Can the PSP2 Be Saved?

Sony seems to be looking to the mobile phone industry for its next handheld device. What does it mean for the PSP2?

Illustration by Andrew SpearIllustration by Andrew Spear

For a while there, listening to Sony was beginning to sound disturbingly like listening to Brett Favre insist he’d played his last NFL game, or a government military official trying to maintain some gauzelike shreds of deniable plausibility in the face of a growing drumbeat from the hungry crowd—which, in the case of the PSP2, consists of gamers and the videogame industry.

PSP2? Dude, what are you talking about? We’re not working on the PSP2. Um, and we’re not designing a PlayStation phone, either.

But the signs, of course, keep cropping up, even as the software giant conspicuously avoided mentioning the existence of either device in their keynote address at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show.

In recent weeks, word leaked that Sony had filed patents for a device with touch-screen functionality, and last week yet another round of photos and videos appeared, seeming to show some kind of gaming-phone hybrid project involving Sony and their pals at Ericsson. All we need now is some dude from Gizmodo to find a prototype just lying on the bar at the local Bennigan’s, and we’ll be all set.

Sony’s subterfuge aside, it doesn’t take much combativeness to argue that the “it’s about time” moment came and went for the PlayStation Portable more than a year ago, right around the time that new releases for Sony’s handheld system dropped to an average of one per month. Now it begins to look as though any full-fledged PSP sequel will have to wait in line behind whatever phone/handheld Sony’s prepping (or not prepping, as the case may be).

It’s hardly the first time the PSP has gotten short shrift. Sony’s glossy handheld has ridden a bumpy road since its debut in 2006. From the beginning, its makers tried to position it as the only jack-of-all-media-trades you’d ever need, a piece of tech that would allow you to play games, watch movies, and listen to music at the same time.

And we all know what kind of jack that scenario tends to produce.

The missteps began almost immediately. First, there was the universal media disc (UMD), the PSP’s shield-shaped data storage gizmo. It baffled consumers (many of whom cracked open the UMD’s plastic casing, thinking they needed to access the silver disc inside) and led to the PSP’s signature sound—that endless whirring and grinding that signified we’d be waiting through yet another long loading screen. Nobody likes loading screens. They’re like the passive-aggressive airport security guard who decides to give your Samsonite a full-cavity search when you’re moments away from missing your plane to the Bahamas. And on the PSP, they were absolutely legion. In the early going, that grinding noise sometimes went on for up to six minutes at a crack, depending on the game. It became such a painful issue that writers with the U.K. version of Gamespot actually threw together a list of the worst offenders.

Sony tried to solve the question by ridding the PSP of the UMD altogether when it released/upgraded to the ill-fated PSP Go in 2008, a wireless-download model that had the handy side effect of rendering everyone’s entire UMD libraries useless. Let’s hear it for backward compatibility, everybody.

Now, if the rumors, reports, and leaked photographs are true, it appears Sony’s looking to make some overdue noise in the handheld arena by skipping  down the same trail that Apple has blazed with the iPhone—creating a device, maybe with a touch screen, maybe with D-pad controls, that pulls double-duty as a gaming handheld and a phone.

This could create an interesting conundrum. As Sony contemplates what it has (the existing PSP) and what it wants (a possible mobile-phone-based successor), the hardware giant finds itself confronted—yet again—with that inevitable moment where ambition collides with reality, like The Situation or Bristol Palin colliding clumsily with their partners on Dancing With the Stars. It’s a question every developer also faces: How much can you bump up against the hardware restrictions of your platform without having to sacrifice something?

Despite its technical glitches and shortcomings, the PSP enjoyed any number of major triumphs, moments where gamers couldn’t help but think, “I’m seriously playing a game that looks this beautiful—and functions this well—on a handheld?”

Any of the Ratchet & Clank ports, Persona 3 PSP and God of War: Ghost of Sparta stand as wonderful examples of what the PSP was capable of when all the technical elements and development stars aligned. On the other hand, those nagging technical issues never quite went away. Even a recent A-list PSP game like Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep struggled mightily with the loading-screen issue. Developer Square Enix’s suggested solution, installing the game onto a PSP memory card to speed up and improve performance, played into the PSP’s other major shortcoming—a severe and persistent lack of storage space. That lack has become even more pronounced in last year or so, with the rise of PSP minis and digital distribution. Simply put, forking out for and managing a library of thumbnail-sized memory cards was never going to be a workable system for anyone other than the cats at SanDisk.

Creating an iPhone-like device could potentially solve both the storage and load time issue—iPhone users rarely have to worry about game app-downloads maxing out their storage space—but unless Sony can muster some major feats of technological magic, it might also require some serious sacrifice of content and features. There’s no question that from a graphical and gameplay standpoint, Apple’s mobile platform has evolved over the last few years to begin making good on some of its early promise and potential. Games like Infinity Blade are now using the same Unreal engine that powers any number of console games, to jaw-dropping graphical effect, with the promise of more to come. Still, nobody’s going to argue that Madden 11 on the iPhone runs as smoothly or is as feature-rich as any of the Madden games on the PSP. (Well, except maybe for Madden 2006, the one that had to be replaced because of a buggy UMD disc.) Maybe it’d be possible to run ports of PSOne games on a handheld device with PSP-esque controls, but imagining a complicated magnum opus like God of War 3 on a PlayStation phone, given the current level of touch-screen controls, sounds like a mighty tall order.

Choosing to dial down the content and features would seem the equivalent of Sony throwing away the PSP’s biggest current advantage—its ability to play feature-rich handheld versions of our favorite console games—in an attempt to create a me-too device positioned to compete head-on with Apple. Is Sony really willing to take that risk? Do we as gamers even want them to?

As any failed politician who’s traded in their core identity for the possibility of a few more votes can tell you, the price isn’t always worth the sacrifice. Time will tell if Sony’s attempt to trade the load screen-scene for a touch-screen dream is a path to happiness or disaster. In the meantime, I think the whirring in our PSPs has finally stopped. Time to play.   Get In Media

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