— Sony’s new handheld gaming machine has barely just arrived on the scene and already gamers all over the world are gathering around, pelting it with questions like a mob of relentless reporters dogging a famous defendant outside a courthouse
“Why do you cost so much?” they want to know. “Why won’t you play our old games?” they demand. “Why should we spend our money on you when your sibling — the PSP-3000 — is not only cheaper but does pretty much the same thing?”
And, of course, there’s the big question: “What the H-E-double-toothpicks is Sony thinking?”
But let’s back up a moment and start with this: The PSPgo, which arrives on store shelves today, is one sweet gaming machine.
I’ve spent several days pawing at this slick, compact gaming gadget — the third redesign of the PlayStation Portable since it was launched and the first dedicated gaming device to ditch physical game discs and move to a purely digital format. And having spent some quality time with it, I think I get it. I get what the PSPgo is all about and what Sony is trying to do, and I even understand why they’re doing it.
And yet ... some serious head-scratching remains. That is, the PSPgo comes with one hefty $249 price tag — this at a time when the economy is still reeling and at a time when cash-strapped consumers can, for the same price or less, buy a full blown console game machine.
Meanwhile, while Nintendo’s competing handheld machines — the DS and DSi (priced at $129 and $169) — have spent much of their history as the number one selling game machine in the United States, the PSP is often found trailing dead last. And the competition isn’t getting any easier. Apple has been increasingly pitching its flashy mobile media devices — the iPhone and the iPod Touch — as the portable gaming gadgets to beat.
And so the big question really is: Will the PSPgo help propel Sony to the top of the handheld gaming heap? Or will this device — nifty as it may be — crash to the ground, dead on arrival as some have insisted?
Go go gadget PSPgo
Think of the PSPgo as Sony’s more portable portable gaming machine.
The first PSP model, which launched in the U.S. in 2005, was something of a brick — a brick with some serious gaming horsepower but a brick nonetheless thanks to its spacious screen and sizeable disc drive. (Universal Media Discs is what they’re called, or UMDs.)
Like a Hollywood starlet hopping from one trendy diet to the next, the PSP has gotten thinner and lighter with time — reintroducing itself as the PSP-2000 and then the PSP-3000. But still, it’s remained a chunk when compared to its rivals.
With the PSPgo, Sony has trimmed the fat, removing the disc drive and tucking the machine’s analog stick, d-pad and button controls into a slab that slides behind the screen when closed. The PSPgo is 50 percent smaller and 40 percent lighter than the original. And although the 3.8-inch screen also is smaller, it remains vibrant, spacious and larger than the screens you’ll find on an iPhone or DS.
All in all, it’s a light, tight, sleek package that feels great to hold and, most importantly, it feels great to game with. But getting rid of that discs drive means that if you want to play games on this machine you have to go online and download them to the Go’s 16 gigs of internal memory or to a Memory Stick Micro that you purchase separately.
You can do this in one of three ways. You can download games from the online PlayStation Store directly to the Go using Wi-Fi. You can connect your Go to your PS3 and transfer games from there. Or you can use Sony’s free Media Go software (which is not so different from iTunes). Simply connect your PSPgo to your PC and use Media Go to purchase games online or to transcode your own photos, music and videos and put them onto your PSP.
It’s all quite easy to do and Sony says they have a total of 16,000 pieces of digital content for download as of today including TV shows, movies and more than 225 games (new games, older UMD games converted to digital, classic PlayStation One games and some new bite-sized Mini games.)
“A lot of consumers are ready for a digital only product,” says Eric Lempel, Director of PlayStation Network Operations. “They don’t want to carry around a bunch of media. They want to store everything on their device. And this new device really speaks to them.”
Angry fan boys unite!
But if this device is speaking, many gamers say it’s shouting “Eff you!” at them.
Here’s the rub: Those Sony supporters who purchased earlier-model PSPs and the game discs to go with them have no way of playing those games if they want to upgrade to the disc-driveless PSPgo. Instead, current PSP owners will have to pay full price to buy digital versions of their old disc-based games.
