The Puzzling Absence of a Playstation Phone

June 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

The Vita was meant to be a phone, but it’s not obvious why it isn’t. After all, we now have the ability to provide the same visual quality on a device meant primarily for calling people, as on a handheld console, and the Xperia Play and PSP Go have both given good blueprints of how buttons could be added to a device without compromising its other functions. So why didn’t it happen? It is my belief that it was, and still is, Sony’s plan to make it happen. It simply makes too much sense for it not to. However, the realities of the video game industry meant that the Vita was necessary as a stepping stone on the path towards a single phone/console device. Let me explain. 

The Vita itself makes little sense as a product, and Richard Browne’s recent comments in his interview with Games Industry summerise with a damning amount of lucidity. There’s simply no niche that it reliably filles. Too big to be truly portable, it sits in the same space as the iPad, which has found a home next to sofas worldwide. The Vita meanwhile, doesn’t really let you do anything you couldn’t do on your couch before. Web-surfing is an impossible experience on even HD televisions, whereas gaming thrives on them.

Now if only we could play a game whilst sitting here…

Let’s consider the gaming market for a moment, in all its eccentric glory. We have here a market based around investment in hardware. You don’t buy a console knowing what you’re going to use it for over its lifetime. Sure, there might be a few games out already that you want to get your mitts on, but for the most part you’re buying a console based on an expectation that for the next few years, more and more games will be released for you to buy and play on your purchase.

This means every console purchase carries with it an element of risk. Your investment of a couple of hundred dollars in a PS2 might give you up to ten years of quality releases, whilst an equally valid purchase of a Dreamcast might be less fruitful (comparatively speaking of course).

Sorry DC, we still love you.

Console manufacturers know this, and accept this as a reality in their business, but I believe that mobile phone operators are far more suspicious of the whole practise. After all, the phone industry is far more certain. Operators have a good idea of how much revenue will be generated from each phone sale and ensuing contract, and this allows them a great deal of certainty in their business.

Picture Sony then, in trying to pitch their Playstation Phone to operators.

“It’s going to be a very capable device, packed to the brim with state of the art technology. We’ve got dozens of first-party studios working on games for it, but lots of these games will be out months after the actual device comes out. People might buy the phone to play the launch games, but they’ll probably be mostly looking at what’s coming along down the line, and if the future looks bleak then they won’t jump in. All the technology in the world can’t guarantee good games, and if people don’t buy the console, then developers won’t take it seriously, and bad games become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hey guys, guys? Where are you going?”

Suddenly the whole process seems a lot more risky doesn’t it?

So what can Sony do to tip the odds in their favour? The prospect of a library already filled with dozens of critically acclaimed games would do much to decrease the risk for phone operators, but the PSP is ancient in video game terms. What Sony needs is modern games, games that can wow potential buyers with their visuals alone.

This is where the Vita comes in.

The Vita serves two purposes as a stepping stone towards a true Playstation phone. First, it acts as a hardware prototype. Now that the hardware is in mass production it can only get cheaper and smaller as production methods become more efficient and the hardware gets iterated on. More importantly though, it provides a system for developers to produce modern-looking games for, which would then be playable on a future phone hybrid, thus taking the element of risk out of a new console.

I believe that it was this compromise that lead to the release of the Xperia Play. By drawing upon the thousands of games already available for the Google Play Store (then the Android Marketplace), Sony was able to speak in terms phone carriers were able to understand. Not in terms of potential future releases, but in terms of games that were available when the phone launched.

This article constitutes a raft of speculation, but the initial premise is a sound one. A PSP phone would do wonders for Sony’s handheld share, and with their recent acquisition of Sony Ericsson they have the means to do it. However, the Video Game industry is a unique beast, which makes it difficult for it to merge easily with others such as the phone industry. The Vita may look to be flailing in the water, but such a long term strategy would make it worthwhile, by using it as a means to build up a sizeable library of critically acclaimed games which would then become the phone’s launch lineup.

The uncomfortable truth, if none of my speculation holds true, is that the Vita may well have just been pushed out to die.

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