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Controller Freak

Chad Sapieha leads you deep into the world of games, covering gaming trends

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I can't believe Sony Computer Entertainment announced their next-generation handheld system while I was in Walt Disney World last week. They knew I was going to be away. Rest assured, I'll be having words with Kaz Hirai the next time I see him.

In the meantime, let's discuss what we know about Sony's new handheld.

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Announced January 27th in Tokyo at an event tantalizingly dubbed "PlayStation Meeting," Sony's new device-currently referred to simply as "NGP" for next-generation portable-will arrive sometime during the fourth quarter of this year.

Sony was fairly forthcoming about what gamers could expect from their new portable gaming platform.

It sports an oblong shape similar to the existing PSP with a 5-inch 960-by-544 pixel OLED. It looks a little bigger than its predecessor but isn't overly large. And there is good reason for its increased girth. According to analysts and experts, the system apparently has horsepower that is in many ways about on par with a PlayStation 3, making it not only the most powerful handheld gaming system on the planet but also a perfect platform for publishers looking to port their PS3 wares with a minimum of work.

What's more, it has a pair of analogue joysticks-an innovation in handheld gaming I believe to be at least as important as bench-setting graphical output. Two joysticks means the door has been opened to several popular game types that have proven awkward and challenging on the current PSP-most notably first- and third-person shooters, which require one joystick for movement and another to look around. Indeed, I've written that the current PSP's single nub is its greatest weakness, and that Nintendo really ought to have included not one but two sticks on its upcoming 3DS.

Other interface options include a capacitive touch screen-all but essential, given that just about every handheld gaming device has one these days-as well as a rear touchpad. The rear pad might seem like a quirky and novel interface, but I've found them quite useful on mobile phones. They take a little getting used to, but with your finger moving behind the display there's nothing to get in the way of what's happening on screen-a significant benefit.

We might have expected some of the NGP's other innovations, including a pair of cameras (one front, one rear) and an array of motion sensors, but there are a couple that might come as a bit of a surprise: GPS and 3G data connectivity, both of which are standard on phones but new to dedicated gaming devices. It will be interesting to see how Sony and its publishing partners make use of these features. Lag-free 32-player fragfests with competitors' physical locations marked on a sub-menu map, perhaps?

Games will be delivered either via download or on E-Media flash memory cards-a smart move, given that more graphically intense games demand much more storage than the current PSP's UMDs can manage and that physical drives with moving parts are hard on batteries. Plus, flash memory is getting less expensive all the time. I suspect these cards will provide a significant cost savings for Sony in the long run.

Given the new touch screen, Sony has wisely decided to ditch its long-in-the-tooth (and awkwardly named) XrossMediaBar in favour of a new graphical interface called LiveArea that seems to employ bubble-like tiles to provide quick, one-touch access to games, the PlayStation Store, trophies (a new addition to PlayStation Portable gaming), social networking services, and photos and movies. I suspect it will feel a little like a phone interface.

As for price, Sony has declined to comment. Game Informer reported that SCE head of worldwide studios Shu Yoshida would only say that "it's not going to be $599," which isn't particularly helpful. Meanwhile, GamesIndusty.biz managed to get an estimate from an analyst at Electronic Entertainment Design and Research who thought it would likely be priced between $299 and $349-at least $50 more than Nintendo's upcoming 3DS, which will beat the NGP to market by nearly a full year when it's released in Japan later this month. That's a pretty high price tag for handheld gaming, especially given that many people's smart phones are filling this role nicely at the moment.

That brings us to content. What will we be playing on our NGPs at this time next year?

Sony rolled out a list of developers working on games for its new platform as well as several specific titles. We can expect everything from new entries in popular PlayStation-exclusive series-including original Resistance and Killzone games-to ports of existing PS3 games to brand new IPs designed to take advantage of the NGP's unique hardware, such as Little Deviants, a game that has players pressing on the back of the device to create a lump in the game world that pushes characters about. You'll also be able to play some older and less expensive titles delivered via the PlayStation Store as well as downloadable games originally designed for PSP.

However, the question that's been flittering about my mind leading up to this announcement is whether expensive dedicated portable gaming platforms like the PSP-and their corresponding pricey software-have a future in the age of super powerful smart phones, which offer huge libraries of decent games at a price of just a buck or two each. I have little doubt that a game like Uncharted running on the NGP will be much more complex, visually compelling, and emotionally satisfying than anything we see on an iPhone, Android, or Windows 7 handset, but will it be worth the hundreds of dollars required to purchase a discrete gaming platform, the bulk of carrying around an extra, none-too-tiny device in your pocket, and the cost of the software itself, which will be many times more expensive than any game you've ever purchased for your phone?

It will for some. Indeed, Nintendo has proven that dedicated portable gaming platforms and pricey software can still sell well. But keep in mind that Nintendo's primary market is elementary school kids, most of whom haven't a phone or at least not one powerful enough to run engaging games. In contrast, based on the actors featured in the NGP concept video (not to mention the mature-sounding titles named at PlayStation Meeting), it looks like Sony will be aiming the device at teens and twenty-somethings, many of whom presumably have game-capable handsets. Will they be interested in shelling out for a second, task-specific device that runs much more expensive content?

I wonder.

Perhaps this is why Sony used PlayStation Meeting to announce another product: the PlayStation Suite for handheld devices with Android operating systems (such as the rumoured-but-still-not-confirmed Sony Ericsson Xperia Play-a.k.a. the PlayStation Phone). It's a virtual platform through which people can purchase and play various PlayStation wares, .

Could it be that, on the eve of the release of the world's most powerful handheld gaming platform, Sony realizes a substantial segment of its target audience is finished with dedicated portable gaming devices?

What an exciting-by which I mean terrifying in which to work-industry.

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