Sony NGP: What the industry thinks about it
26th Mar 2011 | 12:30
Sony's new handheld, codenamed 'Next Generation Portable' (NGP) is set for 2011 release, with Sony studios boss Shuhei Yoshida showing a stunning Uncharted demo running on the handheld at the recent Tokyo announcement event.
We were in the front row to hear about NGP and PlayStation Suite: chatting with SCEE execs, eavesdropping on industry attendees and poring over comments by analysts and gamers to uncover NGP's true potential and how it'll affect the games you play.
You know NGP's headline features: 5-inch OLED multi-touch screen, corresponding 5-inch rear multi-touch panel, comfortable twin analogue sticks, movement sensors just like those in a Move controller, connectivity that combines 3G, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, and more - all packed into a UMD-free unit slightly larger than a PSP-3000 and much, much lighter.
Bottom line - it's not far short of a handheld, touch-screen PS3, with media browsing abilities to, potentially, rival iPad.
Shuhei Yoshida confirms that NGP (sharing initials with Neo Geo Pocket) will be renamed later this year. Zsolt Kigyossy, Managing Director of NGP developer (and mobile games specialist) ZEN Studios reminds us: "You look at recent history, and the name looks likely to change: Nintendo's Revolution became Wii, Natal became Kinect. If you ask the PR guys, it provides another reason for the press to cover their product!"
What you don't know yet is the price. Chatting at Sony's gargantuan headquarters in Shinagawa, SCEE Vice President Jim Ryan told us that it will be "affordable", but wouldn't clarify to whom: "Sony's ambitions when it comes to installed base are considerable, so we're not talking about the ultra-rich," he said, perhaps forgetting PS3's painful £425 launch price.
SCE Worldwide Studios President Shuhei Yoshida has reportedly promised that "it's not going to be $599", a cheeky reference to PS3's US launch price. Analyst Michael Pachter reckons £199; other estimates hover around £399.
Nintendo's 3DS will carry a price tag of around £200-250. When asked if NGP will be more or less, Ryan replied, "We haven't set that. We'll take a range of factors into account - including what the competition is doing."
What makes it tricky to guess the price is that there will likely be more than one model: with and without 3G. Also, pricing for 3G data transfer is a total wildcard, since Sony has yet to announce its partner networks and hasn't yet decided whether to include the cost in the retail price (like the Kindle) or charge a monthly fee (the iPad route).
Either way, Sony bods implied that online play will be less data-heavy head-to-head fragfests, more data-light social exchanges.
PlayStation Network is integral to NGP, and you can take your existing PSN ID with you. Each game's LiveArea will act as a lobby that lets you launch the game, buy DLC, see your friends' Trophies for that game, leave comments and so on.
An app called Near will show you who's playing what in your vicinity, with records from an hour before you got there till and hour after you leave, and you can click through to PSN to buy games that catch your eye. A web browser will also be included.
Battery life is rumoured at four to five hours, roughly the same as the 3DS. There is no removable battery panel this time around: The body is sealed, just like an iPhone. Better keep a charger handy...
WHAT ABOUT GAMES?
Games will be sold in two ways: On special NGP-exclusive memory cards that also store your DLC and saves for that game, sold at retailers; and by download from PSN for storage on yet another bespoke memory card.
Smaller games, like Minis, will be distributed online only. Of course, NGP will be backwards compatible with PSP games - but no UMD drive means you'll need to re-purchase your collection (with slightly improved visuals, Yoshida has reportedly revealed) from PSN.
Games aside NGP is, without question, the most powerful handheld to date. The fact that Sony has plumped for an ARM Cortex A9 CPU combined with an Imagination Technologies SGX5 43MP4+ quadcore GPU shows it means business.
SPECIALISE OR DIE
However, privately, many devs are hoping that Sony will not make the mistake of slavishly following the PSP model with NGP, which is no longer a sustainable business strategy.
Apple's iOS development and distribution ecosystem and the booming growth of the smartphone market has changed the way that handheld gaming works over the last two years.
As Screen Digest's senior games analyst, Piers Harding-Rolls explains: "From a device perspective, smartphones are now aggressively intercepting a wide range of consumers further up the 'consumption chain'.
Mainstream devices (like iPhone) are used for a wide range of everyday activities and also happen to serve games content. This trend will result in use away from specialist devices, onto smartphones."
Decent casual games content is both cheap and plentiful on iPhone. "The combination of which delivers a hammer blow to specialist devices," argues Harding-Rolls. "The overlap between the average future NGP user (14-35 male with high disposable income) and high-end smartphone user is substantial and we believe that the addressable opportunity is narrowing, especially in Western markets."
Mobile games designer Stewart Hogarth from Chunk Games agrees. "Rather than just trying to imitate the competition by cramming as much as possible, Sony should try to fill in the shortcomings of its peers. If console gaming on the go is what they're going for, they need to make sure it delivers".
