Thursday, May 28, 2009

what the psp go! could mean

an artist's rendering (read: this has absolutely nothing to do with what the actual product will look like if released) We looked it up yesterday – E3 2009, the first Electronics Entertainment Expo since 2006 to interest anyone anywhere, is happening from Tuesday June the 2nd to Thursday June the 4th. The ridiculous spectacle promises to pack more news into three days than we’ve had in the last three months, which is simultaneously exciting and terrifying for those who enjoy playing and talking about games. Expect at least some effort on our part next week to keep up – we do it all for you. In the meantime, I want to take a minute to discuss one of those rumors, those nasty, pervasive things that start at one site and is then repeated in every corner of the Internet until it’s treated as indisputable fact.

It’s no secret, Sony ain’t doing so good these days. In 2009, they’ve lost money for the first time in over a decade, reflecting their slow but steady decline across the board – Canon outdoes them in digital cameras, Sharp, Panasonic and Samsung are giving them headaches in the HDTV space, Blu-ray won’t be replacing DVD anytime soon, Apple’s iPod completely destroyed the once-popular Walkman brand, and I could probably sell computers made of cardboard and paperclips that would prove more popular than the Sony Vaio line. All of this, and then to add insult to injury the Nintendo Wii and the Xbox 360 have outstripped the Playstation 3’s sales, whereas the PS2 had a more than comfortable lead at this point in its lifespan. Sony’s doing something wrong, and they need to turn it around. The PSP Go!, if it exists, could be just crazy enough to work.

Deconstructing a rumor

I don’t know if this is the way news stories work in real journalism, but in game journalism this is about how I’ve got it figured: first you need a “source” who is either an “insider” or someone “close to the project” – it is, of course, a no-no if you can name the person or any of the people or companies with which he or she is affiliated. If you can’t get a “source” an “analyst” will work almost as well. Next, you need to get that source to pull something arbitrary out of his or her ass, something like “price cut for X expected at Y time” or “unannounced thing X will be unveiled at Y” – in this case, our rumor is that Sony will announce the PSP Go! at this year’s E3.

Once your source has said something unsubstantiated but potentially interesting to your target audience, flesh it out with some of your own writing and report it as news. It may come to pass or it may not, but either way every news outlet on the Internet will pick the story up and run with it, and by the time a week has passed you’ll have read about it in so many different places that you think there’s got to be some truth to it, right?

Check those links – every single one of them cites the original 1up report. To get news, these outlets all watch each other tirelessly. This has its advantages, mainly its twilight bark-like ability to get information from one place to another very quickly, but one error begets a hundred errors, and one rumor spawns thousands of words of copy on just that – an unsubstantiated rumor. And we wonder why no one wants to take bloggers seriously.

But it might be true

Now that we’ve examined the internal structure of a rumor and the way in which it propagates (and completely tearing apart it credibility in the process), lets actually spend some time talking about the PSP Go! and why it is a very real possibility. In case you couldn’t be bothered to click any of the links above, this new device is an optical drive-less version of the PSP which downloads all of its games from Sony’s online Playstation Store, more or less doing away with retail product. According to those same rumors, Sony would offer most of the PSP’s current game library up for download at launch.

For me, the clearest proof that the PSP Go! or something like it exists is the fact that Sony has been moving this way for quite some time now. An October 2008 firmware update to the device allowed the PSP to directly access the Playstation Store, where users could download original Playstation games, game demos, and complete retail PSP games like Jeanne d’Arc and Loco Roco. The service has only been improved since then, and if it weren’t for the relative dearth of content it would actually be pretty compelling.

Also, consider that Patapon 2 was released earlier this month as a download-only title, offering it up on the Playstation Store and also offering it via download vouchers in retail stores – clearly Sony is testing some new waters here. The numbers seem to indicate that this pilot was a success – scroll down to the bottom of that sales data and you’ll see that Patapon 2 edged out several big-name disc-based products the week of its release. If they go all-digital, the move would be financially sound.

We also must consider, here, the failings of the UMD as a storage medium. Sony had positioned it as an all-purpose media disc for an all-purpose media device, but today the dusty, picked-over UMD movies on your local retailer’s clearance rack attest to the fact that nobody wanted to pay more money for a disc with fewer special features that worked only in its own tiny $200+ player. The format was not the success Sony wanted it to be, and as such they are working to bury it.

Hurdles to overcome

So the PSP Go! makes sense, but there will still be problems. First and foremost in this economic climate, there is the matter of price. With fewer moving parts and, presumably, improved and cheaper manufacturing techniques, can we finally get the PSP down to that $99-$129 impulse-buy sweet spot that the Nintendo DS has rested happily in for more than three years? Because that would be great.

You’ll also run into the problem of storage space – 1up’s “source” mentions either 8 or 16 gigabytes of built-in storage capacity, and one can imagine that they would retain the Memory Stick slot for additional memory. The UMD can hold up to 1.8 gigabytes of data. If you want to have a lot of full games stored for play at all times, you’ll need to shell out for the extra space. This is a problem that PC and console owners will be used to by now, though – if you’re running out of space on your hard drive, you either clean some stuff up or get a bigger drive. Simple, and the song remains the same no matter what system you’re talking about.

Hard as it is to believe, there are also people out there whose Internet connections aren’t ready for the new PSP – I work with a lot of people who still request good old 56k modems in their brand-new laptops because they live in rural areas that don’t offer feasible high-speed Internet prices. Even some DSL customers might balk at having to download a 1 gigabyte file, which would take several hours at the common 768k speeds. That being said, the group of people living with dial-up in 2009 and the group of people interested in purchasing a PSP Go! are pretty unlikely to overlap much, and any problems that do exist with the download-only model will fade as broadband becomes faster and more widely available.

Just what I needed

Problems aside, I think the PSP Go! would perform well. Digital distribution platforms like Steam have proven that the system works, that gamers are willing to send their cash out into the Cloud and get sweet, sweet games in return. As long as Sony’s system sports similar features – keeping track of what you’ve bought, allowing you to re-download at any time, keeping your games patched for you, etc. – I don’t think anyone will be too upset about it.

This is uncharted territory for consoles, though – downloadable content is usually restricted to old games, small or indie games, patches, or add-ons to retail content. Most big ticket items are still sold by dead-eyed Gamestop employees. For Sony to eschew the middleman with the PSP Go! could signal the beginning of troubles for brick-and-mortar game retailers, and Sony just might pass some savings on to us while they’re at it.

The new PSP also has the benefit of not leaving the existing userbase in the cold – current PSP owners can buy more or bigger memory sticks and start downloading just like everybody else. Early adopters may be upset that their old game discs will be incompatible with the latest and greatest, but early adopters who still get upset about being burned need seriously to reconsider some of their choices.

It’s also just plain important that the PSP become a contender again. We need competition in the portable space. Lack of competition made Nintendo complacent in the past and history repeats itself, as is evident in the aggressively yawn-worthy DSi refresh. The DSi has few compelling new features, especially if you compare it and the DS Lite to the Game Boy Advance and the original DS – the first DS was a risky new product that was taking some chances, and it came about because Nintendo felt threatened. Sony needs to get back in the game so that Nintendo feels threatened again.

To regain some of the ground it’s lost in this generation’s console race, Sony needs to pull a rabbit out of its hat. The PSP Go!, while still residing only in the realm of fantasy at this point, is exciting enough and innovative enough to give the platform the push it has needed since it launched in 2005. I’ve always thought that the PSP deserves and is capable of more success than it has seen so far, and I find myself hoping not only that the Go! exists, but that every single one of the rumors about it are true.