While the NGP game console hogged the spotlight at Sony’s press conference in Tokyo on Thursday, the company made another announcement that could prove just as significant.
I’m talking about Playstation Suite, a software framework that will let Android phones run Playstation games. Sony skimped on details, but said Playstation Suite will start with PSOne games when it launches for Android 2.3 phones later this year — that’s “phones” plural, not just the rumored Sony Ericsson Xperia Play, a.k.a. Playstation Phone.
For as long as I’ve been playing video games, no console maker has handed over its ecosystem to other devices in this way. Sony is essentially admitting that it can no longer ignore smartphones, and that selling video games is at least as important as controlling the hardware or the operating system. This is a huge concession.
In fairness, Sony is trying to differentiate the NGP from smartphones. It runs on a quad-core processor and can reportedly handle Playstation 3 games. It has a 5-inch screen and probably won’t fit in pants pockets. The NGP’s dual analog sticks alone are a feature that smartphones may never enjoy because of space constraints.
But Sony’s attempt to outdo smartphones with the NGP could be futile. The rise of smartphone gaming suggests that most people don’t want 20-hour experiences on their portable devices. They want snacks — fancy ones, even. Not surprisingly, some major publishers now reserve their biggest franchises for the iPhone instead of the PSP or Nintendo DS.
The big three console makers are attacking this problem from different angles. Nintendo hopes that its golden franchises — Mario, Zelda, Pokemon, etc. — will buoy whatever hardware it creates. Microsoft passed on dedicated portable game players and instead built Xbox Live into Windows Phone 7. Sony is targeting Android, regardless of who sells the hardware.
Of course, Sony Ericsson can promote its own phones as the best way to enjoy Playstation games, but Sony’s “hardware neutral” approach to Playstation Suite allows the platform to grow independently. And just in case NGP is a flop, Sony still has eggs in a bigger basket.