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"Staying in the Ghetto"
-By Philip Wesley-
-Rising above is risky business.-
|The year was 2005 during the chilly month of January,
and the event was the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. The
CES event is a time where the gaming portion of video games is aptly
ignored and the marketability and design of a device is pushed to the
forefront. Kaz Hirai, the president and CEO of Sony COmputer
Entertainment of America, made an interesting statement before the
masses at CES. "PSP will elevate portable entertainment out of the
handheld gaming ghetto and Sony is the only company that can do it."
This would be a mighty strong battle cry for Sony and a sentiment that
would eventually earn the PSP some pretty hefty criticisms. Over a year
has passed and we are coming up very closely to E3 2006, and to the one
year anniversary of the PSP in the United States. The system has
already been out for a year in Japan and has faced hefty competition
from the other citizens living in that "gaming ghetto." As you may have
guessed from the title of the article, I have personally decided I
prefer the "ghetto." Despite owning a PSP, I do not think that Sony has
succeeded in doing anything to "elevate" the portable market and that
much can still be done to improve their standing.
Sony fails to realize is the very nature of the "ghetto" they wish to rise above. This lack of understanding is why they have yet to make good on their bold claim. The handheld market is an entirely different beast than the console market. People who purchase a handheld are looking for a set number of factors when making a purchase. First, the games have to be pick up and play. In short, it has to be able to provide quick bursts of gameplay. Secondly, the games and system need to be inexpensive. Third, the unit needs a clearly defined purpose. Fourth, the unit must be durable and able to weather abuse. Finally, for the fifth, the unit must be easy to use.
Game software is a bit of a subjective aspect of any debate; but I have yet to run into any software on the PSP, aside from the more simplistic games like Lumines or Exit, that falls into that first point. The very nature of the Sony PSP requires both loading up the UMD and loading up a memory card for game saves. Thankfully, PSP games have improved on this a bit. The first actual game I purchased for my PSP was Wipe Out Pure; because it seemed like it would be to the my Sony PSP what S.T.U.N. Runner is to my Atari Lynx. Sadly, this is not the case with Wipe Out. S.T.U.N. Runner is a game with no battery save, only 16 colors on screen, and it definately does not run at even 15frames per second (FPS). Yet, S.T.U.N. Runner has something that Wipe Out does not have, and that would the ability to just turn on the Lynx and get to playing the game quickly. There is a bit of set up in Wipe Out, where you have to load up your profile from your memory card as well as wait for the system to load up levels and such. By the time I get to the first race in Wipe Out, I have already completed a second race in S.T.U.N. Runner. So much for pick up and play in this regard.
The price is still a bit of a sticking point with me as I pad my collection of games for all the handhelds I own. I have put off buying game software until I can nab it cheaply. I waited for the stores to drop the price of Wipe Out to $19.95 before I bought it. The used market for the PSP is a bit unappealing as UMDs can get scratched a lot easier than you would think and the price on many used PSP games is still more expensive than many brand new Nintendo DS or Game Boy Advance games. That said, I have been picking up a fairly large amount of Game Boy Advance games as of late. The most recent ones being the first Klonoa game, Wade Hixton's Counter Punch, and the original Fire Emblem. The price for each of these games (used) is still less than the price of a used copy of Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories. I think the media that Sony uses for their games is cost restrictive; but at least strides have been made to lower the price of the base unit package.
The third point is a bit of a contention for many users. The Apple iPod got the market share it has today because it solely does one thing well and that is to play music. While photo and video capabilities were added later, they are still not the main point of the system. The PSP has a wide variety of features, it plays games, music, photos, surfs the internet, will soon be able to use a camera, VOIP, emulate first generation PSOne games directly from the memory card, run RSS Feeds, and also work as a Global Positioning System (GPS) device. The list of features is a bit daunting and it certainly has a "neat" factor to it; but a lot of portable users really just want a portable device to do one thing and do it well. The over complication of device use also makes the unit a little harder to market. Sony needs to pick one function and address that as the primary use and all the others as just neat side perks. In fact, a stripped down version of the PSP that was only able to play UMD Games + Movies would work fine. I will get into more detail on this later in this editorial.
The fourth aspect is mostly from a feel and size standpoint. The PSP and the Nintendo DS do not fit comfortably in my pocket; but the Game Boy Micro does. I find myself carrying my Game Boy Micro and a copy of Dr. Mario & Puzzle League around instead. It fulfills the pick up and play aspect and the fact that it fits so nicely into my pocket works really well. Sometimes, Final Fantasy IV occupies the cartridge slot of my jet black Micro and all is right with the world. A smaller redesign of the PSP would work fairly well. Especially if it allowed the unit to be more pocket friendly. The PSP also seems to suffer from being made of some very cheap feeling plastic. The silver rim feels like a bad dollar store cell phone toy and the L & R buttons are extremely flimsy. The SELECT and START buttons are akward to press and the amount of face buttons along the bottom is ridiculous. The screen is fairly inactive and the unit just feels more fragile than it should. A definate redesign would be appreciated.
The final aspect of the ghetto is ease of use for the general consumer. This is the most important part of the handheld ghetto to understand. The very nature of a consumer is to want things to be simple and the unfocused nature of the PSP is what makes it less appealing. I find it a bit of a nuisance to explain how to set up a PSP to go online; because people do not generally read instructions. For example, the PSP requires you flip on a seperate switch to access the WiFi feature. The Nintendo DS just automatically turns those on when a game or application needs them. So, the majority of new PSP users find themselves scratching their heads at "A Connction error has occured. The WLAN sqitch is not turned on." Maybe they are spoiled by computers or devices that do not require you to physically switch on and off what should be an automatic feature. The majority of the features on it are not needed or useful for the main consumer as well. Sony should take a page from Apple in this regard and put out two types of PSP. One with more simplistic features, and one with the full range of features.
I feel I should clarify more on what I mean by that idea. I think that Sony should put out a much cheaper, smaller PSP with most of the GUI for it removed. IN other words, it would play game and music UMDs, but not play music and movies off of the memory stick, surf the internet, run RSS feeds, or a ton of the other features. In short, it would be more of a solid gaming machine. Smaller and more durable, less complicated and cheaper. A bit like the iPod Nano is to the iPod Video. This could probably help the Japanese sales of the PSP as well as help it reach a more palatable market share.
For now though, I find that I would prefer to stay in the "ghetto" of the Nintendo DS and Game Boy Advance. A lot of the current PSP offerings just fail to hold my interest for very long and the PSP sits on my desk while the Game Boy Micro is always in my pocket. It would seem that Hirai's bold claim of Sony lifting portable gaming out of the "ghetto" is nothing more than hot air by an elitist commpany that does not understand the ghetto enough to ever lift anything out from it. At least, that is what has been shown from the first year of the PSP's life. Maybe the second year will be a bit better? I know I will be keeping an eye out on it.
-Philip Wesley 2006-
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