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PSP and the Games People Play

Janet Hetherington takes a look at Sonys new PlayStation Portable and the challenges of creating big games for the small screen.

A new addiction is born: Half a million units of the PSP were sold within the first two days of its release. © SCEA.

A new addiction is born: Half a million units of the PSP were sold within the first two days of its release. © SCEA.

How easy it to get hooked on PSP?

Sony Computer Entertainment America Inc. says that its PSP short for PlayStation Portable is already addictive.

The company reports that more than half a million units of the integrated portable entertainment system, which offers 3D games, music and movies as well as communication and wireless networking, were sold within the first two days of its North American release date of March 24, 2005. (Each PSP value pack carried the suggested retail price of $249.99.)

Its not surprising. Nielsen Entertainments Video Game Industry Benchmark Report, released early April, found that nearly 40% of U.S. households own at least one of the following game systems for gameplay PC, home console or handheld device. The study also found that 23% of gamers own all three types of gaming devices.

The launch of PSP was everything we hoped for, with extraordinary consumer demand driving sales of hardware units alone upwards of $150 million in first week sales, says Kaz Hirai, president/ceo, Sony Computer Entertainment America. Consumers are clearly voting it the product of the year in 2005.

The Hardware

So what makes the PSP so hot? In addition to portability, the unit promises a 4.3-inch wide screen, high-resolution TFT display, high-quality full-motion video and high-fidelity stereo audio. The PSP plays movies as well as games, displays digital photos and supports digital music playback in both MP3 and ATRAC formats.

To store all those games, photos, movies and music, the PSP has adopted a newly developed, compact, high-capacity (1.8GB) optical disc called Universal Media Disc (UMD) as its storage medium. The unit offers a range of accessories and connectivity options; including Memory Stick Duo, USB 2.0, IR port and 802.11b (Wi-Fi) wireless LAN. Wireless capabilities allow software and data to be downloaded to a PSP and saved onto a Memory Stick Duo.

Gameplayers are being wooed by the PSPs graphics rendering capabilities, which Sony favorably compares to the PlayStation 2. The PSP comes with built-in stereo speakers, exterior headphone connector and input/output connectors such as USB 2.0, and Wi-Fi wireless LAN, enabling users to connect to the Internet and play online via a wireless network. Up to 16 PSP systems in the vicinity can also be connected to each other directly, allowing for wireless head-to-head competition.

Twenty-four PSP titles were released immediately, including Gretzky NHL. © SCEA.

Twenty-four PSP titles were released immediately, including Gretzky NHL. © SCEA.

The Software

Sony has further enticed gamers by immediately offering 24 titles for the PSP, with an additional 23 titles in North American development and 100 titles in development internationally. Top computer games publishers, including Activision, Capcom, Eidos Interactive, Electronic Arts (EA), Koei, Konami, Namco, Sony Online Entertainment, Majesco and more, have jumped on the PSP bandwagon.

The games are a mix of genres sports, action adventure and fantasy titles. Players can tackle everything from Sony Computer Entertainments Ape Escape: On the Loose and Gretzky NHL, to Activisions Spider-Man 2 to Capcoms Darkstalkers Chronicle: The Chaos Tower.

Game Rush @ Blockbuster retail outlets have actively promoted the fact they will sell, rent and even trade such popular PSP titles as Sonys Wipeout Pure and Twisted Metal: Head On, EAs Need for Speed Underground Rivals, Namcos Ridge Racer and Konamis Metal Gear Acid. Meanwhile, videogame rental service GameFly (www.gamefly.com) is offering hot PSP titles for rent, play or purchase online.

Its the sexiest device Ive seen since the iPod, says Sean Spector, co-founder/vp of marketing/business development, GameFly. What the iPod did for music, PSP could do for videogames.

Its the sexiest device Ive seen since the iPod, says Sean Spector, co-founder/vp of marketing/business development, GameFly. What the iPod did for music, PSP could do for videogames.

The PSPs wireless way to play appears to be a draw for gamers and developers alike. Activisions Tony Hawks Underground 2 Remix, developed by Shaba Games, lets four users play some 10 mini-games using the PSPs wireless network capabilities. In addition, players can import their pictures onto the PSP via any memory stick to create their own personalized game characters in an instant.

