The Xperiation Date

The Xperia Play is dying and I’m afraid it’s terminal. Both those within Sony Ericsson (now owned wholly by Sony) and those outside have known for a long time that things were not looking good for the would-be “PlayStation Phone.” A recent spate of sales have seen prices of a network-free Xperia Play plummet from £480 during its launch in April this year to as low as £155 in October as retailers are reporting less than enthusiastic sales figures.

The problem is: how do you appeal to multiple crowds simultaneously without alienating them all?

In reality, the symptoms for the device’s illness were clear much earlier than that – indeed, the unfortunate disease is genetic. The medical history of the much-desired PlayStation Phone is a parable that ought to act as a warning to developers and manufacturers against chasing an audience that isn’t really there in the first place – and getting a lot of other things wrong along the way.

First of all, Sony Ericsson decided to chase a Holy Grail. The ‘hybrid’ demographic is a much coveted target in big business such as technology because it’s actually poaching from two demographics. It’s a risky quest to be able to appeal both to core gamers and to those who play games on their phones during the morning rush hour. Of course, in terms of profits you would be raking in two audiences instead of focusing on one. That is a very tempting prospect. The problem is: how do you appeal to multiple crowds simultaneously without alienating them all?

Unfortunately for Sony Ericsson, their wade into “hardcore mobile gaming” sprouted from an out-dated philosophy that presumed mobile phones should be more like consoles when actually the best games for iOS and Android are organically evolving to embrace touchscreen technology. Casual games like Cut the Rope, Mush and Pax Britannica are perfectly designed to take advantage of the technology in clever, simple and compelling ways, as are any number of touchscreen puzzle games like PopCap’s Bejeweled.

To apply complex console style controls to a smartphone game seems archaic and regressive when put next to the instant gratification of sliding one jewel next to another with a single elegant swipe of your index finger. This is why all first-person shooter games released on iOS or Android are less than impressive. Or rather, they are impressive only in the respect that it is an FPS game running on a phone (how unusual) but not impressive as games in and of themselves. On the merit of their own genre, they don’t function very well at all.

This is not to say that console games are old-fashioned, or on their own way out, far from it. They simply do not belong on smartphones. Like it or not, this is the widespread belief among both console gamers and forward-looking developers.

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Put simply, gamers weren’t convinced. It was a device with multiple functions, yes, but it was still something they didn’t really need. This is not to demerit the idea of ‘convergence’. A Swiss army knife is a very useful tool for many small things. Yet there are a lot of things which come outside the range of a Swiss army knife’s function. You would use a Swiss army knife to cut string, kindling or tree bark. But you would not use a Swiss army knife to cut fillet steak (you could by necessity but you wouldn’t by choice).

No matter how hard a company would like an audience to exist, they can’t will it into existence.

This is the problem which lay with the Xperia Play from the very moment it launched – not only was it masquerading the “hardcore” titles it had as “steak” to a mass of consumers, it was also offering them a tiny red gadget with which to cut this steak. It offered this not by necessity but as a choice between itself and other portable platforms on which you could play core games – the various PSPs and DS’.

The makers of the phone expected a lot of hardcore gamers to show interest (their advertising certainly courted this demographic) but no matter how hard a company would like an audience to exist, they can’t will it into existence. Especially when the gadget costs as much as £500 sim-free on release.

And then there were the games themselves. Even the games that take advantage of the phone’s controls only get as far as being console-ish. These games then have to compete on two fronts. Compared to good touchscreen games, they can be awkward and clumsy to control. Compared to good console games, they lack depth and long-term playability. Once again the desire to fuse two distinct species of play has resulted in a crossbreed that very few find desirable.

The truth is that there is a huge gap between the kind of games you see on phones and those you see on console. It’s not being snobbish to point out that they are played under entirely different circumstances – that’s just reality. Phone games you generally play while you are idling and waiting for something to happen – on the train, on the toilet – whereas console-style games you generally play after actively seeking them out.

Strangely, the games which most fans of the Xperia Play cite as the central appeal of the phone are illegally downloaded ROMs played on emulators. Most users want to play The Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past again – a console game for free, one that is still superior when stood next to the platform’s current action RPG offerings like the Zenonia series. The tragedy is that these ‘grey market’ retro titles are definitely the best selling point of the phone when speaking to hardcore gamers but there is no way this could ever be a part of Sony’s official marketing campaign. Especially when among the emulators lies FPse – a PlayStation emulator that offers more games than the device’s own PlayStation Classics library (a paltry half-dozen games and not a Final Fantasy among them).

Even so, the Xperia Play as a technological device is well-made and fairly powerful. It remains an impressive piece of kit but is only desirable to that small group of people who have not yet raised their eyebrows at the promise of ‘core’ games.

Niches can be filled but never manufactured.

This niche of fans will argue that when compared to other phones the Xperia Play is great for gaming. This is actually largely true. Yet it isn’t just being compared to other phones – it’s really being compared to the PSP and the 3DS. That’s a battle the Xperia Play can’t win, especially in terms of what games are available. Asphalt 6: Adrenaline, a Burnout-esque racer from notorious cloners Gameloft does not stand up next to Mario Kart 7. This is bad news for Sony Ericsson. As any hardware developer should know by now, there’s no cure for a lack of good games.

But that isn’t stopping Sony Ericsson (or fans) from trying to find one. Promotion continues apace, with Kristen Schaal injecting a dose of humour. Deals have been struck to give away EA’s entire library of Xperia Play games for free until January. OnLive is now working on the phone, with all its associated possibilities and limitations. And then there’s the Big Thing – the fact that Sony have recently bought Sony Ericsson straight out for over $1.5 billion, with fans speculating this will someday result in better continued support (or a new, more successful device – a “real PlayStation Phone”).

All these measures combined with the huge price drops are likely to give sales a nudge up, making the device look a little perkier. But it feels like it’s too late. The affliction has long gone malignant and any energetic burst of sales now is not what it looks like, not what every fan is hoping for. This is not a turnaround, it’s a death rattle.

Whether a second attempt would be successful remains to be seen but Sony, like every company, should take a lesson from its now-incorporated former partner: Don’t go after an audience that simply isn’t there. Niches can be filled but never manufactured. This lesson was delivered before when Nokia’s N-Gage appeared and it’ll be delivered again if companies don’t stop trying to grasp at mythical “chimera markets” where they believe a viable crossover exists. This doesn’t only apply to games and consoles but to every ill-fated half-and-half invention that pops up on infomercials promising to brush and mop your floor at the same time.

The truth is: it won’t.

Meanwhile, Sony Ericsson (now Sony) must continue to nurse their patient. On one face, they are pulling an expression of admirably dogged perseverance and optimism. On the other face they are pulling a look of concentration as they do the arithmetic, trying to figure out exactly where they stand and diagnose what went wrong. When many already know what went wrong – they went after two conflicting markets and ended up with neither. The disease is written clearly on the Xperia Play’s chart. Greed.

Let’s hope it’s not contagious.

Brendan Caldwell is a freelancer. He has written for Rock Paper Shotgun, PC Gamer and Edge. He also covers the Xperia Play section at Pocket Gamer. You can read more at his blog.

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