E3 - Sony details PSP, cuts price of PlayStation 2

Despite the swirl of rumors and the bustle of fanboy fantasies, no next-generation platforms like the PS3 or the Xbox 2 materialized at the annual wave of E3 press conferences, but Sony Computer Entertainment kicked off its announcements with the kind of practical news that will gladden gamers' hearts: The price of the PlayStation 2 has dropped US$50 to US$149.

Strangely, that applies for either a stand-alone PlayStation 2 or a bundle that includes a Network Adaptor and a copy of ATV Off-Road Fury 2, so shop wisely. Since 90% of PlayStations were sold after its price dropped to US$149, Sony expects this to be the magic number that will make the PlayStation 2 a mass-market powerhouse. Defying expectations, the year's biggest title was MIA -- Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas made only a whisper of an appearance as its logo flashed briefly on a screen -- and no celebrities showed up to stump for Sony.

But as expected, the PSP was the focus of the spotlight's glare, though Sony also touched vaguely on some changes to online play and on its PS3 plans by outlining a broad picture for how Cell technology, the underpinnings of the PS3, will work -- and it's downright cool. First the PSP news: No price points were announced, but Sony's entry into the portable gaming market will be launched first in Japan in late December. It will follow in the U.S. and Europe in March 2005, and lastly in Korea in summer 2005.

Disappointingly, no live PSP gameplay was uncorked, though trailer footage of Need For Speed, Metal Gear Solid, Spider-Man, Ape Escape, Hot Shots Golf, Twisted Metal, MediEvil, Ridge Racer, Tony Hawk, Dynasty Warriors, and Darkstalkers was shown. The video abilities of the PSP were touted by showing the device running the Spider-Man 2 movie trailer and an Incubus video, prompting Sony president Kaz Hirai to label the UMD, the PSP's proprietary disc storage, "the new global format."

UMDs, which are small discs enclosed in a plastic case, will hold three CDs worth of content, roughly half of a DVD, and Sony has heavyweight plans for regional encoding and copy protection. More relevant to users, UMDs will also be used by record labels to release full-length albums, video compilations, concert footage, and more.

EA honcho Don Mattrick was on hand to represent for the world's leading third-party publisher, promising four launch titles for the PSP: NBA Street, NFL Street, Need for Speed Underground, and Tiger Woods PGA Tour Golf, but he didn't reveal whether they were ports of previous PlayStation 2 versions of those games or entirely new editions. Mattrick showed footage from these games via a PC emulator, tellingly not demoing them on an actual PSP.

Sony also focused heavily on the technical details of the PSP. Most interesting was the wireless support, which will use the 802.11b format to allow wireless communication and gameplay between PCs, PlayStation 2s, and other PSPs. Since Sony hasn't announced a wireless PlayStation 2 add-on, you can safely bet one is in the works. Other highlights include the planned accessories, which will range from GPS to a keypad add-on to a USB camera -- kind of like the PSP version of the Eye Toy. The lithium-ion battery will last anywhere from 2.5 hours to 10 hours, depending on how you use it -- kind of a broad range.

As expected, Sony promised interoperability between the PSP and PlayStation 2, meaning users will be able to share game data between the two devices in some unspecified way. The prototype shown at the conference was identical to the photo that Sony released a few months ago, though it did announce that the final production models will be black, not silver. Oddly, it looks a lot like Atari's old handheld unit, the Lynx. The memory has also been upped to 32M bytes with 4M bytes of DRAM.

Hirai also discussed the PSP business model, saying that the low development costs for PSP games means that developers are in a "sweet spot" where they can create PlayStation 2-style games without a full PS2 financial investment. "We believe the timing is now right," Hirai proclaimed, "and the PSP is as revolutionary as the PS2 was but in different ways."

In a peek into the future, Sony also laid out in more details its plan for Cell technology, which will form the backbone of the PS3. The company's goal is to make a common development environment for movies and games. Movie studios could then use it to create assets like special effects or rendered scenes for films, then those exact same assets could be used by game developers -- the goal is to make games look as good as movies.

Since this technology will rank at the supercomputer level, Sony plans to make plenty of middleware and other tools, and it's aiming to release a prototype to developers by fourth quarter 2004. All in all, details were vague beyond this broad outline. But Sony also added that once Cell technology is out, gaming consoles and workstations will create a network via broadband, a "cyber world" that people can "jack into" via their consoles -- Masa Chatani, the chief technology officer for SCEI, called it "the future of broadband entertainment."

Last but not least, Sony touched a bit on its plans for online gaming, which it's revising to fall in line the approach that Microsoft pioneered for Xbox Live. Sony claims it won't "meddle" as much as Live does, allowing developers to keep control and keep their intellectual property. But Sony does plan to build a server infrastructure, help developers with billing, and offer mini-transactions that mimic the iTunes model -- gamers will be able to purchase downloadable content, user-created content (GT4 experts could sell souped-up cars to newbies), episodic content, parts of persistent worlds, and other entertainment content. No launch details or specifics were given for this new PS2 online model, but it is under development.

To help with the storage of this content, Sony will also be releasing a larger-format memory card -- again, no details there either. Hirai sums it up: "We must evolve the experience of online gaming. Content creators control their own destiny -- non-revenue-generating online gameplay is the norm, but not for long.

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