Going mobile with PlayStation

Going mobile with PlayStation
Rick Gibson

By Rick Gibson

January 4th 2013 at 10:00AM

Rick Gibson asks whether PlayStation Mobile is a worthy platform for your games

When SCE excitedly announced PlayStation Suite in February 2011, it planned on bringing console-quality to non-PlayStation devices (Android smartphones), and delivering new short-form indie games to Vita.

While detail was lacking, PSM intriguingly promised a semi-open platform for Sony software, leveraging Sony’s back catalogue to reach new consumers. Renamed PlayStation Mobile (PSM), the beta launched in October this year. This month I’ll explore PSM’s strategy, benefits and potential.

PSM went live on Vita and some Sony smartphones and tablets. HTC was supposedly a launch partner but, awkwardly, technical issues at launch prevented PSM from working, a situation that, at the time of writing, persists.

Other device manufacturers like Asus, Sharp, Fujitsu and Wikipad have been certified for future releases. The latter is the strangest licensor; a gaming tablet with detachable gamepad. Someone somewhere thought it was a good idea to work with a direct competitor for SCE’s handheld consoles, a type of ‘co-opetition’ with companies nipping at Sony’s heels.

PLATFORMS FOR SUCCESS?

Perhaps these strange semi-competitive bedfellows prompted Sony to cancel its back catalogue for non-PlayStation hardware. Now PS1 ports will only be available on Vita. Sony announced 85 companies developing PSM titles, many of them Japanese, a few large publishers/developers, and mostly small studios.

Thirty titles launched, some exclusive to PSM, some PS Minis ports, and others ported from Android, iOS and Flash. HTC, when they eventually get PSM working, could be forgiven for feeling short-changed with only a small selection of nifty casual titles.

Developers pay $100 annually to access the PSM developer program and can build and release one SKU to all PSM-certified devices, which apparently works well for PSM-exclusive titles. Dev support and funding seems good, with lighter approvals for Minis.

If suggestions that product quality will not be closely monitored are right, PSM will be lucky to avoid Xbox Live Indie Games’ fate – numerous low-quality games obscuring the innovative titles. This is chicken and egg – stimulating microstudio innovation without quality controls – could damage PlayStation’s brand, and low title volumes could marginalise PSM entirely.

Sony hasn’t yet grasped the discoverability nettle. PSM games are not searchable across the entire PS Store, and while that’s fixable, PSM will inevitably get crowded, which brings into question how long Sony will maintain marketing support. Also, equalising the prices between PSM and Google Play versions of the same titles would help.

Huge games catalogues remind me of Kristian Segestrale’s persuasive mantra from Playfish’s early days: choices from friends’ recommendations satisfy more than those from giant catalogues filtered by editors. It’s no surprise to find social ignored by SCE, despite initially promising social features for PSM.

But their subsequent omission may get increasingly problematic for developers. The lack of online functionality shows Sony has learned only some lessons from Minis. It solved the issue of relatively high cost SDKs and may have dampened Sony’s endemic regional ‘Not Invented Here’ syndrome by spreading responsibility internationally.

But like Minis, PSM developers get no online feature support and no Trophies. Worse, the apparent lack of integrated metrics tracking combined with an approvals process which allows patches to data but not executables seriously hamper iteration and data-driven production methodologies. While freemium is supported on PSM, the tools to make it work hard for studios appear not to be.

A VERSION OF THE FUTURE

Sales projections are low as the addressable market is small, mostly restricted to Vita. While non-PlayStation hardware shipping with PSM should increase, the future for just another branded Android app store is less clear.

Sony could learn from Verizon and Vodafone, which launched curated Android app stores. Despite preloading these app stores onto tens of millions of devices, they failed commercially and are now being closed, strongly suggesting limited demand for library curation in this open, high-volume market. Will Sony’s brand be enough to counterbalance Google Play?

PSM sales volumes certainly aren’t yet creating millionaire developers overnight but  it may be a nice ancillary indie sales channel. Sony must work harder to improve PSM’s commercial potential and walk that fine, tricky line between enabling modern business models and guarding quality.

Arguably, the promise of mobile games with higher production values isn’t yet fulfilled. After the back catalogue exploitation strategy was dropped, PSM could turn out to be simply a short-term tactic to make up for Vita’s sluggish release list.

Perhaps Sony is half-heartedly testing a more porous barrier to its closed platform, like it tested an online-only PSP. Let’s hope PSM isn’t another PSPgo.