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by Ethos

Handheld Gaming Part 3: The Future of Sony and the NGP (Riddles)

Tuesday, February 8th, 2011

Alright, so we’re a day late, but a dollar short? I think not. Because if all indications are correct, I’m about to pound out a fairly monstrous article to close out this extended Handheld Gaming Week.

My first two articles, if you haven’t read them, were very casual in nature – rather than attempt in-depth dissections of the past and present states of the portable gaming industry, I decided to merely recall my personal experiences with each. Now, though, I plan to take the groundwork I’ve laid with those two blurbs and leverage into a fairly even look at the upcoming next-generation handhelds from the two big players, Nintendo and Sony.

So, in other words, today I’m here to talk about Sony’s Next-Generation Portable. Buckle in, gents and ladies.

The PSP2 – Ah, the Next-Generation Portable

So I gave Sony first in line today. FAVORITISM?! I don’t know. Not really, at least when it comes to handhelds. I owned a PSP-2000 for a time. I was rather fond of the device, but truth be told, I barely played the thing. We went over this in my previous article, but the only PSP game I ever finished was Crisis Core, which was the game I bought the system for. But my own experiences aside, the PSP may have occasionally struggled in the realm of software support, and it occasionally lost its way – as evidenced by ventures such as the PSPGo – but one thing must be said: it was the first handheld to edge out a share of a market long-dominated by Nintendo and its many GameBoys. And that, alone, is a great feat.

Six years later, its successor is revealed to the world in the form of “NGP,” which you all should know, acronyms Next-Generation Portable – Sony’s working name for the device. It’s big, it’s beautiful, and it looks like it could breathe new life into Sony’s handheld brand – if they do things right.

Uncharted, on the Tiny Screen?

Let’s start by discussing something we can all relate to: Uncharted. There’s an Uncharted game (now simply called “Uncharted” as a working title) oming to the NGP. You can watch a demo for it right here:

Looks beautiful, doesn’t it? Of course we can’t get the full effect by looking at a video of the screen, but even still, it’s easy to conclude that this thing can produce graphics nearly on-par with PS3 quality.

On first glance, the touch-screen controls don’t look terribly appealing. Sliding my grubby finger across the screen where all the action is taking place seems bothersome. It also seems messy; those screens had better be resilient. But, I suppose we’ve had to put up with the same shit on Nintendo DS for some time. And also, I’ll admit it looked less offensive in some areas than others – being able to tap the ledge you want Drake to grab while climbing actually seems fairly intuitive.

Oh yeah, and there’s gyroscope controls as well. Actually, it’s the same sixaxis technology that’s in every PS3 controller, but never utilized. If you recall, the original Uncharted – which was released fairly early in the PS3’s life – utilized sixaxis controls for mechanics like bomb-tossing and tightrope balancing. Both were pretty awful, and sixaxis support was promptly canned for Uncharted 2. But hey, as unappealing as I’m making it sound, remember: gyro controls just might work better on a portable system, where the screen is right in between your hands. The vine-swinging segment made it look super-clunky, but I have to admit, it looked pretty slick for the sniper sequence.

Rear trackpads? Well, if nothing else, they’re an interesting alternative to a second screen. I’m really not sure how I feel about rubbing my fingers back and forth just to shimmy up a vine, though. Of all the NGPs features, it’s actually what intrigues me the least – but, I’ve only seen them on display in the above demo, so perhaps my mind will be changed in time.

And it’s not – no, it’s not – 3D enabled. Can you believe it? Yeah, it seems a little fishy to me as well. Sony’s pushing 3D hard for both the PS3 and their line of Bravia TVs – I mean, shit, did you catch any of their presentation at CES this year? I’d applaud them for not pushing the gimmick for NGP just yet, but mark my words: there will be a 3D-enabled NGP within a year after its initial release.

Tangent aside, I think at this point we can agree: The NGP looks slick. It’s clearly an amazing piece of technology, packing a punch never seen before in a handheld device. It has a revamped menu system, forgoing the Xcross Media Bar for a new, touch-based layout. It has a screen that’s four times the resolution of the original PSP. It has front and back cameras, it has dual-analog sticks (AT LAST) it even has 3G connectivity. Yeah, that’s right. It’s an impressive device. But that’s not enough to tell the whole story.

So Yeah, What’s Sony’s Plan for This Thing?

Good question. Here’s a key difference between Nintendo and Sony when it comes to this next-gen handheld race: Nintendo has success they can sit upon, the PSP needs to change its game up if S to stay relevant. And, it seems like Sony is trying to do just that – a certain Eurogamer article reveals what Sony’s overarching strategy for NGP might be.

In the article, they quote an anonymous source who reportedly attended a presentation for the NGP that Sony hosted at their headquarters in London. According to their source, “NGP is a developer’s dream – Sony is finally doing the things developers have been crying out for for years.”

Generous words, to be sure. Reportedly, the NGPs dev kits are far easier to utilize than the PS3s. “A PS3 dev station can take three hours to set-up. This looks like it will take under 20 mins,” quoth the nameless Eurogamer source.  ”It just makes everything easier – they’ve really thought about it this time.”

