Welcome to the penultimate edition in our series of ‘what if‘ articles and the only one to feature a handheld game system – the Sony PSP. But wait, wasn’t the PSP a hit for Sony and a fan favorite? Well yes, the system was a massive success for Sony and helped them spread the PlayStation brand to a whole new audience of players, so why is the PSP getting its own entry on this list when it is (by far) the best-selling and received system in this series? Well in a lot of ways, despite its success the PSP never really attained any of its core goals (to challenge Nintendo for handheld dominance and usher in a new multimedia standard for on the go entertainment) and the way the PSP’s twilight years were handled essentially set up its successor to fail. So while not a train-wreck (like the other consoles we discussed) things definitely could have gone a lot better for Sony’s first handheld.
The Sony PSP was released just a few months after Nintendo’s own 7th generation handheld, the DS and, for the first time ever the handheld front of the console wars was actually a contested one. Both the PSP and DS went back and forth for months with Sony’s system having the clear edge when it came to hardware specs, graphical capabilities and multimedia capabilities thanks to Sony’s new UMD format. However the PSP was expensive, launching at $249.99, a full 100 dollars more than the DS, and when Nintendo started dipping into the mass-market with games aimed at more casual players in 2005-2006 their sales skyrocketed while the PSP trucked along with decent sales numbers but never really challenging the DS which ended with 154.02 million units sold compared to the PSP’s roughly 82 million.
However, despite these strong numbers when it came to hardware sales, the PSP was notoriously bad at selling actual games. For comparison the PSP’s best-selling game was the Japanese-exclusive Monster Hunter Portable 3rd which managed to move a respectable 4.6 million units. On the DS however this honor goes to New Super Mario Bros. and its 30.80 million units sold. The DS also has 21 games in total that sold more than the PSP’s top game, so where did the PSP’s software sales go? Simply put – to piracy. The original models of the PSP were ridiculously easy to hack and make to be able to play any PSP (and other systems) games you wanted all for free. This lead to a serious drop in third-party support in the system’s later years and lead to serious doubt about Sony’s ability to protect company’s intellectual properties when it came time to drum up support for their next generation handheld.
One of the key goals of the PSP was to introduce UMD’s as a new media format that, when seen as part of the DVD and emerging Blu-Ray industries would give Sony a dominance over the media format wars (remember HD-DVD?). The PSP’s little discs were truly impress pieces of technology as many pundits thought it would be impossible to have revolving media be part of a portable device, and even though their inclusion made the PSP a particularly fragile system (especially when compared to its contemporaries) it did give it an edge. This combined with Sony and its movie partners delivering current blockbusters on UMD and you had the recipe for a mobile media revolution. However, as we know, the UMD failed to take off and is now lumped in with things like Laserdisc and Betamax as media formats that weren’t meant to be. But what if the UMD had been a hit?
Well for one, we likely would have seen a lot more movie studios signing onto distributing their films for UMD and thus the PSP. This could have helped the system alleviate its piracy problem as instead of ‘video games first’ device the PSP could have been a ‘media first’ unit. This also opens up the fact that Sony could have then licensed UMD technology out so that third-party hardware manufacturers could develop their own portable UMD players, essentially giving Sony a 1-2 punch of licensing out UMB and Blu-Ray tech to other firms who would actually create the hardware. And while the UMD format may seem outdated today remember that not everyone had access to high-speed internet in the mid 2000’s and early 2010’s, so a way to buy movies for a portable player that did not involve streaming our downloading could have been a pretty big hit.
If establishing the UMD as a viable media platform was the PSP’s main goal then dethroning Nintendo as the reining king of handheld gaming would have definitely been second. And while the PSP held its own in the end the DS absolutely trounced the PSP and carried some of this momentum into the next generation when the battle between the 3DS and Vita was extremely one-sided in Nintendo’s favor (though the reasons for that are completely different). But what if the PSP had managed to surpass the DS in sales? What kind of life would the system have? Well for one it would have gotten a LOT more third-party support, especially later in its shelf life. The DS was home to an extremely strong lineup of games from companies not named Nintendo and used this to build the DS’ software library to one of the largest in history. A lot of this support came from companies like Square Enix, Capcom and Ubisoft that would regularly and often release their games on the DS and not the PSP. So for one, if the PSP had the sales numbers (and answered its piracy problems) it could have sapped support from the DS and helped steal many of that system’s exclusive games.
This would have given the PS Vita a huge amount of momentum going into its launch, something it sorely lacked in the real world. In a lot of ways it seemed like Sony had to start from scratch to build support for the Vita after the PSP failed to live up to expectations. Not having this roadblock could have given the system a serious leg up on the 3DS (whose own launch was a bungled mess) and helped establish the Vita as a strong complimentary platform to both the PS3 and the upcoming PlayStation 4. And while comparing the Vita to the Switch is a hard sell, the Vita does have the ability to play console-quality games on the go, so its possible that some of the success of the Switch could have rubbed off on Sony’s handheld too.
The PlayStation Portable is one of those systems that despite its best efforts and a dedicated following just could not manage to reach all of its targets and ended up being seen with both nostalgic reverence and as something with a lot of wasted potential. The PSP was the first (and so far only) legitimate challenger to Nintendo’s handheld dominance and despite a solid effort by everyone involved the system will surely be remembered as an ‘also-ran’, albeit one that can hardly be described as a failure.