Sunday, January 30, 2011

Sony NGP announced, likely to lose to 3DS

Thursday saw the announcement of the successor to Sony’s PlayStation Portable, codenamed NGP or  ´Next Generation Portable´. Up until now, I was busy producing this report about all devices scheduled for 2011 (in German). As expected, the device will feature an OLED display and impressive hardware power. Apparently, porting PS3 games over to the new handheld will be a simple task and content does not have to be scaled down much. The only real innovation lies in the controls. Besides two analogue sticks and a directional pad, the NGP will feature a touch-sensitive panel on the back of the device. It also comes with built-in 3G for online gaming and downloads, although I have significant doubts whether 3G is fast and reliable enough for constant connections.

What is interesting is that Sony is developing a two-tier strategy in this field. Alongside the NGP, the company has announced the ´PlayStation Suite´, a new marketplace with less hardware hungry PlayStation titles, aimed at Android smartphones and tablets with a set of minimum specifications. Undoubtedly, the yet-to-be-announced ´Xperia Play´ by Sony Ericsson will be one of those devices. The underlying idea seems to be that ´PlayStation Suite´ will be the bait to get users to eventually buy an NGP for the full experience. The new marketplace is also expected to connect the Android devices with the NGP and the PlayStation3.

While it seems at first that Sony is employing a completely different philosophy to Nintendo here – pursuing perfection of existing technologies rather than innovation – there are also some similarities between the NGP and Nintendo’s 3DS, which will be available at the end of March in Europe and North America.

Both devices feature augmented reality games and social services. The NGP will offer ´Near´, which shows other owners in your vicinity, what they are playing and how far they have played. The service will also record your own movements. The 3DS will offer ´Streetpass´, which automatically connects to other devices near you to transfer data and virtual goods (similar to the tag mode in ´Animal Crossing: Wild World´ or ´Dragon Quest IX´). While some experts point out that such features are really only effective in Japan, where a large part of the population lives in densely populated areas, whereas they will be practically useless on other territories, the issue of data protection remains. These handhelds will require careful adjustments of the privacy settings, which will hopefully be in place, to make sure the owner actually wants to share his data.

I already asked the question whether the 3DS will hit markets too late and at too high a price. With the NGP officially announced for the holiday season 2011 and a delay until spring 2012 a likely move given Sony's track record, I no longer believe that the 3DS will come too late. The price of around $250/€250 remains painfully high, though. Especially given how the 3DS lacks the high class finish of the DSi XL or, indeed, the NGP. It will sell well regardless, but I would have preferred a price point of $200/€200 for consumers to buy the device without remorse.
Analysts expect the NGP to be even more expensive, at $300/€300 or above. Regardless of how well produced the device will feel, this will price Sony out of the market, for sure. I do not think that anyone who will play the odd casual PlayStation game on his Android device will want to invest that much into a dedicated gaming device. I certainly would not. It takes an innovative and unique feature like 3D to convince me to spend this type of amount and I will do so only grudgingly. Also, the NGP will encourage plenty of ports from the PlayStation3. So I expect a fair bit of cannibalisation between the new handheld and its home console sibling. While I expect ´PlayStation Suite´ to be a fairly successful service, the NGP is almost bound to fail and sell even less than its predecessor. The 3DS, albeit at a steep price, will sell extremely well, though. My guess is that Nintendo will sell more than 20 million units in 2011. The company expects to sell four million units in the first four weeks of availability in Japan with barely a week's availability in Europe and North America.

EDIT Codemasters CEO Rod Cousens has weighed in on the debate about the NGP price saying that "my hope is sub £200 (...) but I suspect something in the £229 - £249 [range] to be more likely." He continued that Sony had learnt "the lesson of over-engineered hardware" with regard to the original PSP. They have indeed and more obviously so with the PlayStation3. Back in 2006, they were losing up to $300 on each unit sold. Meanwhile, GameStop has posted an estimated price of $999,99 for the device, probably as a marketing trick, but taken the site down since then.

EDIT Now, Ubisoft's executive director of EMEA, Alain Corre, has gone on record to say that he expects an attractive price for the NGP: "I trust Sony to know their market very well and to be able to offer a price that will make their machine attractive. (...) If Sony can capture this huge market - and they do have a unique offer for that market with the NGP - then success will definitely be on the agenda for them."

