15 Years of PlayStation: The PSP

Part Three of an ongoing series looking back over the life of the PlayStation brand during the 15th Anniversary Celebration in North America (Part One – The PS1) (Part Two – The PS2) (Part Four – The PS3)

2003 – Sony is king of the hill in the console business and amid rumors and speculation, confirmation is given at E3 that they’re working on a hand held gaming device.  One year later, just before E3 2004 the PlayStation Portable is unveiled to the world.

The initial announcement was met with a mix of excitement and concern as the specs were off the charts for a hand held gaming device yet the initial mock ups showed no analog sticks whatsoever.  It had a 4.3 inch widescreen in a 16:9 aspect ratio sporting over 16 million colors but Sony’s format choice, the Universal Media Disc (UMD), while holding an impressive 1.8 gigabytes of data was seen as another proprietary Sony format being forced upon consumers.  Overall however, the new system was highly anticipated and people were excited to see how Sony would fare against the newly announced Nintendo hand held which hadn’t been named yet.

The PSP hit North America on March 24, 2005 and followed the new trend in Sony console launches.  The Nintendo DS had launched in November 2004 at $100 less than the US launch price, but this was no Dreamcast.  Nintendo had been the dominant player in the hand held market for years and while the DS looked woefully underpowered compared to the PSP, it had a built in audience who had been playing their Gameboys for years.  Nintendo also had a stranglehold on what would come to be known as “the casual market”, something that would take both Sony and Microsoft by surprise during the next generation of consoles.  The PSP was seen as overpriced at $250 and many sites complained about the “Value Pack” being the only way to get the system.  The package included the PSP, a wrist strap, headphones, in-line remote control, carrying case and demo disc.  The launch lineup was also in flux right up until launch, with many games that were initially promised hitting stores weeks later.  Because there didn’t seem to be many shortages in the major markets, the PSP was seen as not selling so well out of the gate.  This wasn’t really the case however as Sony held back the European launch to ensure a steady supply for the US.  The system also made use of a new menu system called the Xross Media Bar or XMB for short.  This menu system would find its way into the PS3 a year later making the transition rather smooth for PSP owners.

While the PSP was actually selling well enough at launch, Sony was about to throw out the first salvo in a war they’ve been fighting to this day.  The Japanese launch systems of a few months prior used firmware 1.00, but the US system launched with 1.50.  Pirates set to work trying to crack the system and within two months, the first exploit was released to the web.  In a move that would become very familiar to PSP owners over the years, Sony quickly released a new firmware update (1.51) to block the exploit.  The dance would continue as hackers would find a new way in and Sony would release a firmware update to plug the holes.  Meanwhile, piracy ran rampant as hackers found a way to dump the contents of a UMD onto the newly released (and still expensive) larger memory sticks.  A number of developers have blamed poor software sales on piracy over the years but major franchises still hit the system with regularity.

Soon after launch, a number of common complaints cropped up.  Seen side by side with the folding DS, the screen on the PSP seemed dangerously unprotected.  Many people felt the analog nub didn’t handle as well as it should have and there was only one of them anyway.  Load times on the UMD drive were also cited as problematic.  Publishers were given free reign to price the games as they saw fit and while first party titles all came in at $39.99, EA priced all their titles at $49.99, the same as their PS2 counterparts.  This openness on Sony’s part would lead to the biggest debacle of the young handheld’s life cycle, UMD Movies.

Sony envisioned a future where movie and music studios would be publishing their latest releases on UMD for an eager consumer base.  They signed up a number of studios and prepared for their cut of every title sold on UMD.  Unfortunately, they quickly ran into two problems.  The first being the slow erosion of the music business due to the ubiquity of MP3’s and the second being the disastrous policy of allowing movie studios (much like game publishers) to set their own prices on UMD video releases.  The studios, still reaping huge profits with DVD sales, saw the UMD as the next cash cow.  Since the Sony memory stick pro duo was still prohibitively expensive at larger capacities and software for ripping dvd’s and converting them to a format the PSP could read was beyond most consumers, the only way to get video on the system was via UMD video discs.  Major retailers cleared large shelf spaces for the influx of movies.  With many Sony owned studios leading the way, UMD movies began to fill up the aisles Best Buy, Target, Circuit City and more.  Unfortunately, the UMD would have to compete with its DVD counterpart, often at a higher price point.  The studios promptly priced themselves right out of business.  The market was quickly flooded with a back catalog of movies priced anywhere from 20-50% higher than the corresponding DVD was.  Consumers weren’t biting and stores quickly reclaimed valuable shelf space as the UMD movie market tanked.

Despite the negatives, the PSP did sell very well over the first few months with heavy hitters Twisted Metal and wipEout leading the way.  In the first full year, just over 100 titles were released and over 170 the next year.  Piracy has long been a concern but the PSP has still managed about 150 new titles each year.  Almost every major franchise associated with the PlayStation brand has found its way onto the system including Metal Gear, Ridge Racer, Grand Theft Auto, Killzone, God of War, Hot Shots Golf, Final Fantasy, Ace Combat, Resistance, MotorStorm, Ratchet and Clank, Persona and many more.  The PSP has also spawned a number of new and unique titles including LocoRoco, Patapon, Half-Minute Hero, Jeanne D’Arc, Lumines, Hammerin’ Hero and others.

