Sony's Next Generation Portable sounds like a portable gaming machine powerful enough to replace the Playstation 3 home console, but it's actually meant to augment the experience, Sony Entertainment of America president Jack Tretton says.
Unveiled at a press event in Tokyo last week, the NGP offers controls that feel surprisingly similar to the PlayStation 3's controller. Significantly, it is the first major handheld to have two thumbsticks, so developers making games for the PS3 won't have to reinvent the wheel when they bring the game to the NGP.
And the handheld, due out toward the end of 2011 at a still undisclosed price, also has quite a few extra bells and whistles. It includes two cameras, a built in compass and motion sensing, 3G connectivity, a beautiful OLED touch screen, and a pad on the underside of the device that is touch sensitive. This underbelly sensor allows gamers to virtually push up into the game world with a touch.
The combination of sensors and controls, Tretton says, will deliver a new game play experience including "the opportunity to interact directly with games in three dimension-like motion, through 'touch, grab, trace, push and pull' movements, controlled by the fingers."
"NGP is the newest addition to the PlayStation platform ecosystem and is positioned to be complementary to the experience offered with PS3," Tretton said. "NGP is the perfect dedicated system for consumers looking for cutting-edge portable entertainment experiences."
The 3DS seems to push Nintendo's whimsical approach to gaming even further into "non-gamer" territory.
Announced just a week after Nintendo took the stage in a New York City event to unveil the price and release date for their glasses-free 3D portable gaming machine, the 3DS, the timing of Sony's NPD news could easily be seen as deliberately thunder-stealing. And while Nintendo's 3DS is set for a March release and NGP is only promised for sometime this year, there's a good chance consumers are going to start comparing the two.
But I don't think the two devices are really competing for the same audience.
The 3DS seems to push Nintendo's whimsical approach to gaming even further into "non-gamer" territory, delivering an experience made as exciting by its unusual technology as it is by the games you will play on it.
The NGP feels more like a PlayStation 3 on the go, a device that could allow you to finish playing the game you started on your PS3 and television, sitting on your couch, with a portable that offers nearly the same experience through similar graphics, power and controls.
Tretton said that while they look at the "competitive environment" when designing a new device, the NGP was developed as part of a portable strategy within Sony Computer Entertainment.
What he's getting at, I believe, is the NGP's greatest potential, that ability to blur the line between home console and portable console.
There are several things we still don't know about this device beyond the price.
While Sony showed off the NGP's diminutive new storage medium, a piece of plastic about the size of an SD flash card you might use in your camera, they didn't talk much about it. They did say that the card can store the full software titles plus add-on game content or the game save data directly on to the card. But not how you will buy games.
Retailer GameStop was essentially cut out of the game-selling process with the release of Sony's last portable, the PSPGo. That device had you purchase games directly from Sony and download them. No store was needed. The retailer wasn't pleased.
This time around it seems as if Sony is still in talks with GameStop and other retailers about how exactly its many games will be sold.
"You will be able to download NGP games or other content from the PlayStation Store to a storage media via the Internet, or buy the new game medium at retailers," Tretton said when I asked him about it. "We will announce further details when ready."
Contacted last week for comment, GameStop told me they were under a non-disclosure agreement with Sony on the subject, something that hints at more news to come.
"You will be able to download NGP games or other content from the PlayStation Store to a storage media via the Internet, or buy the new game medium at retailers."
Sony hasn't said whether the device will have a hard drive or whether owners of the NGP will be able to save games themselves to this new card.
This final piece of the puzzle, along with the price, could be a significant deal maker or deal breaker for the company and its latest portable.
With the game industry's big E3 show set to kick off this summer, Sony has one more chance to wow gamers with an affordable price and an innovative approach to game sales. And that's what I hope Sony is planning to do.
It certainly sounds like it is.
"At first glance I think it's clear that NGP is designed to offer the kind of high-quality unparalleled interactive entertainment on-the-go that is only possible on PlayStation," Tretton said. "Our fans expect that the kind of innovative technological developments that define PlayStation's legacy be represented in each product we bring to market, and with NGP we're aiming to deliver.
"We're looking forward to sharing more on NGP in the months ahead."
Well Played is a weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Feel free to join in the discussion.