Ridge Racer plays to PSPs strengths with vivid 3D graphics, high-speed action, wireless multiplayer connectivity for up to eight players and a classic collection of tracks and cars. © Namco Hometek Inc.

Ridge Racer plays to PSPs strengths with vivid 3D graphics, high-speed action, wireless multiplayer connectivity for up to eight players and a classic collection of tracks and cars. © Namco Hometek Inc.

Another racing game, Namcos Ridge Racer for PSP, features high-speed action and wireless multiplayer connectivity for up to eight players. With vivid 3D graphics, wireless multiplayer racing for up to eight players and a classic collection of tracks and cars, Ridge Racer is the perfect showcase for the power of the PSP, notes Yoshi Niki, business unit director with Namco Hometek Inc.

Birth of a Brotherhood

Sony Online Entertainment (SOE)s own Untold Legends: Brotherhood of the Blade became the hit launch title at GameStop and EB Games North American stores. Untold Legends has been a top-selling PSP handheld system title at EB Games stores since launch, and the game is simply flying off our store shelves, comments Debbie Mola, vp of merchandising, EB Games.

Untold Legends: Brotherhood of the Blade was built from the ground up specifically for the PSP, and is currently the only cooperative multiplayer action role-playing game (RPG) available for the new system.

We thought about what the PSP did well wireless multiplayer gameplay, short gameplay sessions, and the best graphics ever seen in a handheld device, advises Nick Beliaeff, exec producer, Sony Online Entertainment. We then thought about what Sony Online did well as a company and where we had expertise high fantasy, roleplaying games and creating intellectual property. It seemed a natural evolution to create an action RPG made exclusively from the ground up for the PSP at that point. It was a very organic process, went surprisingly smooth, and I think ended in a wonderful result.

We started back in February 2004 when one of our programmers, Brandon Bogle, was fooling around with the PSP emulator, Beliaeff remembers. He made a really cool playable demo showing off what the device could do and that spurred us on to build a product. In total, we spent just about a calendar year on the title.

Untold Legends: Brotherhood of the Blade was built from the ground up specifically for the PSP, and is currently the only cooperative multiplayer action role-playing game available for the new system © Sony Online Ent.

Untold Legends: Brotherhood of the Blade was built from the ground up specifically for the PSP, and is currently the only cooperative multiplayer action role-playing game available for the new system © Sony Online Ent.

Untold Legends: Brotherhood of the Blade allows players to create a unique hero, choosing from an ancient order of Knights, a foundation of Alchemists, an order of Druids, and a race of feral hunters known as the Berserkers. Each character class has unique fighting abilities or magical spells, which players can use to battle powerful creatures and save the city of Aven in more than 100 3D environments. The game offers some 150 types of monsters with 50 unique models and textures. Characters can be customized with gear and magical artifacts to aid in battles.

We developed the script internally between the Untold Legends design team and with the companys chief creative officer. It went through a lot of hashing around and ended up being very sizeable. The main quest story arc has 26 chapters. We also have 20 side quests on top of that. That is quite a lot of content to create and also a testament to how cool the PSP is and what it lets you create as a developer, Beliaeff says.

For such an epic story, development started very small. We started small on the project with just four people and worked our way up where we peaked at 18 people, Beliaeff says. After we were green lit in February, we had a core team of three programmers, including Jon Wiesman who was our lead programmer, and a designer. They built the foundation for the game, and by June we grew from four to about 10 people. Most of the additions at that point were the art staff, including Todd Luallen, our lead artist.

A significant addition was Rob Hill, the games producer. Rob had just finished an action RPG for Sony Online on the PlayStation 2, Champions of Norrath, where he had spent a lot of time spearheading the design and focusing on balance and polish of gameplay, Beliaeff says. We were really fortunate he landed in our laps as he made an instant impact on the title.

