Sony Game Chief: Third-party PlayStation consoles a possibility

A handful of phones at the company's sprawling booth at the Tokyo Game Show mark the start of its PlayStation Mobile endeavor

Tucked in a quiet corner of Sony's sprawling booth at the Tokyo Game Show this week are several phones that are unique among the hundreds of game consoles on display -- they are running PlayStation games, but they weren't built by Sony.

The phones, from Sharp and HTC, will be part of the launch of an online store next month that will sell PlayStation-branded titles for use on approved third-party products. These will not be the full-fledged games that appear on its consoles, rather a separate set developed for mobile devices that generally cost less than US$10 -- Sony says they have "PlayStation-like content." But the new platform, PlayStation Mobile, is still a sharp departure from the traditional console business in which Sony owns all the hardware, and the question looms: Will this one day lead to PlayStation clones, consoles made by outside manufacturers?

"That's a really interesting question, and I don't know that I would rule it out," Andrew House, the CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment, told IDG News Service in an interview.

"But I think that the key focus for the strategy right now is to be multi-device, and particularly if you're a developer, you're looking to access the broadest possible audience."

House emphasized the company's own PlayStation hardware, which includes a new line of slimmed-down PS 3 consoles to go on sale this year and the handheld Vita released last year, is still a focus and has plenty of room for growth. But he said PlayStation Mobile is an appeal to smaller game developers, who are looking to build software for the growing mass of Android phones but want guarantees that the phones will be up to a certain specification.

"We're also trying to say to developers, 'you can deliver a superior gaming experience, but across a whole range of smartphones.' And that to me is really about multi-device and multi-manufacturer strategy," he said.

The Tokyo-based electronics firm is the only major manufacturer that displays its hardware at the Tokyo Game Show. Nintendo says it isn't worth the cost, and Microsoft, which has a small market share in Japan, sits the show out, though both companies participate in the E3 show in the U.S.

Sony still draws the crowds. Thursday was the opening day of the Tokyo Game Show, with only press and industry insiders were allowed in, but hundreds still lined up, some waiting over an hour, for a chance to play "Soul Sacrifice," its new title for the Vita that allows group play, and dozens of other titles.

Sony also gave a hint of how its Vita will interact with the PS 3 at its booth, with a version of its "PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale" that users of the two consoles to engage in direct combat with each other.

The company showed its new PS 3 consoles behind glass, but gamers played on the current version, many using Sony's head-mounted displays and large stereo headphones, quietly locked in their own gaming worlds.

Sony's new PS 3 will compete with Nintendo's Wii U, to be released globally in time for the holiday season at a similar price point. The game console is now six years old, the typical time between previous PS upgrades, and some media have reported Sony is working on a successor, but House declined to comment.

Advanced, newly created hardware like the PlayStation typically incurs steep losses at a launch, and Sony's game division struggled for years to make the PS 3 profitable despite strong sales. The platform is now generating returns and is a major pillar overall for Sony as it looks to resurrect its ailing electronics business.

"It's definitely in the harvest period, now, of its life cycle," House said.

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Jay Alabaster

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