September 4, 2008 // 10:12 pm
- A funny thing happened a couple of months ago. After completing the PSP version of God of War, developer Ready At Dawn Studios posted a matter-of-fact news story
on their site about how they were packing up their dev kits and sending them back to Sony.
The company behind one of the must-play games on the PSP was giving up on the system completely. Around the same time, Sony itself announced a new partnership program where universities could buy up PSP and PS2 development kits on the cheap. It would seem that Ready At Dawn isn't the only studio giving up on the system.
Presumably, there is an assembly line at Sony headquarters where the old dev kits are repackaged for uni students. Maybe they throw in some typical student freebie favourites in the box, like free condoms, and booklets about doing drugs responsibly.
At any rate, this phase-out is already being felt at retail. There are fewer and fewer new PSP and PS2 games going on sale. Or in the case of the PS2, at least, fewer titles any self-respecting gamer would play. The line-up for both systems at E3 was pitiful – developers are abandoning Sony's older systems. And now Rockstar is joining the club. This iconoclastic software house has been a huge supporter of the PSP, bringing hit games like The Warriors to the format. Midnight Club: Los Angeles Remix is due to hit the PSP this October.
And let's not forget Grand Theft Auto – arguably the biggest gaming franchise on the planet. Take-Two claims that over 8 million copies of Liberty City Stories and over 4.5 million copies of Vice City stories have been sold (though admittedly those figures include the PS2 adaptations). With the conspicuous exception of the Wii, GTA appears (or will soon appear) on all the successful games platforms. Yet after a successful run on the PlayStation Portable, Rockstar, it seems, is finally cashing in its chips.
Unlike Sony, which can afford to churn out games like LocoRoco and Patapon to keep interest ticking over, third-party publishers like Rockstar have to make money on every game sold. That only happens if they can sell enough to cover development expenses and a healthy margin – and that only happens if there are enough active users out there seeking out and buying new games. Imagine, if you will, the installed base of Atari 2600s, Commodore 64s, and PlayStation Ones.
Sure, there are millions and millions of them. But they're all installed in cardboard boxes at the back of the garage. Time has moved on, and people have lost interest. The PSP may not be in their league just yet, but interest in it is dropping – and dropping fast. Rockstar only has one new GTA game coming out this Christmas, and it's for a system that's alive and well: the Nintendo DS.
For a game that's coming out in just four months, there's been surprisingly little info on Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars. But the choice of format speaks volumes. The question remains: what is Rockstar up to? It's a safe bet that GTA will hit the Wii – perhaps by around the middle of next year. With the Rockstar Advanced Game Engine now a proven technology, GTA V on PS3 and 360 is a certainty.
But each day that passes without a concrete announcement re. GTA on the PSP, it becomes increasingly obvious that Rockstar has consigned the technology to the dustbin. It is, of course, worth noting that Sony is backing the PSP to the hilt. At the recent Leipzig games convention, the Japanese electronics giant announced a new-and-improved PSP Version 3: the PSP-3000.
The new unit will feature a built-in microphone, a brighter screen, and other upgrades. New first-party software is on the way, too, including killer games like Riff: Everyday Shooter. It's also worth noting that Sony's attitude to the PSP is not a reliable barometer of its success. Sony never, ever gives up on its formats. Sony never gave up on Betamax. Sony never gave up on DAT. Sony never gave up on Minidisc.
These formats eventually found limited success in niche markets, but failed to meet up to Sony's mass market ambitions. So too with the UMD/PSP combo. It's already been some time since the major retailers dumped their UMD movies into the bargain bins. Early in the new year, the remaining UMD games could follow. Come what may, Sony will keep the dream alive, selling new games for download over the PlayStation Store.
So: will Sony's determination inspire the third-party developers to stick with the system? Can Rockstar be persuaded to come back to the fold? Probably not. At the rate they're going, the next GTA for a Sony handheld will be for the PSP 2.