Either way, the early roster of games is impressive - over 80 major publishers are already signed up to work on NGP, including the likes of Activision, Konami, Capcom, Level-5, Epic Games, Square Enix, Sega and Rockstar. Sony can make the high-end handheld business a success, insists ZEN Studios' Kigyossy, despite the PSP faltering in recent years.
"Sony needs to think long and hard about how people are using handhelds, because so far NGP has been about the power of the technology - hopefully that translates into amazing gaming experiences and consumers see the value. When you look at what all these devices have in common - WiFi, 3G/4G, Phone, Games, Movies - what will set them apart? It's all about content."
Early gameplay demos - most notably Uncharted - show Sony are challenging conventions, producing "something that already looks to offer an advancement in how we play handhelds," according to TNS Technology analyst Ged Egan.
"Titles already announced are impressive and I expect Sony will do everything to ensure the vast majority are available at launch. If they can pull this off, it will be the strongest list of launch titles of any console, portable or otherwise, that we have ever seen."
How easy will it be to port existing PS3 games? "We are currently developing Yakuza: Of The End, to be released (on PS3) in March," says Sega's Toshihiro Nagoshi.
"We had the NGP team transfer it over to their device - in about 10 days. The time-frame being what it was, there were certain features that we couldn't include. But I think that it is very significant that we could have a real-time movie that was designed for PS3 completely transfer to NGP in such a span of time. With some later work to add lighting, mostly."
Battery life should be in the order of 4-6 hours like existing PSP models, despite the processor demands. "The ultra-low-power quad core ARM Cortex-A9 processor at the heart of the system provides exceptional device performance on the move, without limiting battery life," says Jim Wallace, director of Cambridge-based mobile chip designer ARM.
"By combining energy efficiency with the performance mobile gamers crave, the Cortex-A9 has raised the bar for this category of products. We expect it to create quite a stir in the industry."
In addition to bleeding-edge tech and quality content, there is a third piece of the puzzle to consider - the NGP's integration with PSN and PS3 which, according to the Zen Studio boss, "also appears seamless".
"Mix that with the announcement of PlayStation Suite [the new software platform to deliver games to NGP and all Android devices] and you have a recipe for Sony to really shake things up in the mobile space."
PlayStation Suite is Sony's other answer to the social gaming revolution - a platform that will allow Sony-approved Android phones and tablets to emulate PSOne games and, eventually, new titles as well.
It'll also run on the NGP and on Sony's Xperia Play mobile phone, providing game downloads, stats and the rest. It's a smart two-pronged attack: There are lots of Androids out there already, giving Sony a head start in the casual market while focusing the NGP on the hardcore game crowd.
But how those PSOne classics will feel on devices that have only a touchscreen or phone buttons is anyone's guess. Mobile network connectivity is the critical new component.
"This opens the door up to the sort of games features found on smartphones such as OTA premium downloads, MMOGs and other persistent world games and mobile social network gaming," notes UK games analyst Nick Gibson.
"Much will therefore depend on what Sony will and will not allow rather than what NGP is capable of." Chris Kingsley, CTO of Oxford-based Rebellion Studios, thinks the key is the fact NGP was designed by and for gamers, with "a laser-focus" on features specifically designed for getting the best gaming experience.
"At Rebellion we're 100% behind it," he says. "We always love to get our hands on new tech. The rear touch is a great innovation allowing players to interact with a game without obscuring the screen, and so allows faster-paced, more dynamic content.
The really big plus for me is the dual analogue sticks because they will finally make first person shooters a compelling play experience on handhelds. No more move and turn frustrations, just seamless immersive action gameplay."
What you might not get from the photos or what you've seen online is just how sexy the thing is up close. Slick and curvy and available in black or white, it's a tight package, and the large OLED screen boasts deep contrast and a wide viewing angle.
In fact, the high quality of the screen is the reason NGP will not support 3D. Having played the 3DS and eventually recovered from the resulting eyestrain, we doubt you'll miss it.
THE BOTTOM LINE
"The NGP hardware is at least 18-24 months ahead of everyone else," says Robert Henning, head of game technology at TAG Games. "But the iPhone will prove stiff competition - it might not have the same level of processing power (yet) but games like Infinity Blade and Rage HD show off its power. The fact that iPhone has phone, music, video, calendar, mail, web etc give it an advantage."
What do we think? The tech's hard to fault, although we felt similarly about PSP when it ran - wow - almost PS2-quality games.
NGP nails the controls, so credit is due. The big questions surround pricing (of console and games), plus Sony's ability to provide wider interest apps (social, stupid, practical etc, at a variety of prices) to compete with key rival iPhone.
Nail the PlayStation Suite, swallow some pride... and Sony might have hit a winner. Just keep it below £300, eh?