By September, the team finally started receiving hardware prototypes to work on and personnel ramped up to 18. Prior to that, we only had software emulators to play with and were unsure how we would perform on the actual hardware, Beliaeff says. Now we had six programmers, three designers including our lead, Bill Trost, a seven-person artist staff, our producer, and our audio guy. It was a real moment of truth for us when we got the game up and running on the hardware within two days absolute relief that we had planned properly for the machine.

Secrets of the Brotherhood

For the animation, SOE used a fairly standard development suite. Art was done mainly in Maya, Photoshop and Body Paint, Beliaeff says. Programming was Visual C and ProDG. There were also a lot of custom tools our programmers wrote for us to better manage the content pipeline a custom effects package, a map making and populating tool, a tremendously cool random dungeon generation kit, and much, much more.

Twisted Metal: Head On is already a popular PSP title. © SCEA.

Twisted Metal: Head On is already a popular PSP title. © SCEA.

Being a launch title on any platform means that development tools are scarce and the knowledge base is small, so you have to make some educated guesses and be really flexible, adds lead artist Todd Luallen. So our greatest challenge was making a great game in a flexible manner, given a short development cycle.

Texture size was a big hurdle as we were trying to get as much detail in our textures as possible so the game would look great on the beautiful PSP screen, but would still run at an acceptable frame rate, Luallen says. The texture cache on the PSP is 8k, which means the max size for a texture map is 128x64 8-bit (64 colors), or 128x128 4-bit (16 colors).

Its true that the overall screen is small and so you dont need a ton of detail, he continues, but it wasnt enough for us to create something at a larger size and let some software compress it; we needed to control the look. So we had to look at our textures in game, and then make tweaks so that we got the look we wanted. Seams would appear suddenly when we went from 256 colors to 64, or from 64 colors down to 16, so we had to create master palettes for those textures that were in complex and busy areas of the world. The end result was something we were very happy with, but it required some methods that we hadnt used since the days of sprite based animation.

As an animator it was very rewarding to think that the movement of the character may very well be the thing that really makes these creatures and characters unique, Luallen says. I went back and forth with the two guys that were creating the creature designs, Damian Schouweiler and Patrick Dailey, in a very collaborative effort to have creatures that had a distinct type of locomotion and/or attack animation. We have creatures that walk on two legs, on three legs, on four legs, on two feet and one hand, on two feet and two hands, creatures that fly gracefully, float, hover, go through walls, and fly erratically. And all these motions were thought about during the creature concept phase because we wanted the Untold Legends world to be filled with an incredible variety of creatures and we wanted that variety to be something that was easily visible to the player.

Game Rush @ Blockbuster retail outlets actively promote the sale, rental and trade of such popular PSP titles as Wipeout Pure. © Sony Online Ent.

Game Rush @ Blockbuster retail outlets actively promote the sale, rental and trade of such popular PSP titles as Wipeout Pure. © Sony Online Ent.

Exec producer Beliaeff says that lots of other games are in the works for SOE. We are very excited about what the PSP has to offer, how enthusiastically the market has embraced the device, and the reception that Untold Legends has had, he says. Untold Legends II is in the works and we are working on a few unannounced titles spanning several different genres from puzzle adventure to turn based strategy to action racing that will be released throughout the year.

Spider-Senses Tingling

The first one million PSP value packs that were shipped included a special UMD video release of the Sony feature film Spider-Man 2. However, Activision was also busy working with Vicarious Visions to produce the Spider-Man 2 game. Vicarious Visions has developed games based on the Spider-Man license and, to us, the PSP really represented the first handheld game system that offered a media rich experience combining movies, music and games, says Karthik Bala, ceo, Vicarious Visions. We thought that bringing Spider-Man to the PSP could really show off what the PSP could do.

Vicarious Visions began working on Spider-Man 2 in the fall of 2003. With a core team of about 20 people, plus additional production personnel to help develop new content, the companys goal was to bring a console class gaming experience to a handheld.

It was tough, Bala admits. The PSP is the most powerful handheld gaming device on the market, however its still not quite the same power as the big consoles. So there were a multitude of problems ranging from graphics, CPU power, memory, disc speed access, battery life and so on that needed to be solved in order to pull off a console class game on a handheld.

