Commentary

Xperia Play: Anyone Bring a Ball?

For just about as long as there has been a Playstation Portable, there have been rumors that Sony would slap a phone onto the mobile game console and make a proper all-in-one device. After all, arguably, Sony has had the most powerful gaming handheld on the market for years. Much as I love and play more with my Nintendo DS, the PSP really is a delicious mobile multimedia device. The company clearly designed this hunk of hardware for longevity and to serve as a portable HD screen and deep gaming console. In this generation of game console and handhelds, Sony overdelivered on hardware specs up front but got some vindication on the back end with a PS3 that was super-charged in the market by its Blu-ray capabilities and a PSP that has become a respectable second banana to the Nintendo DS.

Curiously, this is not the strategy they take in the game phone arena. What we get with the Xperia Play from Sony Ericsson and running Android and on the Verizon 3G network is something considerably less than a PSP that makes calls and runs apps. It is pretty much a modern high-end smart phone with pop-down player controls and a confusing catalog of game apps from three sources.

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The standout feature of the Xperia Play is its drop-down game-control layout. The unit flips out, and instead of getting the usual QWERTY keypad in landscape mode you get familiar directional keys, the four Playstation action buttons and two touch-sensitive analog controllers. The design effectively addresses one of the chief concurrent weaknesses and strengths of iOS and Android gaming --S fingers on the screen. In tactile games like Angry Birds, the touch screen is the source of the game play's engagement and one of the reasons we have seen some titles rocket into Tetris-like familiarity on smartphones. As Nintendo discovered with the DS, touch gaming adds a kinetic aspect to entertainment that opens up enormous new creative channels and absorbs the player in new ways. But, for more traditional driving, role playing, platform games inspired by decades of console play, the touch screen requires an intrusive and imprecise use of display real estate to control the action. In many cases either corner of the screen has to include virtual analog sticks that reduce the overall viewing field and often interferes with gaming.

 

Xperia Plays controller is very good. It packs much of the functionality of the PSP into a form factor resembling the PSP Go miniature version of Sony's handheld. The touch analog sticks work pretty well in the few games that seemed to support them. Tiny nubs at the center of each pad helps you orient your fingers. In playing Assassin's Creed with the pads, my character showed good responsiveness. There are also shoulder buttons that are engaged by the driving game Asphalt 6, which does not use the analog sticks. Crash Bandicoot, although made for analog controllers, would not configure properly for me in that mode.

The combined phone and game unit is about the thickest mobile phone I have seen in recent years, however. In terms of heft, the device clearly is designed for those serious enough about their gaming that they will endure the added size of their phone.

But does the gamer really get much of any added value here? In fact, this is not a PSP. The games so far are no more or less sophisticated than the typical iOS/Android titles. The rich and deep gaming of the PSP for titles like Persona or the recent and brilliant Ogre Tactics just aren't here, and I imagine the more powerful gaming graphics engine isn't here either. The game catalog is confusing. There are XPeria Play games direct from Sony, I gather, and then there are the Xperia-enabled Android games from third parties like Glu, Gameloft and EA. And then we get VCast games from Verizon's own app store. And then there are the regular Android titles in that Marketplace.

While the multi-pronged supply chain might seem welcome, for now it really just leads to a pile of titles that pretty much look and feel like the usual smartphone ports of console games (Sims 3, Madden NFL 11, etc.) where the actual implementation of the phone's singular value add, the controller, is uneven and unpredictable. The whole project leaves you wondering why they bothered. Serious portable gamers like me will be happy with the great new vistas that touch-screen gaming open up for us on the smartphone and likely resort to dedicated handhelds for the classic console experience.

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