii and the PSP, the PS2 will gather ports from those systems for years to come. Just look at Alone in the Dark 5 or Silent Hill Origins and because Fatal Frame is not a very successfull series there’s a tiny chance that it will also see a PS2 port.

    But the games don’t.
    The PSP is mainly used as a media player or for hacked games. So it is really not worth developing for because the resturns are rubbish and you can do a lot better with your development resources.
    Also it is too big to be truly portable, it has rubbish ergonomics and a short battery life.

    As to the PS3, Sony recently halved the manufacturing cost, this will speed up getting to the HD tipping point, when non HD consoles look a up to date as black and white televisions.

  12. I have a question Chris, do you really think the Wii is going to be the premier platform for survival horror this generation?

  13. > Sylphglitch

    Yes, probably. For Japanese-made games, at any rate. I’m just waiting for a (good) game that uses the Wiimote as a flashlight. I think that, for the time being, Western horror games will probably show up on the 360, and I expect all of the major brands to appear on all three platforms (they’ve been in development for longer than the Wii has been out). I think that if the trend continues that new brands (or brands that are “tier 2”) will show up on the Wii. After this next round of games (Resident Evil 5, etc), if the current trend continues I think we may see those major titles appearing on the Nintendo platform as well. This has already happened in Japan with other major brands: note that SquareEnix has made the most recent Dragon Quest game, one of the largest games in Japan, exclusive to the DS. Previously it was Sony exclusive for the last decade.

  14. I remember when it was announced that DQ9 would go DS. This generation is turning out to be very weird.

    You have the Wii which is selling great for Nintendo but not so much with third parties.

    You have the PS3 which is fighting for it’s life in Japan and bearly threading water in every other market.

    You have the 360 crushing the NA market, breaking even in Europe, and being forgotten in Japan.

    Are we going to see a three-way tie this generation?

  15. I’m not sure where the idea that Wii third-party games don’t sell very well comes from. Of course, Nintendo first party games always sell very well because they are based on strong brands and because Nintendo makes damn good games. This is true every generation (the rule applies to Halo and Final Fantasy as well). Wii games are a lot cheaper to make than PS3 / 360, so developers break even at lower sell-through numbers. And at its current rate, the Wii will overtake the 360 in North America very soon.

    By all accounts racing games seem to do quite well on the PSP. Any thoughts on why?

    I hated the poor battery life on the PSP myself. Otherwise I didn’t mind it. In some ways I actually think they made it a little too powerful for it’s own good, I like the often simple graphics and gameplay on a portable – it makes me feel like I’m young again.

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