Five Reasons The PSP2 Won't Succeed

Sony has announced the PSP2 (temporarily named the “Next Generation Portable”), perhaps the final boss of handheld consoles. It’s far more powerful than its destined competitor, Nintendo’s 3DS, and incorporates social and locational data, 3G, a monster 5″ OLED screen, and a number of other features detailed here. It is to be one of the linchpin platforms for the world’s most recognizable entertainment electronics company, a stomping ground for new games, media, and services. And I think it’s going to go down in flames.

Why? It’s got its competitor beat on nearly every spec, it’s got the backing of droves of Sony fanboys, and million-selling franchises just waiting to be put on its crisp 960×544 screen. How can it fail? I’d say by not addressing the fundamental needs of a handheld gaming console and ignoring strong trends in the market.

Before I start, I just want to register my admiration of the Sony team in putting together such an impressive piece of hardware. No one can fault that. Sony is firing on all cylinders — but in my humble opinion, in the wrong direction. Here are the reasons why I feel they’re going to be steamrolled by Nintendo (and Apple) over the next three years.

No truly unique gaming features

Don’t misunderstand me: the PSP has plenty of unique features. Its excellent screen, its weird hot-pants touchpad on the back, dual analog sticks, the 3G connection. But it doesn’t have what some might call a gimmick. The DS’s touchscreen and the Wii’s motion control were called gimmicks when they launched, though perhaps that term was misapplied, since now those devices are the two best selling consoles of their generations. The reason is this: when you have a unique gameplay element like two screens, every game for your system is made for that system. With a few exceptions in which the extra functionality is tacked on, DS games are unique among handheld and console games because they have to be fundamentally designed around the gaming hardware, which makes those games both original and closely allied to the system. Nintendo hopes they can pull this trick again with the 3DS.

That isn’t the case with the PSP. They’ve made an insanely powerful and compact sandbox in which developers are free to create… exactly the kind of games they create for every other system. On that note:

Big-screen gaming is big-screen for a reason

The PSP2 promises “PS3-level” graphics and sound. I find it difficult to understand why you would want a big-screen experience packed onto a small screen. That’s not to say that graphics are worthless, and it’s nice having the capability if you’re a developer, but even on that great 5″ screen, you’re going to have trouble appreciating the grand vistas of Monster Hunter or the atmosphere of Resident Evil. Add into this the fact that most of the big-name properties (Call of Duty, God Of War, Metal Gear Solid) will have big-screen counterparts, and your PS3-level graphics and sound start to seem redundant. Wouldn’t you rather have a game truly made for the small screen, designed around portability and accessibility, not a smaller, slightly modified version of a full-fledged console game?

The best-selling games on the PSP were indeed console-style games — because that’s what was on offer. Meanwhile, the top DS games outsold the PSP’s best-seller (Monster Hunter Freedom Unite, 3.1m sold Monster Hunder Portable 3rd, 4m – my source was out of date) by an order of magnitude. Pointing a shrink ray at AAA games just isn’t that popular of a proposition.

More than ever before, people are seeing big-budget games for what they are: popcorn entertainment, loud and unoriginal, being released by the same production houses, with the same stars, same set pieces, and same gameplay. Not that they’re all bad or anything — we all like to watch movies like Transformers or Avatar now and again, mainly for the purpose of mindless escapism, which is a perfectly good reason. But would you buy a TV that only showed popcorn flicks?

AAA games are no longer a killer app

Some of the most interesting and best-selling games to come out in the last few years have been out-of-nowhere semi-casual games with mass appeal. Angry Birds has sold 50 million copies. That’s about twice the total sales of the top fifteen PSP games combined. Of course, it costs far less and is on more platforms, so you can say it’s apples and oranges. But that’s the thing: apples are being sold at the same stand as oranges now, and the big Transformers tie-in or the best handheld version of Modern Warfare isn’t where the gaming market is putting its money. The PSP2 doesn’t need to mimic Apple too much, but let’s be honest, they’ve got a touchscreen and a 3G connection, they’re already halfway there.

They’ve got a great thing going with PSN: like XBLA, it’s packed full of smart young developers pushing interesting, unique ideas and bite-sized games for bargain-bin prices. Yet the PSP2 is clearly focused in the other direction, towards satisfying the needs of Rockstar, EA, Infinity Ward, and the like. This maximizes cost per unit and minimizes the audience, since it’s clear that handheld gaming (including iOS and Android, since those really are becoming real competitors) is going towards… it’s not casual, exactly, but it’s certainly different from what the PSP2 was made to do.

The social and locational features will never hit critical mass

The key element in any social application is ubiquity. Facebook works because everyone’s on it. iPhone social apps work because there are a ton of iPhones and Android is on its way. Nintendo’s DS-to-DS functionality is good because in Tokyo, you’re never more than seven or eight feet from another DS. But will the PSP2 ever hit the level of ubiquity necessary for its (admittedly slick-looking) social features to work? Or will thousands of gamers check their “radar” and see nothing but empty space?

My guess is the latter, though to be fair that guess is based on my opinion that sales will be slow. Plus, with the system so plainly aimed at big, single-player experiences, it seems like the social thing is sort of mismatched. Is this thing for gaming, or socializing? What about the Playstation app, where does that fit in? And the new “Playstation Phone”? It seems to me that their initially fragmented social experience will torpedo it from the start.

It could have been something completely different, but it’s more of the same

Sony is going all-in on a pair of jacks. Sure, it’s better than nothing, but they could have folded and picked up a new hand altogether. Bear with me for a second. What if the new PSP had completely eschewed the big game experience, and was focused entirely on PSN downloadables like PixelJunk games and back-catalog stuff? Imagine: the lowered specs (as powerful but more efficient than a PSP) would have enabled a lighter and thinner device that could be sold for peanuts. Can you imagine a brand new PSP with access to all PSN games selling for $150? I can. And with seed money and a little cajoling in the right places, it could have launched with dozens of original and exclusive titles that focused not on aping the PS3, but on setting this unique mobile device apart from the tablets, consoles, and handsets of the world.

I would have bought one, and after some initial concerns about the library and some bucking by the “hardcore” that there won’t be enough Killzone, millions of others would have, too.

The main problem with the PSP2 is simply that it is an inferior version of an existing (though popular) platform: the PS3, or more generally, the home console and media station that the PS3 and 360 are becoming. If Sony could have focused its big-money games on its long-term bet, the PS3, and made the PSP into an original and compelling platform rather than a PS3 Lite. They could have caught a ride on the new-world-of-gaming wave, but instead, they chose to keep on paddling.