Sony's next-generation handheld gaming system, referred to currently as the Next Generation Portable (NGP), made headlines last week when it was first revealed at an event in Tokyo. Though Sony is known for its engineering expertise, this is a piece of hardware that is almost over-engineered, giving game designers every feasible control option: a touch-screen, a touch pad matching the screen on the back, dual analog sticks, conventional d-pad and face buttons, six-axis accelerometer for motion control, and GPS for geo-tagging and augmented reality gaming. All this is backed up by some rather impressive silicon that has the entire industry wondering: okay, Sony, but how much are we expected to pay?
That question, along with battery life (always an important consideration with handheld devices), was left unanswered by Sony. This is really no surprise, since a late January reveal leaves quite some time before the promised "holiday 2010" release window. Ultimately, I think what Sony was up to was pulling the curtain on an impressive piece of hardware so that prospective buyers of Nintendo's 3DS are given some pause before pre-ordering. 'Do I get the 3DS at launch, or do I wait for more information about the NGP?' The 3D display of the 3DS is a major selling point, and only a certain percentage of gamers will cross-shop the platform, but Sony has to win at least the core gaming audience if the NGP is to succeed.
Despite many unanswered questions, EEDAR analyst Jesse Divinich is out today predicting "handsome success" in North America for the NGP. Speaking to Gamasutra, he notes that the PSP had done quite well in Japan, something the NGP should easily match. This is not a controversial statement, as the Japanese market is favorable to dedicated handheld gaming systems (both the DS and PSP have sold very well and are seen in public regularly). It comes down to North America and Europe, and the low install base in both regions (22 million in North America and 28 million in Europe) make this an easy target to surpass.
Even though he attaches the condition of the hardware being "competitively priced", no particular price is given to define that statement - leaving a lot of room for revision after the fact. Without saying what is competitive, there is no way to judge the prediction.
Putting that aside, however, there is the issue of success at any price point. Mobile phones are all but universal - so that's a guaranteed device carried around in the pocket. Many of those phones are capable of gaming, albeit typically of a sort geared around short bursts, but it's a market with an as-yet-undetermined amount of growth potential. Few people want to carry around two rather large devices, so the NGP (and the 3DS) will both suffer at the hands of convenience.
As a gadget lover, the hardware specs of the NGP have more appeal than the 3DS unless the price gets considerably higher. Ultimately, however, it will come down to Sony's software strategy. Current hints about using it as - quite literally - a portable PS3 have limited appeal. Why spend the equivalent of a new PS3 to briefly extend my ability to playtime? On the other hand, the NGP has the flexibility to leverage existing console IP to offer new experiences unique to the platform (e.g. God of War: Chains of Olympus, but much more so) with no compromise in terms of graphics or controls. At the same time, given the various control schemes possible, it is literally up to the imagination of developers how games on the platform will fare.
Price is a factor, and Sony will take its time in evaluating its strategy based on the success of the 3DS at its launch price before an announcement at E3 in June or at TGS in September. Even with stipulations about "competitive pricing", however, making a prediction now fails to capture that the NGP's ultimate success will come down to the software strategy. At this point, the picture is quite promising, but too many unanswered questions remain for analysts to offer any sort of solid prediction at this point.