You wouldn’t think it from the complete lack of marketing hype and momentum from Sony, but last week’s launch of the PSP Go is actually pretty monumental for the video game industry and media in general. Sony, the ultimate parade leader for proprietary media (remember the long dead Betamax?), has taken some bold steps towards digital-only content with this new machine, having axed the clunky UMD drive (again, all proprietary) from its nearly five-year-old portable gaming system.
The move to all digital media for video games has been predicted since Microsoft included a hard drive and Ethernet port in its original Xbox back in 2001, but no one really expected the first all-digital device to hit so soon. Really, the technology has been around for a number of years, and Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo have all made baby steps with digital content. It seems like a no-brainer—digital content cuts out manufacturing and shipping costs associated with producing a game while also providing a direct link between the consumer and the creator; hypothetically, it would mean more money for the developers who would pass on the savings for cheaper games all around.
The problem? It’s the middleman– big-box retailers who would lose millions in yearly sales if casual shoppers weren’t browsing the aisles for the newest space marine shooter. These retailers threaten to pull support for Sony and Microsoft’s other products if they dare to undercut the stores online; it’s cutthroat boardroom meetings that kept you from being able to download Halo 3: ODST at its midnight launch. Sure, Microsoft and Sony have both tested the waters, but retailers made sure that these have been nothing more than small splashes instead of the big waves that they should have been. Sony has launched a couple low-profile games online simultaneously with the retail releases, but at the same time pricing these games at a disadvantage over the retail packages that were always bundled with an accessory for added value. Microsoft just recently began to offer full games for download over their own online service, but all of the games are old releases that aren’t readily available in stores and are even priced significantly higher than the retail boxes.
With all of the sales politics, it’s no wonder that the PSP Go is just another half-attempt from Sony. The Go represents a series of missteps from the company, who has let retail pressures turn their would-be revolutionary machine into dead weight.
Sony has not placed the PSP Go as a replacement for the existing PSP system; the old model will still be manufactured and sold in retail stores as well as physical copies of new games. It shows Sony’s lack of faith in digital distribution, and as long as the company is printing UMDs for releases, consumers will be paying for these costs whether they’re buying online or at a register.
Sony has priced their downloadable games on the PSP Go drastically too high. $40 for a portable game is too steep even for a complete retail package, and for a downloadable game that cannot be resold and may be lost if Sony ever shuts down its servers, it’s preposterous.
Did I mention that all of your existing PSP games are useless if you upgrade to the Go? Traditionally, digital content services, like Steam on the PC, offer a method to register your existing games on to the service, allowing you to download your already purchased games over without having to spend any extra cash. In Europe, Sony has offered a limited program that allows previous PSP users to download up to three free games from the service for use on a new PSP Go, and the European version of the handheld comes preloaded with the new Gran Turismo game, a $40 extra download for North American users.
The games are expensive, but not nearly as expensive as the system itself. When the original PSP launched in early 2005, it cost $250 and came with a copy of the newly released Spider-Man 2 movie, headphones, and a carrying case.
The PSP go comes with nothing of the sort, has a smaller screen, and no UMD drive. Besides the added onboard flash memory, it’s technically a downgrade from the original model, not to mention that the hardware is now almost five years old. The price: still $250.
But even with all of these launch stutters, the PSP Go is the start of something big. As broadband penetration grows and hard drive sizes reach into the terabits, video game brick-and-mortar retailers will go the way of record stores, and Sony will be able to say that they fired the first shot.