By Autumn 2009, most who took an interest had written off Sony as a competitor in the handheld gaming race. The device had already endured years of subordination to Nintendo’s DS by 2008, and by Christmas of that year it was clear that it was fighting a war on two fronts: against all reasonable expectations, the iPhone was also in the fray, and by the middle of 2009 was pretty much the winner of it.
Sony’s failures had been many. After years at the top it had grown arrogant and complacent, wilfully determined to sell to a hardcore market that was rapidly disappearing, or rather melting into the broader and more casual audience Nintendo and Microsoft had helped to create and which the iPhone’s success had established beyond any doubt as the future of gaming.
Perhaps symptomatic of this invidious hardcore prejudice was Sony’s refusal to price its products competitively. Both the PS3 and PSP had suffered commercially in part as a consequence of their relatively high prices, and when it emerged that the PSPgo would retail at £229.99 – considerably more expensive than either the DSi or the iPod touch – faceplants echoed around the world. Koller’s subsequent defense of this price as a ‘premium proposition‘ brought palms to foreheads a second time.
Sony’s 2009 PSP line-up was strong, including as it did Assassin’s Creed, LittleBigPlanet, MotorStorm: Arctic Edge, and a host of other AAA titles. But Apple’s App Store was proving that it’s low cost that drives consumer spending. A contemporary analysis carried out by Pocket Gamer found that the average price of a game in the App Store Top 100 was just $1.89 Premium titles were all very well, but all the evidence pointed at a market moving towards smaller, cheaper games.
Despite these obvious missteps, Sony was also planting the seeds of its own success around this time. Sony went some way in addressing the hardcore issue when it announced that it would cut the cost of development kits by 80% to encourage small developers to create games for the device, and again when it revealed during the Develop conference the same year that it had signed up 50 developers for its app store, including Fieldrunners creator Subatomic Studios. Clearly, it was taking some important cues from Apple.
In the weeks before the Gamescom event in August 2009, rumors started to spread about a cheaper 8GB PSPgo SKU, and these rumors proved true during Sony’s presentation. There would be an 8GB version, and it would cost £169.99 – pricey, but not dramatically more so than its competitors. This would prove over the coming months to be by far the more successful version of the console.
Pocket Gamer learned of a separate rumor on the eve of Gamescom: PSPgo games would cost between one and five Euros, which would make the more expensive titles even cheaper than those on Apple’s App Store. During a cramped presentation in the Koelnmesse, Sony confirmed this second rumor.
It seems remarkable now that during its first Christmas in 2009 the PSPgo was outsold by the DSi, the DS Lite and the iPod touch. By March 2010, after a steady flow of excellent iPhone and casual web game conversions, it was starting to generate buzz in the enthusiast press. In June, Sony announced the PSP2, a powerful touchscreen device with conventional manual controls and dual analogue sticks, due to hit the stores in October.
By July, its store boasted more than three thousand games – a negligible number compared to the iPhone’s 25,000, but this worked in Sony’s favor as consumers and developers bemoaned the App Store’s growing clutter. When the PSP2 arrived, it inherited from the PSPgo a strong library of games, a diverse and highly personalisable store and a thriving community. By Christmas 2010, Sony was convincingly in the lead.
In the end, the key to Sony’s eventual success in the handheld market wasn’t entirely in its decision to start competing at the cheap end of the price spectrum. This move enabled it to compete with Nintendo and Apple, sure, but once it was on equal terms with those companies it was, as Koller had no doubt hoped, its premium options that distinguished it. With a single device a PSPgo owner could spend $1.50 on Fieldrunners on $50 on LittleBigPlanet. Apple simply couldn’t compete.
Sony’s success didn’t only come from the range of games it offered. Just as Apple had learned from Sony’s mistakes, Sony learned from Apple’s, maintaining a greater degree of control over the number and quality of the games on its store to forestall the clutter that was increasingly turning gamers and developers away from the iPhone.
It also profited by its decision to not only retain but to develop its more conventional button and stick input. By doing so it gave gamers a choice, and this is ultimately why no other handheld – except, perhaps, for the rapidly ascendant Zune HD – has been able to compete. Right now, no other handheld is as comfortable at either end of the casual-hardcore spectrum as the PSP2 is at both.
Pocket Gamer is Europe’s leading source of news, opinion and reviews on mobile and handheld gaming.