Interesting. Glad to see Sony got that monkey off of its back. But here’s the big one: according to the source, the kits are optimized to allow for cross-platform development between NGP and PS3.

“Any shaders for PS3 stuff will just work,” said Eurogamer’s source. “We won’t have to rewrite. What would have taken two-to-three months before looks like it could take just one-to-two weeks now. The architecture is obviously different, but it’s the same development environment.”

Cross-platform development, eh? What sort of fruits could that yield? Well, according to the source, Sony envisions “some kind of interactivity between the two versions with NGP-only extras.”

Hm. Doesn’t that sound familiar?

Well,  it does to me. Do you remember the days of GBA-to-GameCube connectivity? You bought an overpriced cable from Nintendo, plugged your GBA into your ‘Cube, and either used it as a controller, unlocked goodies, or activated some type of meta-game feature. (Like the Tingle thing in Wind Waker! Where’d he’d like give hints and drop bombs and stuff.) If you remember, games like The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures required GBAs as controllers, and would utilize both screens during gameplay. Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles did the same thing. It was a neat concept, but it wasn’t right for its time – to properly play such games, you needed at least two players in the same room with GameBoys and cables. And to get the most out of them, you needed four. A steep price of admission.

But in this day-and-age of internet connectivity, that sort of console-to-handheld compatibility could potentially take off, and make a sound argument for the necessity of an NGP. Imagine playing Dead Space 3 with the NGP as your controller – Isaac’s menu screen, text logs, and video logs could all occupy the screen of the NGP, potentially making for an extremely refined and intuitive heads-up display. Imagine picking up an audio log in BioShock Infinite, then listening to it through headphones plugged into your NGP. Imagine selecting and assigning plasmids by simply tapping  your NGPs screen. There’s a lot of possibilities there, and I hope Sony sees that.

But there’s so much more that could be done with PS3-to-NGP connectivity – imagine PSN games such as the recent HD Prince of Persia titles, playable either on your NGP or PS3. This could easily hold true for all PSN games – have DeathSpank both at home, and on the go. With synchronized trophies, since the NGP is confirmed to have trophy support. And cloud saving as well, to easily carry saves across both platforms.

PS3 games could ship with NGP-only extras on the discs, accessible by connecting the two systems. For example, you could access a special NGP game mode, or some demos, or a perhaps a portion of the game’s online feature suite, or hell – maybe the whole damn game, just so you can have it on-the-go as well.

“But hold on,” you say. “This sounds like it could cheapen the NGP software brand name.” Well, yes. But that’s assuming Sony even plans to focus on an NGP software brand name, and I don’t think they’re going to. NGP games will be sold in stores, but the physical medium will be flash cartridges. That’s right, no more UMDs. In essence, Sony is doing something rather devious with the NGP: they’re continuing their push towards an all-digital format, but they’re selling it as a physical medium. According to the Eurogamer source, all developers at Sony’s london event were told that “All games at launch available on flash would also be on PSN.”

See, Ethos? You should have just waited for this!

Also, for the sake of pure speculation, let’s cross our fingers and hope that when the NGP is released, Sony will finally give fans what they’ve been clamoring for, and start releasing PS2 classics over PSN. 3DS will have a virtual console store for GBA games, and Sony needs to follow suit. All I know is that Final Fantasy X on a portable sounds pretty damn sweet. And so does Xenosaga. And Dragon Quest VIII. And lots of other I could surely come up with.

The Grand, Sweeping Point

Much of this is yet to be seen, I know, but with the assumed focus on PS3-to-NGP compatibility, it seems that Sony is aiming the handheld squarely at their own userbase of PS3 owners. Which, if you think about it, isn’t a bad strategy. It’s kinda taking a page from Nintendo’s book in a way, and as we’ve already established it could work. If Sony sees this to its potential, and offers real rewards and useful features to PS3 owners who adopt an NGP, they could see great success. However, they do have….

Some Potential Obstacles to Overcome

Yeah, that. There are some things we don’t know about the NGP yet; some questions that need answering.

1. The Price Point – Yeah, this is honestly the biggest one. The 3DS costs $250. The NGP needs to stay around the $300 range, but I’m going to guess it’ll end up being around $350. For Sony’s sake, it better not cost any more.

2. Backwards Compatibility – it’s a bigger deal on handhelds, because while it’s practical enough to have two consoles plugged in, it makes no sense to carry around two portables. It’s safe enough to assume that any games released over PSN will be transferable, but what about all those god-damned UMD exclusives? Apparently Sony told Gigazine (via Adriansaang) that they’re working with third-party developers to bring more UMD games to the PSN store. They went on to say that they also plan to re-release PSP games on the NGP’s card-based format. However, there has been no further elaboration on the subject.

3. 3G Connectivity: Paid or Included? – it really needs to be included. Or, at the very least, make it part of a PSN+ subscription. Like a $10 addendum to the current PSN+ fee. My point is, don’t charge gamers an extra $30 per month for 3G connectivity. That would suck.

