Handheld gaming was once owned by Nintendo, first with the Game and Watch, then the various incarnations of Gameboy and DS. But in recent years the seemingly unassailable lead in the market has been eroded by Apple and the iPhone.
This has been in spite of Apple’s general indifference to games. As id Software’s John Carmack once eloquently put it in an interview with Eurogamer “The truth is Steve Jobs doesn't care about games”. By and large games are just Apps to Apple, and this has worked until now thanks to the sheer momentum that iOS has.
Microsoft has acknowledged games as a weakness of Apple’s by making Xbox Live a big part of Windows Phone 7. However before it can really push gaming Microsoft needs handsets out there, and while 2 million units have been shipped, Windows Phone 7 is still a drop in the ocean compared to iOS and Android.
As it stands there is little way that any of the other phone operating systems can compete with iOS gaming. Android has a good shot, but the fragmentation of the platform and wildly varying hardware of Android phones means that it is already a pain for developers. We saw this when Angry Birds hit Android last year – it performed poorly on some of the cheaper android phones due to low CPU speeds.
This situation is set to change in a big way, as yesterday Sony announced that it was effectively tying the PlayStation brand to Android. A new initiative dubbed the PlayStation Suite ties a hardware certification program into an Android friendly version of the PlayStation Store. This will be stocked initially with games for the original PlayStation, adapted to work on Android.
While there has been little detail so far about hardware requirements, Sony has said that the PlayStation Suite will work on Android 2.3 and above (that means Smartphones and Tablets). This, and the logo program, indicates that backwards compatibility will be unlikely. But the timing of the announcement just before next month’s World Mobile Congress leads us to believe that we will start seeing certified hardware sooner rather than later.
At that event Sony should finally make its worst kept secret, the Xperia Play, official. This phone has been doing the rounds of China’s tech sites for a few months, and is an Android phone with a slide out game controller. It is clearly going to be the PlayStation Suite’s flagship device, but from the announcement it won’t be the only one.
What the Xperia Play won’t be is a successor to Sony’s current handheld platform, the PlayStation Portable. At the same event Sony announced what it calls the NGP (Next Generation Portable), which will be a focused handheld gaming platform. While there will be versions of the NGP that support 3G (all support WiFi), like the iPad the connection will be data-only – Sony is deliberately leaving out voice support to reinforce the fact that this is a dedicated gaming platform with dedicated games.