Thursday, January 27, 2011

January 27th Sony Conference - My Thoughts

So late last night (for the U.S.) Sony blew the lid off of their new portable gaming machine. Codenamed the NGP (Next Generation Portable), this bad boy has a 5 inch OLED capacitive touchscreen, two "micro analog sticks", the usual array of cross, circle, triangle, square buttons, cross-pad, 2 shoulder buttons, hardware for motion and gyroscopic controls, a digital compass (for the LiveArea functions, I presume), 1 camera on the front, 1 on the back, a 5 inch touch-panel on the back, built-in microphone, Wi-Fi (n/g/b compatible), 3G, GPS, bluetooth, a slot for a flash-based cards, stereo speakers, standard 3.5mm headphone jack, and all this while promising "close to PS3" level graphics with a "target" battery life like that of the PSP 3000 (4 - 6 hours).

What's New (pussy cat)?
Not much, honestly. As far as stuff that wasn't leaked before the conference we got info about the LiveArea functionality, Near functionality, a look at the UI, and a look at some games/tech-demos. Otherwise we got a spot on list of specs, spot on info about the controls (dual analog, touch-screen, touch-panel), and a fair representation of what kind of graphics to expect before the event even happened. The confirmation is nice, but I really wish Sony could keep their secrets a secret.

The Tech
There is seemingly a lot of impressive tech in the NGP, as you read above. No UMD drive is a bit of bummer for some, since it means many won't be trading in their PSP for credit towards the NGP, but you can transfer your downloaded games purchases over which means PSP Go owners are in luck. The flash-cards for games look almost like the popular SD format, but for piracy (and maybe price) reasons I don't think they are an established format. Sony isn't ready to talk about whether the 3G is free to NGP buyers like the Amazon Kindle or subscription based like any phone under the sun, or if there will even be a 3G-less version for cheaper/no subscription like the Apple iPad.

The Size
This thing is kind of big. But what do you expect when you put a 5 inch screen on it? It's longer and taller than the original PSPs, and they've given out a measurement for it's thickness but it isn't specified what the measure is indicating because; those "micro analog sticks" stick out. I was honestly waiting for them to show off how the analog sticks are collapse-able, but they never did. And if you take a look at the sticks, they're convex on top. Not concave (which is what you want, trust me), but like the original SIXAXIS boomerang controller, this could be changed by the final release. There are some rumblings that the size shown has more to do with heat and battery life issues rather than being a design intention from the start. Luckily, the device has been described at strikingly light so holding the NGP to use the controls on one side while touching the front touch-screen should be simple and easy.

The Graphics
"Close to PS3" seems very accurate, and more impressive with the system's size. It seems ports are quite quick and easy to do, with Hideo Kojima claiming the Metal Gear Solid 4 demo used the exact same models as the game on PS3 (though I was hearing some mention that this demo was running at "20 frames per second" compared to the PS3 game's reported frame rate that varies from 60 to 30 depending on the scene).

The Games
But we all know games are more important than graphics, right? Good. I'm willing to accept that this showing of the NGP was rushed in some manner, and that all of the ports shown is only an indicator of that, rather than an indicator of the future library. But it raises an important question; with graphics and controls nearly matching a PS3, what's the incentive to make an NGP exclusive game? I would say exclusivity is far too over-rated in the gaming community, but in this case, it just seems to me that if you want the best version of a game that is on both PS3 and NGP, then the NGP version will never be the winner. People that would buy the NGP version over the PS3 version seem to me like people that simply value the portable nature and/or don't own a PS3. With the potential price of the device, I think it will slim down who is willing to buy the NGP over a PS3 to play a collection of games.

Enough gloom, let's look at some original aspects of games. Very interestingly, the NGP demo of Uncharted and a Dynasty Warriors like game showed off optional one-touch touch-screen actions. Potentially an easy/casual mode for every NGP game, it could be a hit with less experienced players as they  transition from iPhone gaming to NGP gaming, eventually opting to use the buttons and sticks, one hopes. They showed off some motion control use with Uncharted and Hot Shots Golf, from swinging the device gently back and forth to make Drake swing on a vine, to turning the device sideways to use it gently swing it more like a golf club. Little Deviants might have been the only game to show off the back touch-panel, using a very convincing bulge effect in the game's terrain to correspond with where you are touching. When we first heard about the touch-panel, I just couldn't imagine any worth-while applications for it, so now we at least have one, but I'm still guessing that addition will remain a (rightly) under-utilized aspect.