I absolutely agree. As long as Sony manages to keep the price below €300 / $300, the device will sell successfully, I believe. But, comparing the 3DS and NGP, if you have to pay a premium for a machine that offers, albeit far more detailed, 2D graphics only, Sony will not be able to convince enough punters for the console to become a success.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Nintendo 3DS details, PSP2 details next week

The Nintendo 3DS will launch in North America on March 27th for $249 and in Europe on March 25th for an expected price of €249/£249 or below. This is in line with expectations (see post below). However, no fixed price was issued for the European market. Nintendo is leaving it up to retail to set individual prices. To my knowledge, this is the first time Nintendo is not naming a price alongside a console's launch date. When the Wii was announced for Europe, the price was fixed and communicated. While most European outlets fall in line by pricing the 3DS at around 250 in either currency, UK retailers range from below £200 to a staggering £300.

While no further deals with major Hollywood Studios have been announced (above and beyond the three already committed to the system), Nintendo is partnering with sports broadcasters Sky and Eurosport in Europe while no such partnerships have been announced for North America. Not yet, anyway.

Only next week, Sony will reveal its PSP2 handheld, the successor to the PlayStation Portable, it is believed. While we know most things about the PSP2's sibling, the PlayStation Phone, already (without it being officially announced), the PSP2's features are still largely unknown. It is rumoured to be the handheld equivalent of the PS3.

And there may be unexpected competition in the form of an Apple product. The company is said to be considering 3D for its new iPod Touch. While Apple identifies its place in gaming as a "subset of casual games", such devices would compete directly in terms of other content.

EDIT The first substantial details regarding the PSP2 have emerged from a Japanese newspaper through Andriasang and via Engadget and Joystiq. According to the source, the device will feature an OLED screen, by far the best, albeit most expensive screen technology currently available. The report goes on to state that the console will be able to connect to 3G networks, which might facilitate online multiplayer and access to downloads practically anywhere. Apparently, the PSP2 will not be able to place calls, though. Details of a PSP phone have already been leaked.

Live-Stream from 3DS launch event in Amsterdam

There will be a live stream from Nintendo's 3DS launch event in Amsterdam today. It is expected that the European launch date and price will be announced. At 3pm Central European Time, visit this page. Here are the most important time zones:

2pm GMT
9am Eastern
6am Pacific

If your time zone is missing, please check the Time Zone Converter.

Very briefly: I expect a price tag of €249 and a European launch date of early April.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

How Wii 2 might display 3D visuals

A significant admission

Nintendo has admitted to recent plans to sell a 3D home console and proprietary display. This may hint at future plans regarding the successor to the Wii console.

Nintendo president Satoru Iwata has confirmed that the GameCube, Wii's predecessor, was capable of displaying 3D visuals when hooked up to a parallax barrier LCD screen, the type of display also used in the upcoming handheld 3DS. The comments were made in a recent ´Iwata asks´ session, translated by Andriasang:

GameCube also had circuitry for 3D compatibility, revealed Iwata. If attached to a special LCD screen, the system could display 3D images. Nintendo even had a functional 3D version of Luigi's mansion. Due to the cost for the LCD screens, though, Nintendo decided that there was no market for the tech at the time.

Funnily enough, Iwata said the same thing in an interview last June and noone noticed. Worse still, two days before, 3DS hardware director Hideki Konno told IGN the same story in more detail:

When I was directing Luigi's Mansion on the GameCube we experimented with placing a 3D panel on the screen and making Luigi's Mansion play in 3D. However, at that time we had screen resolution issues. And cost issues. And to separately sell a panel for 3D gameplay wasn't a practical idea as a mass-market product.

Why should anyone have picked up on that? Those comments reveal which 3D technology Nintendo has been experimenting with for home consoles and that they had plans of selling proprietary displays. The latter aspect is significant. We already know that Nintendo's next home console will be capable of displaying 3D visuals. We just do not know how. Hang on. Do we really know the Wii 2 will be a 3D console? Let us recap.

Will Wii 2 really be a 3D console?

Yes, pretty much. Speaking to a Japanese newspaper in June 2010, Iwata announced the company's "plans to make the successor to the Wii 3D compatible, telling (...) that «a full-scale entry into this field will take some time because 3D televisions will not catch on right away.»"

Around the same time, Iwata told a different Japanese newspaper that the Wii could not be upgraded to display 3D visuals but they would "probably do it with the next system."

If you display a 3D image, the image quality becomes extremely bad, so we'd probably do it with the next system. We're thinking that the timing should be once the 3D television adoption rate crosses the 30% mark. We're looking at the adoption trends.