We developed a lot of in-house proprietary tools for the game, but most of the art content was done in 3ds max, Maya and Photoshop, Bala says. The script for the game was loosely based around the movie, but contained all new chapters that told a much larger story. That meant bringing in the principal cast from film as well as bringing on a great supporting cast to breathe life into the characters. Red Eye Studios developed all new CG movie sequences for the game and Womb Music wrote new music for the game.

We also really took advantage of the 3D graphics capability of the system, he continues, pushing the realtime animation capability of the system, as well as the music and movie playback features.

To tell you the truth, it was fun, Bala adds. Sure there were days when we wanted to pull our hair out, but it was worth it in the end. Vicarious Visions advises it has additional PSP projects in development.

Popular games making the leap to PSP include BloodRayne, which will feature a two-player, co-op wireless multiplayer with a playable second character. Courtesy of Majesco Ent.

Popular games making the leap to PSP include BloodRayne, which will feature a two-player, co-op wireless multiplayer with a playable second character. Courtesy of Majesco Ent.

Sexy Vampire Adapts to PSP

Other companies are taking popular games and adapting them for the burgeoning PSP market. For example, Majescos BloodRayne action/horror series is in development by U.K.-based indie videogame developer Full Fat, and will be unveiled at E3 in May and make its handheld debut this fall.

Half-human BloodRayne is blessed with the powers of a vampire but cursed with the unquenchable thirst for blood and a weakness to sunlight. While BloodRayne may have problems with daylight, she has no problems at all with the PSP.

Majesco says that BloodRayne for the PSP explores the characters personal purpose and history, explaining and resurrecting dead characters from previous games while developing new characters specifically for the PSP platform. BloodRayne for the PSP also features two-player, co-op wireless multiplayer with a playable second character.

BloodRayne has built a loyal following of fans and established herself as one of interactive entertainments most popular action heroines, says Ken Gold, vp of marketing for Majesco. Were thrilled to see our franchise expand into the handheld arena.

Music and Movies To Go

The PSP, however, is not just about games; music and movies are other key elements. The PSP is a great music player, enthuses Beliaeff. The secret is to use headphones. The speaker on the PSP is okay, but once you plug in headphones, it is absolutely mind-blowing how cool everything sounds.

As for movies, the first one million PSP value packs that were shipped included a special UMD video release of the Sony feature film Spider-Man 2. On April 19, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment released House of Flying Daggers, XXX , Hellboy, Resident Evil: Apocalypse and Once Upon a Time in Mexico. The company plans to make additional titles available each month thereafter.

A robust copyright protection system has been developed for UMD to protect the content, utilizing a combination of a unique disc ID, 128 bit AES encryption keys for the media, and individual ID for each PSP hardware unit.

Other film companies are joining with Sony to release films for the unique PSP format as well. Disneys National Treasure will be released simultaneously on PSP and standard DVD in May. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Reign of Fire, Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Hero are also being offered for PSP in the spring.

San Diegos Nine Systems, which provides delivery of rich media to a variety of playback devices, including PCs, portable movie players and other on-the-go devices, has announced support for the PSP. UGO Networks (an online media network for fantasy entertainment and gaming) and The Jesus Film Project (which distributes the film Jesus) are among the first of Nine Systems clients to take advantage of the firms PSP-platform solution.

The Future of PSP

Will there come a day when the graphics of the PSP match the sophistication of other big platforms? Who would ever have thought a handheld device would be compared to a home console system? asks SOEs Beliaeff. We found it interesting that our game was not compared with action RPGs on the GameBoy or other handheld devices. Instead we were compared with titles on the PS2 or Xbox, so I think there is a certain graphics expectation there from the minds of reviewers and consumers.

I think PSP games will be very competitive graphically and will mature over time as we get a better handle of the strengths and weaknesses of the machine, Beliaeff adds. But realize that at the end of the day it is a handheld device, displays any game at a much lower pixel resolution than a big platform, and has a lot of other built in stuff it has to support like 802.11.b that the big platforms do not. Still, it is a most impressive system.

Janet Hetherington is a writer and cartoonist based in Ottawa, Canada, where she shares a studio with artist Ronn Sutton. She is a frequent contributor to Animation World Network.

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