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Switched On: The PSP Changes the Game

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Every Wednesday Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a weekly column about the future of technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

Until this week, Nintendo had dispatched so many competitors over the ten years of its virtual monopoly in the handheld gaming space that its reign seemed assured. But maybe those competitors – GameGear, Neo Geo Pocket, Atari Lynx – simply got it wrong. Maybe they lacked the right features or enough marketing support. Or maybe, as Mickey Goldmill put it in Rocky III, "they was good fighters but they wasn't killers."

Could a competitor change the rules of the game simply by throwing enough engineering and marketing dollars into a rival system? Judging from the masterpiece of technology and design that is the PlayStation Portable, the answer is an unequivocal yes.

Nintendo�s outlook on the pace of technological sophistication has been consistent over the past several years � graphics improvements are producing diminishing returns, and the new direction is differentiated gaming experiences that leverage the best-nurtured characters east of the Magic Kingdom.

The company�s perspective, though, has been driven in part by expedience. In battling two competitors with very deep pockets, Nintendo serves itself well by favoring cleverness over complexity. Rather than enter a silicon duel with Sony and Microsoft, it reasons that it should focus on producing a few beautifully crafted exclusive games that pick the coins from consumers� pockets as effortlessly as Mario picks them from the air.

PSP UMDHowever, like much content, games can encounter a fickle marketplace, which has resulted in this being a hit-or-miss strategy. A few marketplace disappointments like Luigi�s Mansion and Pikmin resulted in a slow start for the GameCube despite its price advantage. And it�s unclear whether Nintendo will be able to do better with a killer title for its experimental DS.

In contrast, while Sony may not have a single system-seller launch PSP title either (although Wipeout Pure is certainly a showcase), it doesn�t need one. The PSP�s inspiring combination of sleek looks, solid controls, gorgeous graphics, fluid rendering and brilliant wide display appeals more strongly to today�s home console gamer. This is the next marketplace target for portable consoles as kids cling to their Game Boys like pacifiers and casual gamers are satisfied with the cell phone gaming experience.

Nintendo has simply underestimated the value of graphics in an industry where, particularly in the portable space, there�s been plenty of headroom. They are called videogames after all. The Nintendo DS may tempt the adventurous with new modes of interaction, but the PSP resets expectations of portable gaming.

For at least the time between its launch and the launch of the next-generation of consoles, the PSP has effectively eliminated the perceived quality gap � and much of the experiential gap � between home and portable console playing. And unlike 16-bit portables such as the Sega Nomad and Turbo Express that used the same cartridges as their TV-connected cousins � the PSP is backed by a company with the marketing and channel clout to get the word out.

Beyond the hardware and games, much has been made of the PSP�s poor convergence features. Sony missed an opportunity to make its mark early with bundled PC connectivity software, but this is largely a non-factor at launch. Whether it is in the home or portable console space, consumers don�t purchase game machines for their convergence features. They are a nice-to-have perceived bonus as Sony showed by including DVD playback capabilities with the PlayStation 2.

Somewhat as with PDAs, the sleeper media hit on the PSP will be photos. Not only does the PSP�s screen display them vividly and dramatically, but their relative fluidity makes moving them around fairly easy. This is about the only area in which the PSP trumps the iPod photo, which is effective at showing headshots and little else. For music, the PSP is a woeful competitor.

The next Switched On will discuss the PSP�s video features� but only if time allows en route to another gold medal in Wipeout Pure. The PSP is here. Rejoice in choice.


Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis at NPD Techworld, a division of market research and analysis provider The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On, however, are his own. Feedback is welcome at fliptheswitch@gmail.com.
In this article: features, switched on, SwitchedOn
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