Our next clue arrived in September, courtesy of Spanish gaming site 3DJuegos (Spanish) which quoted ´Metroid´ co-creator Yoshio Sakamoto as follows:

At Nintendo we always have the obligation to surprise users with a new console. We have never done what others do. We prefer to create something new that catches people's attention, and I think this will continue at this time. Surely the new Nintendo machine will leave you all with your mouths open.

And finally, in a recent feature, IGN found more clues regarding Wii 2 being a 3D console (although they failed to quote the above statements). In a Japanese interview last September, again translated by Andriasang, game developer Tomonobu Itagaki (´Ninja Gaiden´, ´Dead or Alive´) spoke about his upcoming game ´Devil's Third.

Mysteriously, Itagaki said that the game could be released on platforms in addition to PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. "We're developing it so that it can be brought to as yet unknown hardware as well. Specifically, the various areas of technology are scalable."

Impress asked if this means Nintendo 3DS and a next generation PSP are included in Itagaki's sights. Responded Itagaki, "More than that, although I can't say this easily because I don't have any information, it's possible that Nintendo could release a higher end console. Something like that."

As far as a possible launch window for a Wii successor is concerned (which I am not concerned with in this article), bear in mind that the game is slated for an early 2012 release.

The IGN feature does not separate the context correctly. The above quote was not made in the context of 3D visuals. Yet, only a few paragraphs above, Itagaki had noted his interest for such technology:

Itagaki appears to be big on 3D as a whole, saying "The thing I'm most interested in now may be 3D televisions." Rather than necessarily feeling the appeal of 3D itself, though, Itagaki said that he just likes new things. There are positive and negative aspects to 3D, he explained. The positive aspects include the impact of the visuals, and the wider expressive power. The negative aspects include the narrow sweet spot and the requirement for goggles.

So, in conclusion, there are "plans to make the successor to the Wii 3D compatible" and Nintendo would "probably do it with the next system" (both quotes by Iwata). "The new Nintendo machine will leave you all with your mouths open," a key Nintendo developer promises and a third party developer says "it's possible that Nintendo could release a higher end console" soon after talking about 3D technology. I am not going out on a limb here when I interpret this as confirmation of Nintendo's next generation home console being a 3D console.

How will Wii 2 display 3D visuals?

As you noticed from his statements above, Iwata is tying the release date of a 3D home console to 3D screens already available in households, which would suggest Nintendo is no longer looking into selling proprietary screens itself. And in another interview, Iwata dismissed the idea of parallax barrier technology applied to big screens.

With this parallax barrier technology, the LCD must be a certain distance away from the screen. It also needs a certain viewing angle. We think it is not a great match for the home TV set. As one of the engineers, I can anticipate that someone will invent a 3D TV that does not require you to wear 3D glasses. As far as today is concerned I do not think they can do it well. We need an invention to make it happen. If you ask me when, I have no idea.

And yet I would like to suggest that Nintendo might be doing just that: opting for a proprietary screen to be used with their next-generation home console. Instead of waiting for multi-functional 3D-capable tv sets to penetrate the market, Nintendo might want to offer a dedicated (and thus cheaper) proprietary solution. It might not be a parallax barrier and you may as well be able to hook the console up to standard television sets (i.e. it might be an add-on rather than integrated into the hardware). But Nintendo might want to sell an autostereoscopic 3D display. There is some evidence to support this.

Such technology has been rumoured to be an upcoming peripheral for the Wii in the past. Most notably, in November 2005, Nintendo star designer Shigeru Miyamoto told Business Week:

It's convenient to make games that are played on TVs. But I always wanted to have a custom-sized screen that wasn't the typical four-cornered cathode-ray-tube TV. I've always thought that games would eventually break free of the confines of a TV screen to fill an entire room. But I would rather not say anything more about that.

Rumours of a ´last secret´ concerning the Wii persisted for some time. As late as October 2006, Nintendo of America´s Perrin Kaplan confirmed that some features of the console had not yet been announced, saying "We do have a couple of other surprises" and noting that they would especially please the hardcore crowd.

Later that month, Reggie Fils-Aime was rumoured to have hinted at a "big Wii revelation" that would be announced around launch.

Specific rumours regarding some kind of 3D projection device started very early on, especially in the wake of the brilliant fake that was the Nintendo ON. But there were hard facts, too. There was (and is) proof that a Japanese gaming company had invested in 3D projection technology. Today, we still do not know which company is mentioned. Could it have been Nintendo investing in technology that will make it into the Wii successor?

