Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The Sony NGP

Even though there doesn't seem to be anything of note happening with consoles this year, the handheld market is now red hot, given the impending launch of the 3DS and the announcement last week of the Sony NGP.

If you'd like the basics, Chris Kohler's article is here. For discussion, please continue reading.

First off, and it's hard to overestimate this: the NGP, technically, is a beast. An OLED screen, 960x544 resolution (16:9 aspect ratio), and a five inch screen are all first-rate specs. Unlike the PS3, which was essentially no more powerful than a 360, the NGP is massively more powerful than the 3DS. Plus, the underside of the unit is touch-sensitive. Hell, I wouldn't be surprised if it was beamed from the future.

Sure, specs aren't the only thing that matters, but they play a big part in determining how ambitious developers can be with a system. Breakthrough technology, as contained in the autostereoscopic 3D technology of the 3DS, also help define a developer's ambition.

So there are two ways to go: technical beast (NGP), or breakthrough tech (3DS). Both approaches can work, and two have one device with each approach is the best of both worlds. In other words, given what we know about the 3DS, the NGP seems to be an almost-ideal complement.

The NGP won't just be competing with the 3DS, though. Mobile devices now have powerful specs as well, and high-resolution screens. I have a Samsung Fascinate with a 4", AMOLED screen and 800x480 resolution. It is, in a word, spectacular.

However, mobile devices have their own limitations when it comes to gaming. Since all games are downloads, there's a common-sense limit to the size of the programs. The need for touchscreen controls can also limit the types or quality of certain game genres. So mobile devices, at least at this point, seem far better suited to the "crash and dash" kind of games that you can play for 5-10 minutes at a time. There are, obviously, exceptions--I spent hours playing Game Dev Story last month--but mobile devices aren't as versatile as a gaming platform as dedicated devices.

They are, however, staggeringly popular, so the NGP, to be well-positioned against the competition, needs to not only outperform the dedicated competition, but also be capable versus mobile devices that have a new generation of hardware seemingly every year. So if they want the NGP to be viable for five years, they are essentially forced to overspec the hardware.

That can cause a problem, and we'll discuss that later.

Now, what is Sony doing in response to wildly growing popularity of the mobile phone gaming market? Interestingly, they're also introducing a software development environment what will run on Android as well as the NGP.

That's a terrific idea with zero downside, seemingly.

The NGP will also sport a 3G antenna, although it appears that not all models will include 3G connectivity, and there's no word on whether a data plan will be required.

With the 3G antenna, it's a logical question to ask whether there will be an NGP-phone, and clearly, the answer is "yes", although Sony has been coy when asked the question.

So is the NGP viable as a mass-market phone? Well, here's where we get to some of the potential issues with this system. First off, it's a behemoth. It's screen is almost 1" larger diagonally than the Droid X, and I can't imagine anything larger than a Droid X fitting in anyone's pocket. Here, I found three promotional shots of the NGP that should give you an idea of its size. Take a look and form your own conclusions:

(original image credit Checkshakes.com)

(original image credit AmazingOnly.com)

(original image credit AmazingOnly.com)

Damn, that's big (thanks to Dave Loomis for the entertaining Photoshop work).

I don't think the size will be a problem for a non-phone NGP, but it's going to be very difficult to market as a phone.

Second possible problem: heat. There is a ton of power packed into this system, and I expect it to get hot--very hot--at least in the first generation. That may not be a problem, if it doesn't increase system failures, but it's worth keeping in mind.

Third, and I think given Sony's recent history, this is most important: the price, which wasn't announced. After the pricing fiasco that was the PS3 launch, the one thing Sony absolutely HAD to do was establish that the NGP was going to be affordable. Instead, Sony is using highly similar language to how they described the PS3 pricing. Jack Tretton gave an interview to Engadget where he said that the NGP pricing would be "aspirational."

See, that's a bad word to use. He means "aspirational" in the "aspire to own" sense, but when he says that, I immediately think of aspiration of vomit. Sony used "aspirational" pricing for the PS3, and that's why the gaming segment hasn't had a profitable quarter in over five years. So after that kind of financial ass-kicking, you'd think that Sony would avoid doing the same thing all over again.

Incredibly, though, that scenario is definitely in play. I believe the most likely launch price for the NGP is in the $349-$399 range, and that's going to be a problem. Anything over $399 will be an epic fail, and even $399 will be very, very shaky.

It's not that the NGP isn't a beast. It certainly is, and it certainly has far more raw power than the 3DS. But the PSP was far more powerful than the DS, and we all know how that turned out.

Personally, I'm very pleased with this announcement. I'd be happy to pay $349 for the hardware (although I'm not sure I'd go higher than that). Like I said, it's a perfect complement to the 3DS.

However, and this is a big however, the price of games is going to be crucial. Mobile platforms like the iPhone and Android have almost completely redefined what people are willing to pay for gaming entertainment. So Nintendo and Sony are competing, in a game pricing sense, with marketplaces where $9.99 is a high-end product.

I don't think the $40-$50 pricing model for handheld games is still viable, with only extremely limited exceptions. So even if the hardware is priced properly, the price of games may prove to be a brick wall, which is something I'll discuss in more detail at some point.

One last note: EA, strangely, didn't announce any NGP projects in development. That may not mean anything, or it may be temporary, but if EA chooses not to support the platform, it could be devastating.

Wait, I forgot one more thing worth mentioning. Given how many questions Sony hasn't answered, I strongly suspect that this unit isn't quite fully-baked. The timing seems well-placed to distract from the 3DS launch, but being incredibly vague on the launch date ("holiday 2011", but no mention of how many territories) as well as certain specifics of the hardware makes me believe that this announcement was rushed.

So if there are delays, or supply issues, don't be surprised.

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