The Price
The only peep we've gotten about the price is from Sony Worldwide Studios boss Shuhei Yoshida who said "We are not talking about price yet, but I hope that when we announce the price, people will say it makes sense." This is the biggest, scariest aspect about the NGP. When I look at the NGP, I see a $400 - $500 device. That's my "makes sense" price, but it's not what I'd like to pay. And over to the games, if it is so easy to port over a PS3/360 game, what's to keep the prices from being the same? Not to say that $50 - $60 isn't a good price for some of those games, but why not get the likely better version on PS3/360? It seems you'll be able to get the flash-card based games through physical shops, but with such a focus on direct download, what kind of price-drop routines can we expect? Again, Sony is willing to take losses on each piece of hardware sold, which means a cheaper price for the customer. So theoretically they could price the system down quite competitively with the 3DS's $250 price, but where does the 3G come in? With Kindle, it can be free because the data usage just isn't that high. With the NGP, it would be used for the LiveArea functions, online gaming, and full game downloading, so the fees leveled at Sony if it was free to consumers would be hard to swallow for such a price low enough to compare to $250.

How Will it Do at Market
A tough thing to speculate on. We don't know pricing details for anything about the NGP, and we don't know pricing for games on the 3DS. Because the 3DS will have a considerable head-start in the market (NGP is supposed to release "by the holiday season"), likely have a lower price, and I think the 3D will be hit with consumers, just matter-of-factly I think the 3DS will be the sales winner over the NGP. If Sony really does respond with a mind-blowingly low price for the NGP, then I've said before that I believe Nintendo could go as low as $150 with the 3DS and break-even, right at launch. So Nintendo could strike right back if they thought it was necessary.

With the focus on direct-download games, I fear that Sony will downplay the ability to buy physical copies too much, and shelf space and crowds of gamers going to stores for a big game launch (i.e. - both free advertising) will diminish because of it.

The physical size of the device could perhaps play a part in customer perception of the device; the thing isn't pocket friendly, to put it bluntly. Industry insiders already complain about not wanting to carry around dedicated games devices when they have their phones to play some games. And that's with the existence of small portables like the DS lite and PSP Go. The lightness almost might go a long way towards making the device feel "breakable".

As I said before, the NGP doesn't seem like an inviting market for new exclusive games, so when I factor in some other assumptions, the situation doesn't seem to be in NGP's favor. I have the 3DS preordered, but I would have definitely gotten one in the stretch of time between its launch and the holidays (NGP release) based on the promised games. I think many will go for the 3DS first as well, as a factor of it launching much earlier. If the NGP promise to have an amazing price and game selection, then some of them can certainly sell their 3DSs to help pay for it, but those sales and profits are still in Nintendo's pockets.

You can read up in more detail about the NGP over at Kotaku, or IGN, or maybe Engadget. Oddly none of them did good summaries of Near, and only sparce details about LiveArea, but I can tell you that it seems like their own StreetPass, but with viewable figures about strangers, too, and using 3G and GPS functionality.

Phew. Comments go down there. I want them. Fingers and eyes tired.


  1. So, I think I may be losing my mind...or my coffee has been switched to DECAF!

    I have been to this post, and had stuff typed out, but I think I got distracted both times, and forgot to hit "submit"!

    I really don't know what I think of the NGP, as I don't know the price.
    I like the dual-analogs on the system, I really do...but the size seems too large for a handheld.
    The idea of having 3G(optional or not) is pretty smart, but I want to see how that factors into the cost of the system.

    It seems like Sony is going the same route they did with the PS3, with the NGP...MORE GRAPHICS! EXPENSIVE!

    Perhaps the market testing they have done, has shown people would be willing to pay whatever price they're going to ask for it.

    Either way the price goes...higher than the 3DS or about the's definitely going to be an interesting year for the industry.

  2. I agree, though semantically, 2012 would be the interesting year if the NGP is to release towards the end of 2011 (Japan only or not).

    I've thought about it a lot, and brought it up once or twice on message boards, but I'm not sure I see the huge inherent value in two analog sticks. Don't get me wrong, there are definitely some problems that come with only having one analog stick that isn't stuck in the center (like the N64 controller), but when you have alternative analog inputs, like the touch-screens on DS, NGP, and 3DS, I don't think any type of game is hurt (depending on your acceptance of the touch-screen for controls) by not having a second analog stick. Thinking about games that use both sticks at once, I come up with FPSes, twin-stick shooters like Geometry Wars, and a interesting sort of creation like Katamari Damacy and Nobi Nobi Boy. I think they can be well taken care of with a touch-screen instead of the second analog. We use that right analog for camera control all the time, but to me that isn't something that needs the higher control of an analog input. This thought isn't really directed at you, as I know a lot of people feel the same way.