If you want to read a dated, but thorough article about other hints at the Wii being coupled with a proprietary screen, check out an old Xgaming feature (via Wayback Machine). There are plenty of fakes in there, but it is worthwhile to consider the quotes and the patent, which baffle us still today. Of course, you can also just skim through my archive.

I think it is important, at this point, to consider what form a proprietary display could take and how much it could change gaming. Please consider the following excerpt of a Ubidays 2007 trailer.

Of course, Ubisoft denied that any such hardware ever existed or was ever planned. But the mock-up is inspiring nevertheless. And there is a small chance that Nintendo might be considering a 3D projector like this one for its next-generation home console. At the very least, the company considered selling a proprietary display for its last home console. And, again, this is a significant admission.

EDIT In fact, Nintendo translated the ´Iwata asks´ session themselves. Here are the relevant excerpts:

Iwata: To go back a little further, the Nintendo GameCube system actually had 3D-compatible circuitry built in.
Itoi: Huh?
Iwata: It had the potential for such functions.
Itoi: Nintendo GameCube did? And all the Nintendo GameCubes systems around the world?
Iwata: Yeah. If you fit it with a certain accessory, it could display 3D images.
Itoi: What a secret!
Iwata: Nintendo GameCube was released in 2001, exactly ten years ago. We’d been thinking about 3D for a long time even back then.
Itoi: Why didn’t anyone ever know?
Iwata: The liquid crystal for it was still expensive. Simply put, Nintendo GameCube could display 3D images if you attached a special LCD, but that special liquid crystal was really expensive back then.
Itoi: Yeah, we’re talking about ten years ago.
Iwata: We couldn’t have done it without selling it for a price far above that of the Nintendo GameCube system, itself! We already had a game for it, though—Luigi’s Mansion, simultaneously released with Nintendo GameCube.
Itoi: The one in which Luigi shoulders a vacuum cleaner?
Iwata: Yeah, that one. We had a functional version of that in 3D.
Itoi: That was 3D?
Miyamoto: It would jump out at you pretty nicely.
Iwata:Even without special glasses, the 3D looked pretty good. But we considered how much the liquid crystal would cost, and it was just too expensive. We figured the market just wasn’t there for it.
Itoi: So you gave up. Whew! And now you’ve done it. I see! You never give up!
Iwata: Yeah. We never give up. (laughs)
Miyamoto: (laughs)
Itoi: I bet the one who was most persistent in pursuing 3D was Miyamoto-san.
Iwata: (laughs)

Thursday, January 06, 2011

More details on 3DS, PSP phone

A rumour and a leak provide more details regarding both the Nintendo 3DS and Sony's yet unannounced PlayStation Portable Phone. Firstly, Spanish website Exponente Geek claims to have taken the following snapshot from the regional GameStop website, detailing an April 7th launch date for Europe at an expected price tag of €249.

The original webpage has since been taken down, it is claimed. The Google cache does not reveal the apparent content either.

Previously, a 3DS model had apparently been smuggled out of a factory for pictures and a video. Since there have been many events already, though, at which the console was presented to the world's media (albeit it could only be filmed from the side or switched off), the impact of this story has been overstated in my mind.

Engadget, meanwhile, has published new and surprisingly high-resolution images of the PlayStation Portable Phone, Sony has yet to announce. The images show both Sony Ericsson and Xperia logos, as well as the familiar PlayStation insignia.

EDIT In his CES keyote, Sony Computer Entertainment CEO Kaz Hirai hinted at other products besides the PSP Phone, as recorded by Joystiq.

Hirai teased that Sony's "strategy encompasses driving the development of a variety of new strategic products and services including tablets currently in development as well as smartphones, all the while of course integrating the know-how and the assets that we've accumulated from our PlayStation business."

What does that mean? It sounds like the PlayStation Phone is just part of the plan to leverage the PlayStation branding and games for Sony's other products. He continued, "In 2011, you will start to see an implementation of a strategy we've developed and continually refined over the past 18 months. And you will see this strategy executed in the form of great new products and services coming to market that leverage Sony's strongest assets. In addition to launching a line of Sony tablets, we'll be building upon the video, music, game and book offerings on our Qriocity and our PlayStation Network services to deliver a compelling, unique experience for Sony across a wide range of consumer electronic devices."

EDIT The matter regarding the PlayStation Phone is getting ridiculous now: a Chinese website has just published videos (via Engadget). I guess Sony is holding out until February 14th to reveal the device at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.