Sony Ericsson’s long-rumoured desire to put the PlayStation branding on one of their handsets has finally born fruit. On the first day of April (in the UK, at least) the new Sony Ericsson Xperia Play will be available on all major networks and, we assume, sim-free.
After a recent hands-on event with the device I was left with one prevailing question and it’s the one that I had most expected the demonstration to answer:
Just what is the Xperia Play?
It might seem like a clear enough question with a clear enough answer. In fact, let me answer it myself right off the bat so we can get the obvious out of the way. The Xperia Play is a Sony Ericsson smartphone running the Android operating system with a slide-out gamepad and a wealth of new and classic games. That’s what it is literally but the question I’m really asking is: what is it to the market and what does it mean to the gaming crowd?
At launch it will be running Android 2.3, the latest update to the open source OS which will sit beneath that custom Sony Ericsson user interface and allow all the existing Android applications to run. It sports a decent four inch screen with a resolution of 480 x 854, just less than the iPhone 4’s Retina display and the usual range of sensors and touch capabilities. It’s a competent Android device with the added bonus of those PlayStation buttons.
Sounds good so far, right? Well, by the time the handset hits the market, there will already be more powerful (and thus, presumably, future-proofed) Android devices on their way to store shelves. That’s only counting the devices which have already been announced and are due at approximately the same time as the new Xperia range. We can only wonder what the specifications of the next wave of handsets to be announced, most likely coming to market around September, will be.
The smartphone market is incredibly competitive at the moment and, coupled with the current “arms race” to ever more powerful devices, this could spell disaster for a device which has already been surpassed in terms of raw power and will be pitched at a premium price point. In fact, the stable-mates in the Xperia range all seem like a better proposition already.
The Arc has a bigger (and better, from my viewing) screen and HDMI out as well as a fantastic camera and some beautiful styling. The Neo is smaller, yes, but it’s also cheaper and features a fantastic camera and HDMI out. The Pro is similar to the Neo but with a slide out qwerty keyboard, perfect for business use, heavy mobile email users or people who just like physical keyboards rather than on-screen overlays.
It seems that as an Android device, it’s already beaten by many, including some of Sony Ericsson’s own. So, surely it must earn its place at that premium price point by doing something that’s not available elsewhere. This killer feature must be the gaming functionality, right? Let’s take a look at that.
The PlayStation button configuration is familiar to most gamers. It will feel natural, even when scaled down to fit a tighter form-factor thus becoming slightly less comfortable to use. The dual analogue-emulating touch pads neatly skirt the thumb stick issue and can be used to provide L2 and R2 functionality if that’s more important than analogue control. So the input interface seems to have all gaming bases covered.
We have to assume that, after an initial period of experimentation, developers will find the best way to make use of the buttons and touch screen combination and we won’t be expected to juggle between the two so often in one game, as is the case with several launch titles. This control confusion forces unnatural holding positions and increases the chances of that gut-wrenching slip and drop. That’s a software issue though, it can be patched out or avoided all together in future releases.
Far more worrying, in my opinion, is that it’s difficult to see just where this fits in the market of gaming devices. It will launch a week after the Nintendo 3DS, a device roundly criticised by gamers for being priced too highly and yet still roughly half the price we can reasonably assume the Play will retail for.
That device, while not for everyone, comes from an extremely prestigious lineage of handheld gaming devices which have consistently been the market leaders by a huge margin. Sony Ericsson has never made a gaming-focussed device before and no amount of, frankly, understated PlayStation branding will change that. Will mainstream gamers know that the Xperia Play smartphone is the PlayStation Phone they might have heard about before? With no mention of PlayStation in the name, or even on the casing, it’s going to be a hard sell for the marketing teams and they don’t have long to get their message out there before the units hit the shelves.
Let’s not completely discount the marketing potential behind that PlayStation tie-in though. While I find it slightly odd that they didn’t put the gaming brand front and centre in the device’s name and on its casing, there will still be plenty of gamers who know what it is and are excited about the potential of a phone with PlayStation support.
Unfortunately, it seems like the PlayStation tie-in is limited, ring-fenced and underpowered. There’s absolutely no PSN functionality, for example, so no trophies or friends lists. The PSOne Classics that are being touted so loudly will all need to be bought ( or bought again, in some cases) specifically for the device. If they’d included cloud saves and buy-once-play-anywhere functionality this could have been a really exciting prospect but as it stands, it’s just a pared down version of the PSOne Classics that many of us have already bought once from the PSN and regularly enjoy on either our PS3s or PSPs. I was told that the Xperia Play can’t even be plugged in to a PS3 via USB for the cross platform promotion and bonuses as we’ve seen with a few PSP titles (Gran Turismo and Resistance spring to mind).
Sure, there are all of those Android games available on that marketplace too but they’d be available on any of the cheaper, more powerful devices we’ve already discussed and because they’re not made exclusively for the Xperia Play they likely won’t make use of the buttons for fear of segregating their market. Why release a game with button control for 5% of the market when you can release one with touch screen control for 100% of it? Even the games we’ve seen so far that are ported for buttons are just slightly improved ports of their iPhone and Android counterparts. There might be attraction in the existing Android-based retro emulators but that will likely only appeal to a limited number too.
The PlayStation Suite is something coming to all Android devices, months after the Play’s launch so it’s difficult to see how that can be seen as a positive at this point. Surely the same market segregation issue will exist here too and we’ll see most of the third party releases ignore the PlayStation buttons for fear of losing the vast majority of their potential sales?
It will also be interesting to see how Sony plan to combat the problem of software piracy on an open platform and I can see that being an issue eventually too, especially with no PSN functions to exclude pirates from. Although, if it does happen then it’s likely to be a platform-wide issue across all Android devices.
If Sony Ericsson are hoping to pitch this as a premium Android device then they’re going to be coming to market underpowered and with system killers already shipping from the same factories and being sold by the same marketing teams (did I mention how gorgeous the Arc looks?).
If they hope to pitch it as a pure mobile gaming device then they’ll be competing with a more powerful, more competent, more focussed and more connected (to other gamers)device with a much more prominent and successful lineage to build from in the Nintendo 3DS. On top of that hurdle, they’ll also have to sell this premium-priced device as something that can beat the existing PSP range.
Consider also the digital-only nature of the Xperia Play and the recent digital-only nature of the PSPGo. That move to digital and the lack of ongoing pricing support (or publisher support) it achieved left a bitter taste in the mouths of many and could lead to a lack of trust in the service.
Is it really plausible that the 3DS or PSP market are keen to move towards a premium, network connected smartphone? Is it plausible that the current handheld gaming demographic is able to spend the sort of cash necessary (one-off or pay monthly) to succumb to the Play’s allure, even if there is a desire for it? Will the relatively tiny market of gamers for whom money is no consideration be tempted by a device, which doesn’t seem to perform as well as an existing PSP, when Sony already have another PSP (the NGP) preparing for release – hopefully within a year?
So, Sony Ericsson are pitching a slightly underpowered Android device with a greatly underpowered mobile gaming device integrated. Surely the only market which that will appeal to is one with lots of disposable income, only one pocket and a desire to play less visually impressive PSP games with an even more uncomfortable control layout. I really can’t imagine there are many of those people around.[boxout]As of today, we’re exactly six weeks away from the device’s retail launch. I’ve had some time with it. I’ve read the specification lists and the press release. I’ve studied high res photos and looked at screenshots. I’ve written well over two and a half thousand words about it. All of that and I still can’t figure out exactly where it can fit in the current or future market.
I still don’t really know what it’s supposed to be.