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The Death of the Sony PSP

To the casual observer, the Sony PSP looked a bit of a non-starter. Initial reports stated the console was ferociously powerful and could create a home console experience in a portable device. These reports, whilst a little excitable, are not terribly wide of the mark. The PSP garnered praise for its graphical qualities, but many found the lack of original IP, high price point and the awkward analogue ‘nub’ too much of a deterrent.

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Despite the initial concerns over the console’s validity as a major player, it did eventually sell in quite large numbers, shipping 73 million units to date. The PSP found favour with the Japanese market and their seemingly unrelenting appetite for Monster Hunter, with Portable 3rd being the best selling PSP title of all time and Freedom Unite coming in a close second; both of which have garnered a mass cult following over the course of the years. But niche gaming, no matter how successful it turned out to be, was not initially in the PSP’s mantra.

The PSP wanted to be huge. Initially it favoured downsized titles made famous by its bigger brother. Liberty City Stories was a full GTA adventure with a full GTA city on the small screen, God of War: Chains of Olympus was as visceral and violent on the tube as it was in the living room. Previously it was impossible to have these experiences anywhere other than on a home console and Sony wanted to drive its vision home with these key titles.

It was a bold move by Sony and, for the most part, was well received by critics and commentators alike. As time moved on, however, the original content slowly dried up, and PSP owners were left wondering why the only new titles available were remakes of PS1 games and yearly updates of FIFA. I imagine the high production values of these mini triple-A titles were not being met by the paltry sales and, despite Sony’s best intentions, it became clear that they had misjudged the market. Sony’s problems were compounded further by a seemingly unstoppable tide of digital piracy that drove prospective developers away in their droves.

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Portability is not as simple as marketing men would have us believe. The PSP catered for the depth we receive from home console gaming, but didn’t quite manage the ‘flick on – flick off’ ease of use provided by Nintendo’s DS console. It was clear from the get-go that this was not the purpose of the PSP or the intent of Sony, so one can only assume that they wished to alter the market in their favour; this is a path riddled with pitfalls and perils.

What the PSP said about the portable gamer was not echoed by its competition. Whilst Sony was struggling to convince its target market that ‘home gaming on the go’ was what they really wanted, Nintendo had won them over with a flurry of casual games led by the incomprehensibly popular Nintendogs. It was unfortunate for Sony but the old masters of portable gaming still knew how best to appeal to a mobile audience.

Sony released the PSP on the cusp of the explosion of the casual market. Two years after the release of the DS came the Wii and the industry became flooded with products whose design was diametrically opposed to the PSP’s philosophy. Obviously this does not mean the core gamer ceased to exist, but the industry spotlight moved away from graphical grunt and toward social engagement. Sony’s focus was jolted, and despite a raft of redesigns and modifications, the PSP was slowly forgotten.

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With the rise of the casual market came a renewed focus on the mobile gamer. Interaction and ease of use are tantamount to mobile gaming’s success. The amount of effort it takes to launch, play and close a game on an iPhone or Android device is commonly reserved for one finger and about twenty seconds. Bear in mind as well that a phone is about half the size of a PSP and the software is a fraction of the price then it’s not hard to see why the PSP simply couldn’t compete. We’re also reaching a point where the iPhone can support more in-depth games as well as the one-finger wonders it has become known for. GTA 3: Anniversary Edition, Street Fighter IV and Infinity Blade all show what is achievable on iOS and Android while pointing out how redundant the PSP has become.

As with all consoles the support of third party developers is key to success. The DS had a larger install base and much smaller development costs, so developers targeted it like a bull to a red rag. Sony’s downfall had been that it had focussed too narrowly on creating a console with the best graphics. As the PSP’s wow factor slowly vanished, developers were still inventing new and imaginative ways for gamers to interact with the DS thanks to its touch screen function. As the battle lines are redrawn for the next generation of portable consoles, have Sony learned enough from the PSP to make a success of the Vita?

At first glance it would appear that the Vita is an amalgamation of the PSP’s grunt and the interactivity of the DS. A front touch screen and a rear touch pad show a renewed focus on creative design, enabling developers to build upon ideas born from the DS or iPhone. The twin analogue sticks allow for greater off-screen control and the new OLED technology crisps up graphics until they could pour straight from the screen.

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Despite the promising Japanese launch and great line-up of release software, Sony faces the same problem that proved to be the executioner of the PSP. Does the gaming market desire a home console that can be played on the move? We’ve heard stories of the Vita’s online capabilities and how home console favourites like Call of Duty will soon be ready to play online, out and about and around town. The success of this endeavour can only really be guessed at but one thing is certain, The Vita will certainly go some way to in finding out what the market is looking for in a handheld games console.

It’s difficult to sum up and conclude as to whether the PSP has been a success or not. The very nature of a portable console is not something that will excite just anybody. Those that I know who own a PSP have been reasonably happy with it and they tell me it still accompanies them on train journeys or business trips. Whilst Sony wanted to maintain a strong focus on huge triple-A games, I often found myself addicted to the smaller, more immediate titles such as Puzzle Quest or Me & My Katamari. Perhaps Sony missed a trick, or perhaps they wanted to stay true to their original vision.

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Ultimately, the PSP was a bold experiment that favoured horsepower over everything else. With hindsight we can see that this was not the way the market was headed and as game developers re-adjusted their strategies to align with these new boundaries the PSP was left behind. The demise of the console is certainly a shame as I would argue it never really reached its full potential. Be that as it may if Sony can improve the chances of the Vita by learning from the mistakes of the PSP then its death will not have been in vain, and we’ve all got something to look forward to come this February.

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in January 2011. Get in touch on Twitter @RichJimMurph.

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