When Phil Harrison, head of worldwide studios for Sony PlayStation, introduced his concept of "Game 3.0" to an audience of reporters at the Game Developers Conference this past March, he was embracing the idea that store-bought game systems and games could change weeks, months and years after someone buys them.
So it was appropriate that two weeks ago, just two days before Thanksgiving, the PlayStation Portable took a quiet step toward turning into the iPod of video games that many expected it to be when it launched in late 2004.
The PSP PC store allows owners of Sony's handheld system to plug their PSP into a computer to download background themes and games — both small original titles, emulated games made for the first PlayStation, and larger games formerly only released on disc for the PSP. Eric Lempel, director of network operations for Sony's American PlayStation division, told GameFile that sometime after New Year's, the store will also let users download TV shows and movies. Functionality for downloading music is in place as well. With all that, the PSP isn't just a device for playing content from store-bought discs anymore.
"It's something we always wanted to do," Lempel said of the whole downloading setup. "Technically we didn't have the ability in the past with some of our hardware. But now that we do, we want to start opening up some of these channels and getting consumers used to that and experimenting with it. I would say it's a glimpse towards the future. Definitely just by releasing a [Universal Media Disc] title in the store, it definitely puts ideas in people's heads, but no, I wouldn't categorize this as a shift in [our] business model at this point."
The store launched quietly, by design, Lempel said. "We felt like if we made a big splash, there might not be enough there to make everybody happy now. We're going to ramp up slowly."
But the store is growing, and this week will add one very iPod-style game to its library: a single- and multiplayer music game called "Beats." The game follows the traditional rhythm-game pattern, requiring players to tap buttons (and, in this case, also move the PSP's analog stick) in sync with musically timed icons that float across the screen. The game comes with some original songs but is primarily engineered for gamers to import their own MP3s and let the PSP generate playable "Beats" levels based on them. It's a setup that Daimion Pinnock, the game's producer at Sony Computer Entertainment America, agreed is "very, very similar" to the iPod game "Phase," which was released in November and made by the MTV-owned "Rock Band" developer Harmonix. Pinnock noted that he hadn't played "Phase."
"Beats" actually started as something a little different. Development began in the first couple of months of 2007 by about five people at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe's London studio. "Originally, we were going to have it as a UMD [PSP disc-based] title, but as plans for the PlayStation Store developed, we decided to change over and make it downloadable," Pinnock said. It also was going to have different music. Early on, the Sony team considered including licensed music in the game, possibly by the British pop band Sugababes. "We were going to have their videos playing in the background, but we didn't really feel like it added much to the game itself." So Sony went with original music instead and a programming push for users to play the game to their own songs.
"Beats" was released for the European version of the PSP PC store two weeks ago. It will be out for U.S. owners Thursday for $4.99, making it the second original game made for the downloadable store, alongside the $9.99 "Syphon Filter: Combat Ops."
Lempel said the game fits part of the new PSP online-store initiative, which he promised will eventually offer a steady flow of old and new games. He said some will be as quirky as the PS3 downloadable games "flOw" and "Everday Shooter," two games he'd like to see ported to the PSP store. "But we're also looking at original content that isn't exactly in that genre but stuff like the "Syphon Filter" game we released and other long-form established franchises from first and third parties. It'll be a little bit of both."
On the to-do list are also things like introducing iPod/iTunes-style automatic syncing functionality and compatibility with Mac computers ("We do hope to support them"). Where the plans currently seem to diverge from the iTunes model are in the timing of releases for games that, unlike the online-only "Syphon Filter: Combat Ops" or "Beats," are made on disc but also appear as downloadables in the online store. Such releases are not planned to happen at the same time, giving retail stores a jump on sales. "Right now it won't be day-and-date for those titles, just to avoid any retail conflict," Lempel said. "We appreciate what the retailers do for us. We know this would create some challenges for them."
Sony hasn't released any numbers yet to show how the store is doing. "We are happy with the launch," Lempel said. "So far, so good. The key thing is to get people to learn about this."
(For the full interview with Lempel, check out our Multiplayer blog.)
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