With the release of the PS3 in 2006, Sony now had three systems to support and they started to integrate the PSP and PS3.  Firmware update 3.00 in late November 2006 added support for a PS3 Remote Play feature and PSOne titles, giving users the ability to purchase PSOne titles from the newly launched PlayStation Store on the PS3 and play them on both systems for one low price.  While the initial offerings were few and far between, the selection has grown to over 100 games in the US store with some rare and classic titles mixed in.  Sony has gone on to add a ton of functionality to the PSP via firmware updates including a web browser, RSS feeds, Internet Radio, Digital Comics, PlayStation Store integration, support for more video codecs and more.

At E3 2007, Sony unveiled the next evolution of the PSP known as the PSP-2000.  It was 33% lighter and 19% slimmer than the original PSP with a brighter screen, double the on board RAM and a host of smaller improvements.  It also saw the removal of the infrared port from the original PSP.  The extra RAM was used to cache data from UMD games to improve loading times and was also required for Skype which came in a new firmware update.  A year later, the PSP-3000 was launched with another screen change, slightly better or worse depending on who you ask, an integrated mic and some other small improvements.  Sales were generally strong with both launches despite slow software sales.

Interestingly, early in the life cycle of the PSP, a number of people thought that Sony should be using the memory card slot for games.  People saw this as an opportunity to make the system more portable with small memory sticks rather than the bulkier UMD.  That made it all the more odd when, at E3 2009, Sony showed off the next iteration of the portable, the PSP go.  16% lighter and 35% smaller than the PSP-3000, the PSP go would come without a UMD drive.  Internet message boards erupted over the missing UMD drive and of course, the price.  At $250, the new PSP go was priced $70 higher than the PSP-3000 and while it had a much smaller form factor and integrated bluetooth, the price coupled with the lack of a UMD drive has kept sales to a minimum.  With the launch of the go however, Sony made a major push to get the back catalog of UMD games onto the PlayStation store as quickly as possible.  This required re-licensing a number of games and several publishers were unwilling to put their games up for fear of piracy.  Initial concerns about Sony holding the consumer hostage with no used market to worry about have largely gone away as weekly specials and price cuts have become the norm although a number of games still sell for much higher than the new version of their UMD counterpart.

In 2009, Sony launched the “minis” line of games.  The iPhone App Store was selling small, casual, quick play games for a few dollars or less and they were making a killing.  Sony saw the minis line as a way to carve out their own piece of the short attention span gaming pie.  Games would generally be under 100 megabytes and cost $10 or less.  Again, Sony let the publishers decide the price of their games and again, the prices seemed way out of line.  Many games were ports of existing iPhone games at two, three even five times the price.  Sales figures are unavailable but there are generally new titles each week on the PlayStation store and Sony has made the majority of the titles compatible with the PS3 as well as PSP.

While Sony isn’t going to catch the DS juggernaut any time soon, the PSP has been an incredibly strong first foray into the portable gaming world with over 62 million units sold as of September 2010.  Sony is definitely in the hand held business for the long haul and having established themselves people have been speculating about the next step for the past year or two.  Rumors have recently popped up about developers having PSP2 dev kits in hand but Sony has not made any comments yet.  With the success of the original PSP, it’s no longer a question of if but a question of when.

Written by Josh Langford

Josh Langford

Josh has been gaming since 1977 starting with the Atari 2600.
He currently owns 25 different consoles and 6 different handhelds (all hooked up and in working condition) including all consoles from the current generation – minus the Switch.

Josh is currently the US PR & Marketing Manager for Fountain Digital Labs and has recused himself from any involvement on PS Nation arising from posting or editing any news or reviews stemming from FDL.

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  • Anonymous

    A very nice take on the history of the PSP. I agree, that while it hasn’t set the handheld gaming world on fire the PSP has been successful in establishing another pillar to the Playstation brand. Games such as Patapon, LocoRoco, Jeanne D’Arc, and the often forgotten but amazingly good, Field Commander, certainly keep the platform interesting and unique.

  • Anonymous

    A good article, reminds me of lots of things i had forgotten about the early days like the uproar from the hacking community over ofw1.51.
    I also just realised that I am now on my fifth PSP (1000, 2×2000 and 2xgo) and I still use it most days (I love the digital comics on the go).
    I really hope PSP2 has two sticks and phone ability so I don’t have to carry around two devices.

  • Anonymous

    Nice write up Josh. Looking forward to Part 4.

  • Anonymous

    Eagerly awaiting part 4. Good work Josh.

  • Anonymous

     Hey Josh, you might want to look at the third paragraph above the picture of the PSP Go. It has a typo in the word Wipeout. You typed wipEout. Just letting you know.