How Sony Can Make Their Next Gen Portable A Must Buy

Today, Sony is on the handheld gaming campaign trail, preparing for us to vote with our dollars this fall. Should you buy an NGP — the successor to the PSP — in late 2011?

It depends on whether Sony finally gets its PSP line right, if Sony's prose matches its poetry.

The Promise

This past week, we've seen the new PSP, the NGP, in action. We've seen the specs. We've even been able to imagine the invisible checklist of problems with the original PSP that Sony people must have had handy as they ticked them off and made the NGP:

__ Add Second Analog Stick
__ Get Rid Of Noisy Disc Drive
__ Add Touchscreen To Keep Up With Times
__ Make Sure It Is Smaller Than A Loaf of (French) Bread
__ Improve Wireless Connectivity
__ Add Cameras
__ Throw In At Least One Motion Sensor
__ Oh, And Make Sure It's More Powerful Than Whatever Weird Thing Nintendo Is Making

It's all so wonderful. They even added things we didn't know we needed, like a built-in compass and extra touch panels on the device's backside.

Sony's unveiling of their next big machine was as impressive as… their last one. Their last one happened in 2005, when they showed the world the PlayStation 3, a machine that had a boomerang-shaped controller, output graphics onto two HDTVs at the same time and ran, as those of us who attended the Electronics Entertainment Expo Sony briefing in May of that year saw, the best-looking video games we've still ever seen.

Sony's unveiling of their next big machine was as impressive as… their last one.

I still recall a reporter who was sitting next to me at the event, during that pre-Wii era when the Xbox 360 had just been impressively revealed. Sony's presentation was thunderous. The reporter later cackled: "Daddy's home." Sony's poetic pitch for the PS3 was wonderful. A year later, they dropped some features from the PS3, changed course in order to offer a more sensibly-shaped controller and finally, oh yeah, revealed the PS3's price: $500-$600. That was Sony's prose, unpleasant as some of it was to read.

Sony's last dream machine struggled for a while. Sony struggled to shave price, Sony struggled to not drop more features, Sony struggled to deliver video games in 2006, 2007 and even in 2008 that matched that 2005 promise. Only recently, has the PS3 proven to be the wonderful machine it had the potential to be, a $300-$400 box that runs the likes of Uncharted 2, Metal Gear Solid 4 and the increasingly stunning Killzone series.

We don't know the prose of Sony's new dream machine yet. We don't know when it's really coming out (already there is some hedging about whether it'll be out for all major markets in 2011). We don't know which games will be out on it. We don't know what it will cost, nor what its games will cost or even how we'll buy them.

We'll get those facts, maybe at E3 in June. PSP gamers ought to hope that Sony's 2011 version of 2005 isn't followed by a Sony recreation of 2006.

The Player's Needs

The NGP won't cost $1000. That's nonsense.

The NGP price will "make sense," or Sony executive Shuehei Yoshida told Kotaku, frightening some of our readers that they are being set up for harsh news.

We hope gamers will be spending under $400 for the NGP. We think Sony could have problems all over again if they can't get down to $300. Yes, their NGP feels like a machine plucked from the future. So did their PSP and so, strictly in terms of its display does the glasses-free 3D Nintendo 3DS.

If Sony has a checklist of PSP flaws and features, surely they also have this list of current prices for the things that will compete with the NGP for gamers' attention:

$130-$170 - DS
$170-$200 - PSP
$200 - Wii
$200-$400 - Xbox 360
$200-$300 iPhone 4 (plus the cost of a phone contract)
$250 - Nintendo 3DS
$300-$400 - PlayStation 3
$500-$700 - iPad with Wi-Fi
$630-$830 - iPad with Wi-Fi and 3G (plus the cost of a service plan)

Maybe the rate at which iPads had flown off store shelves would give Sony confidence to sell the NGP for a full $500, but it's hard to see a new portable gaming machine — even one that runs a beautiful version of Uncharted — costing more than any home console.

At $300, the NGP would still be a tough call for some people, considering the gaming alternatives. At $250, that's when things would get interesting and potentially tough for Nintendo (probably tough for Sony too considering all the expensive technology they're stuffing into the machine.)

Even if we knew the hardware price, we'd still not be able to judge the reality of the NGP without knowing its cost. Nintendo signaled early that its 3DS would be based on the old-school handheld gaming model. As soon as we knew it was running cartridge games, we could imagine people having to spend $30, $40, or $50 per game. On iPhone and iPad, games can be free, cost a buck or even go for as much as $10 for the very kinds of games that the typical Sony gaming crowd loves. (Like this one and this one.)

Should you buy an NGP if it costs $500? If the games cost $10, that's not the worst option

An NGP where Sony sells games for no more than $10 or $15 as downloads is a very different potential purchase than one in which games could cost $50 or so.

Sony is sending mixed signals about this.

It's promoting a new flash medium that could very well contain store-bought $50 games that you'd buy at Wal-Mart of Best Buy. But they're also already rattling off a list of NGP developers that includes Firemint (makers of Flight Control, Real Racing) and Gameloft (makers of games that look like games you love), two of the kings of the cheaper iPhone/iPad gaming market.

When Epic Games, creators of Gears of War took the stage at Sony's event, they didn't show the newest home video games running their graphics tech on the NGP; they showed a version of the newest game that runs their tech on the iPad. These are the signs of a Sony that is prepared to sell iPad-style games on the NGP, perhaps at iPad-style prices.

Should you buy an NGP if it costs $500? If the games cost $10, that's not the worst option. Should you buy the NGP if it costs $300? If the games cost $50, that's not that different than the first option.

Another wildcard is 3G. Sony's machine will support it, but we don't yet know how we'll pay for it. Those huge iPad prices in the list above don't even include the cost of a 3G service plan, which adds another $15-$30 a month.

There are numerous variables to Sony's NGP price formula. Hopefully it adds up to something sane. In retrospect, however, price was never the biggest problem for the original PSP. The machine's weakness was the same as the competing DS' strength: the need for games that could become phenomenons. The DS had Brain Age and Nintendogs, New Super Mario Bros. and Mario Kart DS. The PSP had plenty of wonderful games, but it never had a crossover blockbuster in the United States, nothing like it had with Monster Hunter in Japan. Some frustrated fans tied the PSP's game problem to its hardware. Developers were awkwardly cramming two-stick console game designs onto a one-stick portable, fumbling in the process.

And then there was piracy, which helped sour game creators had from making games for the PSP.

Sony's NGP hardware seems much better this time. The machine appears equipped to run iPhone-style games, PS3-style games and anything in between, as well as new kinds of games. The machine's potential for piracy is as unknown as its price.

Altogether, we're back at E3 2005 again. Daddy is home. The NGP seems amazing. We need E3 2006 to arrive quickly, bearing better news this time around. We need an NGP that makes sense. It would be nice to see Sony finally get PSP right.