Sony games chief faced big challenges with PSP refresh

Kaz Hirai talks about how the company moved basic games platform forward

The major refresh of the PlayStation Portable unveiled on Thursday is the result of a two-year effort to rethink the basic gaming platform, according to Kaz Hirai, chairman of Sony Computer Entertainment.

The new device, provisionally called the NGP (next-generation portable), will be out before the end of the year and presents some big changes from previous models. After the launch news conference in Tokyo, Hirai discussed the NGP and his plans for the device with journalists.

The portable device is the product of work that began about two years ago, Hirai said. At the time the company was about to launch the PSPgo, but while that device presented some hardware changes from early models, it didn't move the basic platform beyond that set in late 2004 when the PlayStation Portable first went on sale.

"We started getting consumer feedback like, for example, why don't you have two sticks?," Hirai said in an interview. "Well you can't change it once you put out the platform."

The new device was a chance to rethink the PSP platform, and add features that gamers had been requesting -- like the dual analog sticks that made it into the final design.

Through brainstorming sessions with developers and engineers, new technologies were proposed and discussed.

"We had a lot of different ideas that we felt would be points of differentiation," said Hirai. He said the aim was to "really change the game experience."

One of the ideas was the rear touchpanel, which turns the back of the NGP into another input device.

"It seemed like a great idea conceptually," he said. "We prototyped it and it looked pretty good, we played it and it's actually pretty fun so we said this is a feature that's going to make it right into the actual product."

One feature that didn't make it into the NGP is 3D.

Competitor Nintendo is about to launch its 3DS device that includes a screen that can provide the illusion of 3D without special glasses.

Sony has been putting a considerable amount of effort into the technology and last year it added the ability to play 3D Blu-ray Disc movies to PlayStation 3 consoles.

"We looked at the possibility of doing 3D on the NGP," said Hirai. He added that discussions with software makers convinced the company not to include it.

"We decided to forgo 3D, at least for the time being," he said.

With the PSPgo, one of the more radical changes Sony made was the removal of the UMD (Universal Media Disc) cartridge in favor of digital downloads. On the NGP physical media has made a return.

Sony has developed a proprietary flash-based memory card format, and Hirai said it will be up to publishers to offer titles on cards, as downloads or via both formats.

"It's ultimately a business decision the content holders make for themselves," he said.

"If you're a consumer in Japan or any other country where networks services are advanced, downloading content is not so much of a problem," said Hirai. "But we intend to do business in various territories around the world, where network service is not as readily available in terms of speed or affordability."

The use of a proprietary media format will also help guard against unlicensed copying of games because it presents an additional hurdle for would-be pirates.

"If it was a standard SD card that fits in, then I foresee a lot of potential issues that we want to avoid with one additional layer of security," he said.

The NGP is due on sale at the end of 2011. The early announcement will help Sony build buzz for the product, which it needs to succeed if it's to reinvigorate its portable gaming business. Hirai said the early announcement also allows Sony to talk more openly about the new device and attract more developer interest.

Hirai declined to talk about pricing, but said he intends to balance price with features.

Sony has faced criticism in the past from consumers who said the launch price of new gaming systems was too high. This time around, the company kept in mind the cost of the components as it developed the NGP, said Hirai.

"That's something we spent a lot of time on this time around with NGP, to make sure that we don't go off the deep end," he said.

He also declined to provide more detail on launch plans.

"We need to sit down with our publishing partners, look at [production] capacity and come to an ultimate decision on whether it's a simultaneous launch, a one-territory launch or two," he said.

But he did say the company is looking at launching two models: one with Wi-Fi and 3G compatibility and one with just Wi-Fi.

Before the launch, Sony has more work to do, not least of which is coming up with a name for the device.

Hirai said its "NGP" moniker is just a development code name and the company hopes to come up with something a little more imaginative. But he also held out the slight possibility that it might stick.

"It may just sprout legs of its own and it might be the greatest name since Walkman, so I might reconsider it, but it's just a code name," he said.

Martyn Williams covers Japan and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com

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Martyn Williams

IDG News Service
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