Sony Exec Talks New PSP's Upgrades, GPS Attachment, NYC Appeal And More

NEW YORK — The upcoming PlayStation Portable coming out this September is actually called the "PSP 2000." The infamous PSP hacker Dark_Alex was not hired by Sony. And the PSP is more popular here than in any other city in the U.S. (Sorry, Chicago!)

Those were just a few of the many surprises shared last week by John Koller, head of marketing for Sony's American PlayStation Portable division during a half-hour interview about the state of the PSP with MTV News.

Koller was in town to show off the new one-third-lighter, one-fifth-slimmer PSP which will arrive on store shelves in September. In a hotel suite on Manhattan's east side, he plugged the unit into a TV, demonstrating the new model's video-output function. He played a scene from Jet Li's "The One" in 480 pixels on an LG widescreen flat-panel TV. It almost filled the screen. He played a minute of the PSP game "Ratchet & Clank: Size Matters" in its native resolution, 480x272, which, while displaying bigger than it did on the PSP, only occupied about a quarter of the LG TV. (Yank the cable out of the TV and the video signal jumps to the PSP screen.)

To the eyes, the revised PSP looks like the original. To the touch, the difference is noticeable. And the name? In public the new model will be called PSP, but Koller revealed that it is codenamed PSP 2000, distinguishing it from current models, which are called PSP 1000.

Those were the points Koller intended to cover, but he proved game to answer just about anything regarding Sony's system. For example, he confirmed what subway riders may have already suspected: NYC is the king of PSP sales, since its launch. "It's gone New York, Chicago, and then it's D.C., Philadelphia," Koller said. "Then, interestingly enough, Riverside/ San Bernardino, California." Come again on that last one? "It's very weird. I've been watching it, waiting for it to fall out of the top 10, but it has stayed at [#5] the whole time of our owner base."

That's where it's being bought. But who's buying it? Koller said that the PSP has a 95 percent male ownership, compared to 50-50 for the iPod, according to studies he's seen. More of a surprise, though, is that his market research shows that the iPod has 79 percent ownership by Caucasians, Koller said, whereas the PSP is just "44 percent or 45 percent" white. Koller said Sony has noticed this demographic surprise but hasn't figured out why. Had it become something of an urban accessory? "There's been a debate going on about whether it was our marketing that's done it and turned it into more of a cultural hip-hop product or whether it just is — if the product just lends itself to that."

Whoever owns the system, Koller said they've been calling for the video-out function added to the new PSP. When the revised unit was revealed at E3 last month, it surprised many gamers because it lacked a checklist of tweaks some gaming blogs and news sites suggested were safe bets. For example, some theorized that the PSP would drop the universal media disc format or at least de-emphasize it for a new built-in hard drive. The new unit has no such drive. "We had heard discussion about a hard drive," Koller said. "The final analysis is we decided a memory stick was good enough for now."

Others hoped for a second analog stick or nub to make the PSP do a better job of running game genres styled for console controllers. "We certainly looked at the area below the [face buttons on the right side of the PSP] for a second analog stick, but we thought the issues far outweighed the benefit we'd get out of it," he said, acknowledging that engineers at Sony's headquarters in Japan had investigated such a change. He said the problem was that games programmed for a one-stick model wouldn't work well with the two-stick and vice versa. "Japan looked at it and said [it was] too big of a problem right now."

Koller addressed other added functions people might have expected, including a TV tuner like the one announced for PSP in Japan ("not possible in North America" because of over-the-air signal costs); a GPS attachment (peripheral is done and software is currently being "tweaked for North America" for release in the next 10-12 months); and a camera like the one released in Japan and Europe ("there may be some changes to the spec sheet" before it's released in the U.S.).

He said that PSP owners should expect most of the functionality improvements to their PSP to arrive via the system's regular firmware updates. "There's a lot coming," he said, though he explained it was not possible to rectify one so-called problem with those updates: that a PSP must be plugged into a wall to perform an upgrade. "If you run out of battery life, it turns into a brick," he said. Why not just have the system check the battery to see if it has enough power before upgrading? Blame non-Sony PSP batteries. "There are third-party batteries that always report as full that are actually empty," he said. "We've had I can't even tell you how many thousands of returns due to third-party batteries."

Among the feature improvements Sony has promised for some time now is an online store for videos, music and games, accessible via the PSP. Koller said the rollout is going slower than expected and won't be public until the home office in Tokyo sorts out digital rights management issues. He estimates the solutions will be determined within six to eight months. Until then, it isn't likely that Sony will expand its downloadable game options on the PSP beyond the current system that allows gamers to download PlayStation One titles via the PS3 onto the PSP.

That said, there are original downloadable games currently in development for the PSP. To those who like the quirky range available for download and play on the PS3, he said "the PSP ones are equally as good and made for a portable." He said they wouldn't be copies of downloadable PS3 games. He mentioned the well-received E3-debuting "Echochrome" — a black-and-white puzzle game involving a figure that needs to walk through optical illusions — as the type of thing in Sony's development queue. "It was initially going to be a download-service-only game," he said. "We changed it to a UMD because it's a very rich game. That's where their mind is. They're developing that kind of game."

Other PSP projects in development at Sony include a range of plans for how the handheld will sync with fall's PlayStation Home free virtual-world service (see "Sony Unveils Big PS3 Secret: Gamers Get To Go 'Home' "). Koller said ideas have included having an extra room of Home rendered on the PSP. "Intuitively, if you take the PSP with you, you would want to take some of Home with you," he said, but added that no plans are set in silicon just yet.

Engineers in Tokyo have even looked into activating the PSP's Remote Play function so gamers on the road with their PSP could access and play games saved on their home PS3 over a WiFi connection. "It's something that's being looked at," he said, noting that lag time is the main challenge. "We certainly would be interested [in doing that with] a PSN kind of game. It wouldn't be a Blu-ray disc kind of game, a large game. That would be very difficult. ... If that could be implemented, that could be great."

With all these initiatives under way, it would seem Sony could benefit from all programmers with top PSP skills. Earlier this year the world's top PSP hacker, a gamer known as Dark_Alex who had repeatedly cracked the PSP firmware despite repeated upgrades, announced he was leaving the PSP scene. Had Sony shut him down? Or had Sony hired him? "Neither," Koller said. "I think he's taking a hiatus." Does Sony hire any of the PSP hackers? " It's not even a hiring thing. They come in and actively talk to us."

As it is his job as chief marketer of the PSP in the U.S., Koller was bullish on the system. He looks to the fall's PSP exclusive "God of War: Chains of Olympus" as the system's flagship title. And he looks at a Sony-reported 90 percent surge in weekly sales since the system dropped in price from $199 to $169 in April as a sign of encouragement. The PSP processor is now unlocked to run at 333 megahertz, whereas it had been locked at 266 from launch through this spring. He said all forthcoming Sony-made games will use that speed and that consumers shouldn't expect a hit on battery life.

So the PSP, once the darling of handheld gaming, then a bystander to the rushing success of the DS, is armed for its next charge. Will it come back? It will always have New York — and San Bernardino.

Check out the new MTV News Multiplayer blog, updated daily, for even more gaming coverage.