Posted on February 1, 2011, Phil Hornshaw 3 Reasons NGP is the Future of Portables (and 3 Why It Will Crash and Burn)
Most of the games media industry is currently in female-Beatles-fan gush mode over Sony’s new portable, the NGP. Reading the liveblogs coming out of Tokyo on Jan. 27 was a bit overwhelming, as on a few of them, you could almost feel the squee! buzzing through the electrical lines carrying the news away from Japan. As with lots of new technologies, the people enthusiastic about it gathered around to worship at Sony’s altar.
Having read most of the coverage, as well as the Sony specs, I can say that despite the initial outpouring of nerd-excitement, the NGP is an impressive machine. There are a few aspects of the Sony’s handheld that could really be phenomenal, especially given the tough state of Sony’s portable business right now. With Sony’s outreach to mobile gaming and its super-powerful, PS3-compatible technology, the NGP could really be the portable gaming system for which we’ve all been waiting.
But it isn’t all double-rainbows and cute little puppy turds, however. Everyone’s drooling over the NGP and its godlike Playstation-emulating capabilities, but this new Sony machine could very well be the final nail in Sony’s quickly descending (portable) coffin. Sony’s out of touch with the directions of modern gaming, and with the NGP, it’s meet the new boss, same as the old boss — another overpriced portable that caters to the big publishing and developing houses, and not to the wishes of players.
So here’s my analysis: three reasons the NGP could be portable gaming’s messiah, and three more why the Ubermensch of handhelds isn’t really all that uber at all.
NGP as the next Jesus
1. Playstation Suite
The single most forward-thinking aspect of the NGP isn’t its hardware or anything to do with how you control it — in fact, everything about the NGP is old hat when it comes to how it plays games (for touch screens, see any number of mobile phones and tablet PCs and even the Nintendo DS). The most modern and intelligent thing about it is its compatibility with the portable gaming market that’s exploding right now — mobile gaming.
I rail about mobile a lot, because every time I look at it, I’m more impressed. But here’s the bottom line: there are millions of players who play games on their smartphones, and Sony is letting them pay for, download and play its Playstation-branded games. That’s where portable gaming is going, and the NGP could potentially be a phenomenal vessel to use to get there.
Playstation Suite is an app for phone’s running Google’s Android operating system, that’ll allow phones to download emulated PS One games and new Playstation-branded games. The NGP will have PS Suite, too, which will give it a portal to possible bite-sized, casual games that can be played against a huge number of players. And if PS Suite goes to iPhone (and it possibly could, given a recent statement from SCE CEO Kaz Harai), it’ll be even more enormous. With a monster multiplayer community and potentially bargain-priced, casual pick-up-and-play games, Playstation Suite could help Sony take its first step into a larger world.
2. Kojima’s Vision of Truly Portable Gaming
During Sony’s Playstation Meeting in Tokyo, Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima showed Metal Gear Solid 4 running on the NGP and spoke about his hopes for a day when a gamer could play MGS at home, sync an NGP with his or her PS3, and continue playing on the go — the same game in the same place, with no break in between. A truly portable experience, not just a machine that plays watered-down, small-scale versions of popular games.
It’s hard to be too hopeful about the possibilities, especially given that Kojima talked about that capability, rather than Sony. But that feature, if it is actually a real thing, could be enough to sustain the NGP through what is quickly becoming an antiquated model for pocket video games.
Today, in a fight between PSP versions of Metal Gear Solid and games like Angry Birds, Angry Birds is winning — handily. The games are smaller, cheaper, easier to play and — dare I say it — more engaging. But the slice of the population that would love to stop an MGS4 game and have to leave home and jump on a bus to work, only to pick up on an NGP right where they left off, is an absolutely massive audience. I would even go so far as to say there’s not a single PS3 owner who wouldn’t pay a lot for the privilege. And there are quite a few Xbox 360 loyalists who would jump ship for it, too. If Sony really, truly commits to serving the “hardcore” gaming community, as it seems it has, this would be the way to do it.
3. A Worthy Playstation 3 Companion
Apple is working on this right now with its AirPlay functionality, which lets the company’s devices talk to each other over a local Wi-Fi network. The NGP could do the same thing, expanding Sony’s attempts at making the PS3 an entertainment hub by unbridling it from your TV. The PS3 might be the center of a lot of players’ entertainment universes, but they shouldn’t have to be in the center of their houses to enjoy it. Other technologies are mastering that capability: Sony has the opportunity to do so, as well.
NGP as a Future Smoking Pile of Failure
1. Sony Has No Idea What It’s Doing
There’s no better illustration that Sony has absolutely no direction for its portable business than the NGP itself. The device is an amalgamation of everything that’s working for other devices right now — if it had been rolled out with glasses-free 3D, I wouldn’t have been surprised in the least. Sony is clutching at every straw it can get its hands on in an attempt to find a magic bullet that will make it competitive in mobile and portable gaming: the link to Android, the touchscreen and touch pad controls, the analog sticks, the downloadable games, and even the near-PS3-caliber games are all an attempt to find something that’ll make some damn money, and none of it is innovative. At its core, it’s the same old Sony — the same mentality that has been causing the company to lose marketshare to its major competitors for the last five years.
