Little games with lots to prove

Little games with lots to prove

By Owain Bennallack

October 15th 2009 at 9:30AM

Are PSP Minis to little too late, or is Sony timing things perfectly?

Five years after its launch, PSP is getting the snack-sized downloadable games it should have boasted from day one.

That’s not hindsight speaking. From the start, few thought the fully-featured yet inferior ports of PlayStation 2 games that dominated the early years of PSP were the best fit for a portable platform. You only had to look at what was working on mobile phone, not to mention Nintendo’s handheld legacy.

Then again, much of Sony’s original PSP strategy was inexplicable – from pricing and its bizarre faith in UMD movies to the initial absence of an on-deck digital store – so perhaps it was all part of a grand bet that went wrong.

If only all flawed games machines sold over 50 million units! PSP is the most successful hardware ‘failure’ that the games industry has ever known.

Yet I believe PSP has failed, in as much as Sony – father of the Walkman and friend of the masses – has failed to truly exploit, let alone define, portable gaming. It’s been said iPod should have been a Sony product. The same might be said of iPhone’s wildly successful games offering, too.

LESS IS MORE
Having come late to the party, Sony’s strategy for the snack-sized downloadable PSN games – dubbed PSP Minis, on sale from October 1st – can at least be informed by Apple’s digital marketplace.

What’s immediately attractive to iPhone developers is the lack of rival titles. Even by Christmas there’ll only be 50 or so Mini games available, and they’re the result of a Sony charm offensive. Compare that to trying to make your new game stand out among the 65,000 products already on the iPhone’s App Store.

More Minis will come: Sony is apparently focusing more on technical checks than game quality with its approval process. This implies less of a gatekeeper role than is usual for console manufacturers.

Yet the relatively high cost of a PSP development kit compared to cheap or free equivalents for Xbox Live or iPhone should deter the riff-raff. Sony is also said to be promising a more transparent approval process than the murky yea-or-nay-ing on iPhone, where it sometimes seems a product is listed or barred depending on whether the backroom boys have a hangover.

Certainly, the sweet spot between laissez-faire approval and heavy vetting has yet to be definitively established for digital marketplaces. Nintendo is also likely to make it easier for smaller independent developers to get games onto its DSiWare channel.

It’s rumoured to be doing something a little different again.

According to reports, Nintendo will employ a fluctuating royalty rate that will encourage small games to be priced cheaply and big ones more expensively. It’ll do this by associating file sizes with different Nintendo points brackets – if your game is too big for its bracket, you’ll have to pay more.

It’s classic Nintendonomics – tweaking the market with a mechanism that rewards the big N as a by-product.
More importantly, it should encourage a premium pricing strata, rather than another race for the bottom scenario of price deflation that has so damaged the business case for the iPhone’s App Store for professional developers.

LITTLE BIG PLANET
Gamers will always want to see quality titles at bargain prices, of course, and even developers may be more interested in how much game they can squeeze into 20MB rather than business model nuances. However in the long-term, it’s the latter that will be the most important outcome of these experiments.

Gaming is inexorably moving towards entirely digital marketplaces, and Apple’s App Store has given us a clue to cons as well as the pros of this new world.

Sony and Nintendo are right to bring their platforms a taste of meze gaming. But they’re also wise to tweak what’s on the menu – and how such fare is served. Nintendo in particular will remember the damage wrought by floods of low-quality software in the 1980s.

If the console manufacturers can bring some discipline to the downloadable free-for-all, it will be better for everyone in the long run...