4. Cloud Saving – It’s gotta have cloud saving. If Sony really wants to market this thing as the PS3 owner’s companion, then Ethan’s gotta be able to carry his DeathSpank save from PS3 to NGP seamlessly. Sony hasn’t denied the prospect of cloud saving, but they haven’t confirmed it either. I’m 95% certain it will be included. If its not, it will have a decidedly negative effect on my desire to purchase the system.

Conclusion

I think the NGP could be a fantastic handheld. If they make it a valuable and useful device to a PS3 owner, offered at a reasonable price, then I’ll buy one. Truth be told, I’ll probably wait for the inevitable second iteration – which I predict will feature 3D. I just hope they don’t split the physical and downloadable games apart; I hope to be able to play all PSN games on the NGP, and I hope it has cloud saves. I hope all games released on flashcards see release over PSN. If they don’t establish a brand consistency between the two machines, Sony’s presence in the handheld market risks becoming irrelevant. They have an opportunity here to extend the reach of the PlayStation brand in some fantastic ways. Let’s see if they can capitalize on it.


Handheld Gaming Part 3 – The Future (Ethos)

Sunday, February 6th, 2011

So here we are. About 15 years of my handheld gaming life summed up in two articles, and now I must talk about the two fairly-recently announced new generation of portable handhelds.

Well, kinda portable. The 3DS is severely strapped down by its extremely short battery life, and the NGP is even bigger than the biggest model of the current PSP. As I briefly touched on in Part 2, one of the reasons I love the Go is that it’s actually portable to me. When I borrowed a regular PSP to play Birth By Sleep, it was far more noticeable in my pockets and just more of a pain to bring around with me.

It’s true that I haven’t been having extended play sessions on my current DS out of my home for a while, but that doesn’t mean that I want to feel like I have to conserve every time I open the lid on my 3DS.

It's probably not a good sign that I'm most excited for NGP's interface...

On the other hand, I like the idea of the NGP having 3G capabilities, and trophies on the go sound wonderful to me. Also, the trackpad on the back of the system might just be a great solution to a touch screen without having to cover up your vision of the action. I suppose I didn’t get excited from the press conference because of the size, design, and no software that entices me in the least.

I adore the Uncharted games, but that is a series that I boot up on a massive TV and play-through in as few sittings as possible. Even with NGP’s crazy horsepower, Uncharted on the system doesn’t sell me. Especially when the preview included gyro sensor movement as part of the gameplay…

But there’s lots to still see on that system, so I have no firm stance yet, but let’s move onto a release that looms much closer.

The 3DS impressed many when it was first shown off in grand style at E3 2010, and since then, there mostly has only been bad news for fans. The return of (barely improved) friend codes, a delayed release for the (potentially improved) eShop, region locking confirmed, and of course a really shitty battery.

The difference for me with the 3DS and the DSfat release is the software. There wasn’t a single thing about the DS that enticed me. With the 3DS, a new Paper Mario game alone is enough to get me excited. Kingdom Hearts has lost my love over the years, but I’m willing to pay attention if Dumber Name is as good as Birth By Sleep. I already explained my excitement for the new Pilot Wings game, and that’s not to mention the remakes of two of my favourite games I’ve ever played, Ocarina of Time and Star Fox 64.

The DS interface gets better, but it's relative.

Perhaps these titles don’t excite everybody, but those 4 (and a half) pieces of software are enough for me to know that I’ll buy this system before the inevitable redesign. But the 3DS is a nice looking piece of hardware, so I expect its new version will come closer to SP’s 2 years after the GBA launch as opposed to the DS Lite’s 18 months after the original monstrosity.

Add that to my need for a new DS anyway as now both my shoulder buttons are busted, the 3DS is a no-brainer.

That being said, I’m not hand-over-heels for the thing either. If Pilot Wings wasn’t a launch title, then I wouldn’t even consider buying it day one, and as it stands, I’m still on the fence. I’m particularly broke, and StarCraft II, Pokémon Black and White, and the Team Ico collection are all easily higher on my priority list.

The fact is that Nintendo has a great track record for software on their handhelds, and I’m very pleased with the DS brand overall. I have my PS3 for a great online experience, and I’ve never imported a game in my life, so the only hitch for me is the console’s battery life.

The fact is that Nintendo’s home console really isn’t much of a console at all. Excepting the phenomenal Super Mario Galaxy games, there isn’t too much going for that system and its unorthodox controller. Nintendo’s DS line has its share of gimmicks, but the truth is that it is the better place for a traditional gamer experience. The NGP, however, has the somewhat bizarre problem of having a completely wonderful counterpart system, and thus the portable feels a little redundant.

But who knows? Maybe this is the generation that will see Sony claim the section of my heart reserved for handheld gaming. But as it stands, the only software that has my attention is on the DS. Plus, it’ll be nice to finally be able to play the DS games I have that require the shoulder buttons.