One year ago I discussed whether there was any demand for a true gaming phone. Such a gadget has yet to emerge, but it appears Sony is looking to fill that void with a “PlayStation phone” that could come to market in the next several months.
For those who missed it, Engadget last week posted photos of a phone/portable gaming system hybrid that could have massive appeal among the gamer set. The gadget, still in prototype mode, has PSP-like controls and is rumored to run Android 3.0 (Gingerbread). The concept is a compelling one, and Sony certainly seems qualified to produce a successful gaming phone. But for the company to avoid a flop of Ngage-type proportions it must get these factors right:
The hardware. Apple’s iPhone has fueled demand for pick-up-and-play offerings like Angry Birds, but a true gaming phone — one that better supports and replicates console-style play — requires more sophisticated controls and a larger screen. That kind of handset would be too bulky for mainstream consumers, and developing one that could compete on price with other smartphones could be difficult. But many gamers carry a portable gaming device in addition to their phones. Replacing those two gadgets with one — even if it is, say, 50 percent bigger than their current phones — is a compelling proposition. The gaming experience on a such a device still couldn’t hold a candle to console or PC titles, but it could be far better than even the best smartphones can currently support.
Marketing. Effective, big-budget advertising is crucial in the smartphone era, as evidenced by the success of Apple’s iPhone and the Motorola Droid — and failures like the Palm Pre. Sony should target both consumers and hardcore gamers with traditional and viral campaigns. Ads should demonstrate how an immersive experience can be delivered on a game-centric device; this is especially true for first-person shooters and sports games that are often unplayable on a phone. And Sony would be wise to integrate the device with its consoles and cross-promote them as complementary gaming platforms.
Carrier partnerships. Carriers may be less powerful than ever in the world of mobile, but they can still make or break a mobile device. Any manufacturer looking to bring a gaming phone to market would be wise to partner up with a deep-pocketed operator who can back the device with retail distribution and marketing savvy.
The developer community. Sony last year lowered the price of its PSP software development kit (SDK) to “only” $1,500 — still a hurdle for the kind of garage developers who’ve flocked to mobile, where the cost of developing and submitting an app is far lower. Sony should take a cue from Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android, which have spurred a flurry of app development by lowering the barriers to entry. Making it easier for developers to produce games for a PlayStation phone would result in a wide variety of titles, from casual one-thumb (or one-finger) games to offerings that fully take advantage of the multiple controls.
Game distribution. Apple and Google have built massive libraries by enabling developers to easily upload their apps and make them available to millions of users. And in doing so, they’ve ushered in innovative offerings from developers who might not have been able to publish a game in the console world otherwise. Sony should play the role of discriminating gatekeeper to ensure its PlayStation Network isn’t flooded with mediocre games, but it should also make it easier for developers to submit and sell their games.
The phone. Perhaps the biggest challenge for any manufacturer of a gaming phone is remembering that communication is the primary purpose of the device. While any true gaming phone must have sophisticated controls, it must also be easy to use for voice calls, texts, photo-messaging and email. And in addition to an acceptable browser it must also support the wide variety of non-game applications many use in their day-to-day work and home lives.