Is a Phone all the PlayStation Portable Needs?

Is the PSP Go's missing link really just cellular service?

Add phone service, clap on a touchscreen, and presto, the handheld gaming device we always wanted? You know, as opposed to the phone-less PSP Go, Sony's overpriced, undersized gaming handheld no one's buying?

More, Meet Same

The PlayStation Phone cometh early next year according to the latest rumors, this one from Japan's Asahi Shimbun newspaper. The paper claimed yesterday that Sony's long rumored PlayStation Phone would essentially be a PSP Go with phone service, and would launch spring 2011.

Of course we've "known" that much from leaked pictures and loose tongues for months.

What we don't know is anything of import, like: Will Sony offer free cell-service-based multiplayer? Or will playing Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker online wipe out your data plan? Will developers offer new platform-enhanced games at launch? Or will we just grab current fare from the PlayStation Store? Will games cost $40, like current PSP titles, or between $1 and $10, like Apple Store apps? And if the latter, how's Sony going to wash that with current PSP and PSP Go owners?

Sony won't comment. I wouldn't either. It must be frustrating to have so many employees playing gossip blog "peek-a-boo" with the company laundry.

The internet. What can you do?

Great Zeus!

What do we know (or at least think we do)? That the so-called prototype PlayStation Phone looks more or less like a PSP Go with altered button placement. It's supposedly an Android OS derivative phone, codenamed Zeus Z1, with the PSP's trademark d-pad on the left and four-button diamond cluster on the right.

Unlike the PSP Go, the prototype crams the START and SELECT buttons below the button cluster instead of to its left.

That leaves space for either an oblong touchpad or two analog thumb nubs. The latter could address a longstanding complaint about the PSP's inability to handle game's that more or less require dual joysticks: One for moving, the other for looking around.

That's an essential pairing for first-person shooters, one of the least visited, worst represented genres on Sony's gaming handheld. If you've fumbled through the PSP versions of Brothers in Arms, Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, or Rainbow Six Vegas, you know what I'm talking about.

Add the second thumb nub and you entice developers to create better versions of those games and others. You also end up with an experience the iPhone, Android, and Nintendo 3DS can't deliver, an experience derived from deterministic multi-button, multi-analog motion input.

The "core" gaming experience, in other words.

Add a touchpad, by contrast, and you're back to imprecise "casual" gaming. If you've fumbled through the Nintendo DS version of Mario 64, you know what I'm talking about. I'm not saying a touchpad couldn't work, just that it wouldn't be something "core" gamers are going to be into.

Next: PSP Go Phone, or PSP 2?

Core Bore

As a gaming platform, the current-style PSP's star is setting. PSP sales have been declining for over a year, and PSP Go sales are in the basement. And PSP games are starting to pop up on iOS devices, including Final Fantasy I and II, LEGO Harry Potter, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, and Madden NFL 11.

Analysts expect the iPhone install base to hit 100 million by 2011. Sony's PSP base is currently stalling at around 65 million users worldwide.

In fact "core" game developers are increasingly bypassing the PSP for the iPhone and its iOS peers. Capcom pulled together an iPhone version of Street Fighter IV last March, but never bothered with a PSP version. Other iOS-but-not-PSP games include Civilization Revolution, Battlefield: Bad Company 2, The Sims 3, Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3, Mirror's Edge, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2, and Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit.

Then there's industry bellwether id Software, who debuted the mobile version of their next-gen 3D game RAGE for iOS devices in mid-November. No PSP version is planned.

And don't forget iPhone "core" exclusives like Dungeon Defenders, Perfect Cell, Dead Space, Secret of Mana, Infinity Blade, Aralon: Sword and Shadow, and Real Racing 2. There's more buzz around those games than anything in the offing for the PSP.

Whither PSP 2?

Cell service alone won't cut it. If Sony really wants to compete with the iPhone (not to mention Nintendo's 3DS), it needs a portable with a brilliant iPhone-competitive touchscreen, a signature iPhone-competitive Android interface, updated higher-end internals, a one-stop price-competitive app and game store, and a stable of first-rate game studios tripping over themselves to develop for it. *

A PSP 2, in other words, a device that might legitimately generate the sort excitement Nintendo's 3DS does.

Launching the PSP 2 as the PlayStation Phone (or vice versa) this spring would be bold and game-changing.

Launching a PSP Go with cell service, by contrast, would be that other kind of not-so-bold thing.

* I don't list glasses-free 3D because I still consider 3D a gimmick. Because it is, in every movie and game I've seen or played. And I'll leave it to Nintendo to convince me otherwise when the 3DS debuts next March.

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