Here’s a really simple point of comparison: the Xbox 360 has outsold the PS3 (although by a small margin), and the Xbox 360’s failure rate is, last I read, just a little less than double that of the PS3. That’s a statistical fact — the Xbox breaks more often than the PS3. It’s a weaker system that lacks blu-ray capability and overall hardware power. So why is the PS3 losing that fight, or only keeping it close? Because Sony’s overdriven, premium-priced hardware philosophy for the PS3 simply did not work.
Now Sony’s using the exact same overdrive strategy on the NGP as it has with the PS3, and it’ll have similar results, just like it has with the PSP. You’re going to get NGP games that are all over the map as far as control and technology, but none of them will be unique to the system — they’ll feel like PS3 games that aren’t as well-made, with tacked on augmented reality systems or touch controls for novelty. But at their heart, these will be games you’ll have played before, that were a better and more exciting experience, on your big TV at home. So why would you buy games that are the same experience or worse than what you have at home? Why would you pay Sony for the privilege of playing UMD games you already own? And if Sony truly s–ts the bed on this and doesn’t make PS3 games NGP-compatible in some way, why would you pay for full-priced games twice?
2. A Shotgun Approach to Stupid Features
OH MY GOD THE NGP WILL HAVE TROPHIES.
The gaming press ate up that feature, which Sony didn’t even confirm but brilliantly left for writers to glean from the stills it showed in Tokyo this week. Oh man, Trophies? How amazing is that!
Actually, not amazing. At all.
Remember what I was just saying about the NGP as an amalgamation of anything remotely popular? Trophies are another symptom of that disease, which infects the NGP and Sony’s plan like a cancer. Trophies on the NGP are not that big of a deal, because looking at Trophy lists is really not that compelling. It’s a feature Sony threw on in a desperate attempt to increase social networking with the NGP — yet another thing that’s doing well in the world, so why not incorporate it?
The downfall is, the NGP is going to be an expensive, exclusive machine with a small built-in audience and a smaller demographic even capable of buying it. Its social networking capabilities are going to be lacking, and worse, they’re going to provide players with reasons not to buy the NGP.
Sony made a big deal about “Location-Based Entertainment” at the Playstation Meeting, which is supposed to show players who’s playing what in their geographic vicinity. But unless the NGP really is the greatest portable ever and everyone buys it, those location-based features are going to show lots of mostly empty maps, or slightly less empty maps filled with a bunch of people playing different games. It’s not going to be the “make friends, find opponents” atmosphere Sony thinks it is because Sony’s not Facebook or Foursquare, and hardcore gamers that would buy a big flashy portable are not that dense a population. Instead, the location-based features are going to show the NGP’s weaknesses, and Sony’s going to abandon any support they might have had when the features aren’t immediately successful.
3. A Diminishing Market
Guess what — hardcore gamers who want to pay as much as $300 or more to play Playstation games while they’re on the go is a small group, and getting smaller. There’s a reason why the PSP has been steadily losing market share for years, and it’s a message Sony doesn’t seem to be getting: people are not buying it.
So what’s different about the NGP? Absolutely nothing. It’s another heavily powerful console-style gaming machine that caters to players who want heavily powerful console-style gaming. Those people are not the market that’s currently driving the video game market, and you only have to look at the sales figures from Sony and compare them to Nintendo’s for the Wii or the DS and Apple’s for the iPhone to see that. Smaller, casual gaming with innovative controls and experiences are making money hand over fist, and Sony’s putting out a machine for a segment of the gaming public that, relatively speaking, started out riding dinosaurs.
“Hardcore” gamers, as a group, are fewer and fewer every year. Those of us who grew up with video games in the 1980s and 1990s have grown up and, as adults, simply don’t have the time and disposable income to dedicate to expensive video games. Meanwhile, 15-year-olds with lots of spending money aren’t that big a market, but that’s who Sony’s catering to — oh, and the big publishers and developers. Don’t forget them.
Not to be totally cynical, but the people who Sony has built the NGP for aren’t the people who will be buying it — it’s the people who plan to make games for it. Epic, Sega, Capcom and Konami are thrilled to be able to make high-priced games with technology that’s pretty close to that which they’re already using. And they get to make new games in all their AAA franchises to boot, which will sell at a premium, pull in lots of revenue from gamers, and ultimately be more of the same gaming experience.
Can Sony Handle It?
That’s the ultimate question. How Sony deals with the great parts of its NGP — and how well it goes about making things available to players without nickle-and-diming them to death — are going to determine just how successful NGP is. Sony and its spiffy new handheld can overcome its potential pitfalls by capitalizing on the features that gamers can’t live without: things like streaming video from a PS3, saving games in a cloud, accessible-over-the-Internet format and playing them on the go, and opening the NGP up to the casual market as well as the hardcore market. All those things are very doable, and if Sony instills its new portable with a great deal of value, it could reign supreme in the next handheld generation.
But mismanagement and a reliance on power over innovation could just as easily doom the device. Sony hasn’t really shown us anything that we haven’t seen before yet, and without a specific reason to buy an NGP game — a quantifiable NGP experience, unattainable anywhere else — players just aren’t going to respond, especially if the new portable costs as much as a new console.
We won’t know Sony’s strategy for a while, but when it finally does roll out, it’ll be interesting to see if the company has learned from its past mistakes, or if they’ll expect players to pay for more of the same.