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Sony PSP
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posted by: GF! Back Catalogue 10/2004 => 1995
date posted: 12:00 AM Fri Sep 12th, 2003
last revision: 12:00 AM Fri Sep 12th, 2003

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By Gary Wong

With Sony finally entering the handheld games market after years of speculation, fanboys have crawled out of the woodwork, either proclaiming Sony's PSP to be dead on arrival or digging a grave for Nintendo's venerable Game Boy. The amazing thing is that the rhetoric is flying without any concrete knowledge of what the PSP will ultimately be when it is released over a year from now. Sony has provided gamers with some raw specs and details about its entrant into the handheld market but they're just numbers and figures. Was there anyone who wasn't somewhat excited when Atari announced that they were releasing the first 64-bit console to the market? No one could've guessed that the Jaguar would be Atari's last attempt to release a console, not with the fanfare with which they touted the 64-bit console. So what do we know so far about the Sony PSP? At E3, gamers were told that the PSP's screen would be widescreen (16:9 ratio) and backlit, that it would use a disc-based medium that could hold 1.8GB, and that it would have 3-D graphics and stereo sound. In addition, it would have a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, and would have slots for USB 2.0 and Memory Sticks. Sony announced that the potential for the PSP would be limitless as it would not only be a gaming machine, it would also be able to play music and movies (using the MPEG4 codec) on their proprietary disc medium, UMD?. The way Sony speaks of the PSP, it has to remind people of what the original PlayStation and the subsequent PS2 were being marketed as; that their video game consoles would do more than just play videogames, they would be convergent devices, combining many forms of entertainment in one device. With all the facts presented so far, one would figure that Nintendo would be scared, figuring that their iron grip on the handheld market would be loosened. So far, Nintendo has shown no signs of fear at Sony's announcement of the PSP. In fact, it would seem that Nintendo is confident (some would say arrogant) that they will be able to continue their dominance in the handheld market. Nintendo's confidence is well earned, as there have been many contenders to their throne and all have failed. Since the 1989 release of the original monochrome Game Boy by Nintendo, there was the color Atari Lynx, the NEC TurboExpress that played TurboGrafx-16 games, the color Sega GameGear, the Sega Nomad which played Sega Genesis games, the NeoGeo Pocket Color, and the Bandai WonderSwan. All of these contestants were superior in some way to the incarnation of the Game Boy that was available in the market at the time. Each contender fell prey to the same problems: the lack of third-party support, console pricing that kept it from being generally accepted by the average consumer, and the continued dominance of Nintendo. All of these factors combined to allow Nintendo to own the handheld market from the inception of the original Game Boy to the current Game Boy Advance and Game Boy Advance SP. All told, Nintendo has managed to monopolize pocket gaming for the last fourteen years. Though there have been many failures to unseat Nintendo from the handheld throne, Sony feels that the time is ripe for them to make their play. Turn the clock back to 1995, when Sony released their original PlayStation to a home console market completely dominated by Nintendo (this is becoming quite the theme here). There were many that felt that Sony stood no chance in taking any market share from Nintendo, let alone completely dominating them. However, Nintendo never viewed the PlayStation as a threat to its Nintendo 64, and they paid the price for their arrogance as the PlayStation would go on to win that generation in a rout. Sony hopes that history repeats itself; Nintendo hopes to prevent said history from reoccurring.

By going to a disc-based medium for their handheld, Sony's upped the ante for Nintendo. A disc-based medium allows for higher storage capacity per dollar than a cartridge-based medium. If Nintendo sticks with a cartridge-based medium for their as yet unannounced next-generation handheld (though you have to believe one is in the works), they'll be able to carry-over their backwards compatibility to their new system. The problem is that they may end up with the same problem that faced the Nintendo 64 when it was up against the PlayStation; cartridge-based mediums cost more to increase storage capacity, which means their games will be smaller in size than a disc-based medium for the same price. Sony used this to their advantage in the PlayStation era by utilizing full motion videos in their fully rendered glory while Nintendo had to use cut-scenes using the in-game engine. If Nintendo moves to a disc-based medium, they will be able to create games with a lot more storage capacity to play with. Unfortunately, they would be sacrificing backwards-compatibility with their pre-existing library of Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance games. This would level the playing field for Sony as both sides would start from nil. Sony has the image of being a more adult, hipper player in the videogame arena while Nintendo has been saddled (unfairly) with the image of a kids-first company. This perception has allowed Sony to run away with the home console market but does this axiom extend to the handheld market? Historically, it has been shown that the handheld market has always skewed younger than the home console market. The image of a child playing a Game Boy is normal while an adult playing a Game Boy looks childish. It may be an unfair and inaccurate perception, but it exists nonetheless. With the release of the Game Boy Advance SP, that perception has started to fade as the flip-top nature has made it more culturally acceptable for an adult to play with. Despite the growing number of adult owners, children continue to make up the majority of handheld owners. Sony hopes that a good number of their PS2 owners will take to the PSP, thus creating an instant installed owner base.

From that point on, it's a contest to see who will court more third-party offerings. There are a variety of routes that both companies can take to woo third-parties to develop games for their systems. They can offer discounts for developing for both home and handheld consoles. They can be nasty and force them to develop for one market in order to develop for the other. Whomever gets the lion's share of the third-party games stands the best chance of winning the market. What will it take for either side to claim victory? For Sony, they have to come out of the gate with a lot of games that appeal to a broad spectrum of gamers. It's true that when the PS2 came out, great games (or games in general) were few and far between, but they had the advantage of already being the leader in the market and the first to make it to retail. They don't have the same advantage with the PSP as the fifteen-year-old Game Boy library will be sitting there and still going strong. Sony will also need to find a way to differentiate itself from Nintendo in order to carve their own niche in the handheld market. Their best chance to succeed is to not compete against Nintendo, per se, but to fill in the gaps that Nintendo misses and then quietly expand into Nintendo's strongholds; heck, it worked for the PlayStation. For Nintendo to succeed, they need to remember what made them the dominant force in handheld games. The Game Boy Advance has been host to many ports of old Nintendo favorites and although these games are enjoyable, they need to come out with more original games in the vein of Metroid Fusion. Innovation is the key to victory for Nintendo, something that they have very rarely lacked in.

Who knows who will win the next-generation handheld war? Does it really matter that there be a decisive victory anyway? One hopes that competition will bring out the best in both companies, leading to some great games that will someday be mentioned in the pantheon of great gaming. The answers will start arriving in 2004.