In a discussion at Engadget.com, PSP owner Andrew Lazetera said there’s “not a chance in hell” he’s going to upgrade to the new device.
“I am a Sony fanboy. But I will not re-buy games that have 5-7 hours of content to begin with when I already paid $40 for them,” he says. “As a system, the PSP is incredible, however, typical of Sony, they have found a way to ruin even the best console.”
John Koller, Sony’s Director of Hardware Marketing, says they tried to come up with a way for customers to transfer their UMD games to digital. “We did make every effort,” he says, “but we ran into a number of legal hurdles as well as technical hurdles that were not able to be solved.”
But games analyst Michael Pachter of Wedbush Morgan Securities says it’s the PSPgo’s price that’s going to be the biggest problem.
“So here I am with $249 in my pocket. And geez I can get an Xbox Arcade or a Wii or I can spend $50 more and get a PSP. Please,” Pachter says. “I just think that $249 is too much when the alternative gaming devices you can buy for less are so much more feature rich.”
He believes that while the PSPgo will sell well in the beginning, sales will quickly taper off.
Meanwhile some are wondering why anyone would pick up the PSPgo when the PSP-3000 can do everything the Go can do and only costs $169. That’s right, all that digital content can be downloaded to your older model PSPs, though you will have to buy a memory stick to store them on.
But Sony executives say they’re not pitching the PSPgo as a replacement for the PSP-3000 system, but as a compliment. Koller says they will continue to support older PSPs by releasing disc-based games for it alongside digital versions of the same games. And he expects the older PSP to remain popular among a younger teen demographic while the “premium” PSPgo will appeal to a slightly older demographic more focused on portability and digital media.
“What we’ve seen is that some of the later teens to maybe mid-20s are adopting the digital gaming lifestyle very quickly and so we needed to have a product that adapted to their culture and the way that they use handhelds.” Koller says.
An answer to Apple
Yes, despite criticisms leveled at Sony and the PSPgo, the new device makes good sense when considering Apple’s bold move into gaming. Apple’s online App Store now provides thousands of low-priced digital games to be played on the iPhone and Touch. And consumers have been downloading them at breakneck pace.
But while Apple insists its devices are superior, the Touch and iPhone can come up woefully short as gaming devices. For starters, unlike the PSP and PSPgo, the Apple devices provide no stick, button or d-pad for controls — which can significantly hamper the playing experience for seasoned gamers. Meanwhile, not only are a significant portion of the App Store games either simply meant for quick “snack size” fun, many are downright half-baked and awful.
“We’ve noticed that there had been a lot of handhelds dedicated to snacking,” Koller says. “And that certainly has been popular with a certain segment of the demographic. But there’s a significant amount of consumers who are really asking for a deeper, richer experience and that’s what PSPgo really offers.”
Yes, in many ways the PSPgo is a smart answer to Apple’s move into gaming. It’s a really well-designed gaming machine that promises a library of robust games (among those launching digitally today: “Gran Turismo,” “PixelJunk Monsters Deluxe” and “Resistance: Retribution.”
Meanwhile, Sony is also getting in on the bite-sized gaming thing with the launch of its new Mini games — smaller games that can be quickly downloaded and easily jumped into for $9.99 and less (take that App Store!) But whereas the App Store is awash in thousands of homebrew games, Sony — like Nintendo with their bite-sized gaming program called DSiWare — plans to be more selective with their offerings.
“We’re not going to be flooding the store with everything under the sun,” Lempel says. Seven Minis launched today, among them are excellent indie games like “Fieldrunners” and “Brainpipe” as well as a “Tetris” game from Electronic Arts.
With the PSPgo’s pricy price tag, it’s too bad they didn’t add features — like a touch screen (all the cool kids have one these days) or maybe a camera like the redesigned DSi — something that would have given gamers the feeling that they were getting something more for their $249 other than a really cool, really compact plaything.
That said, if Sony has any hope of making the PSP competitive down the road, they had to answer Apple’s gaming challenge. Offering a digitally-focused machine that can play videos and music like Apple’s devices but puts gaming at the very heart of it all was a smart way to go. Of course, only time will tell if consumers will go for the PSPgo.