They're little things. They're less than 100MB, they're available for download at attractive price points, and they bring all sorts of compelling gaming fun to a small black screen. For most people that describes the wonderful world of iPhone apps, little programs that have launched Apple's iPhone and iPod Touch from clever concepts to the new must-have gadget of the early 21st century.
Of the thousands of iPhone applications that have been launched since the system first started letting hobbyist programmers with a keyboard and a dream offer their wares to the world; it's the games that have become the killer app for the platform. Indeed, games have become so much a part of the system' strategy for Apple that its marketing (particularly for the Touch) now clearly emphasizes the system's gaming selection.
In a recent New York Times interview, Steve Jobs himself confirmed that the Touch was being repositioned as a gaming machine to compete with Nintendo's DSi and Sony's new digital distribution-only PSP Go. This is not a challenge that Sony can afford to ignore if it hopes to be competitive in the handheld space.
Their answer is the PSP Minis line of video games -- smaller PSP-compatible game titles that are digital only, have less stringent approval processes, and live in a separately branded part of the PlayStation Store for PSP.
The games are available to anyone who connects to PlayStation Store on the PS3 or those with earlier PSPs who have downloaded the OS update that allows for direct PlayStation Store browsing, meaning that a larger audience that just PGP Go is targeted. Launch titles for PSP Minis include games like Subatomic Studios' Fieldrunners, Digital Eel's BrainPipe and EA's Tetris and Sudoku, all retailing for between $5 and $10.
Looking particularly at the redesigned PSP Go, which was released globally last week, and the competitive environment it's launching into, PSP Minis appear to be an interesting angle. With the system completely dependent on downloadable titles from the online Sony Store and facing a competitor blessed by legions of hobbyist programmers, it only makes sense that Sony would be looking for a way to get as many apps into the hands of its users as quickly as possible.
As such, the company took a new approach when designing the development pipeline for the Minis. "Earlier this year we announced a reduction in the price of our SDK," said Eric Lempel, Sony's director of Playstation Network Operations and Strategic Planning. "With that and a redesigned development program, we wanted to lower the barrier to entry for smaller developers."
In some respects, the company has certainly lived up to its promise. The evaluation and approval process is extremely streamlined. Just about anyone can apply for an initial concept approval via the web and be reasonably sure of getting it.
In fact, the company has offered access to technical support even before the purchase of a dev kit in order to encourage fully specced out proposals. "We're really looking to offer some creative freedom here," Lempel said. "There's an experimental quality to Minis that we want to encourage. I think we'll be seeing some really exciting new things come out of it."
Once approved, development itself is as quick as the developers themselves can manage. The minis will not need stage one or stage two approval rounds, as typical in full PSP development; instead, they merely require what Lempel calls a "light QA phase" designed to screen for content and check for bugs.
Of course a shortened development process necessarily brings up the question of how Sony's planning on keeping the quality of the Minis above a certain standard (something Apple doesn't do, but which Sony has traditionally done with its consoles.)
Said Lempel, "Part of it is the selection process. We're looking to lower the barriers to entry, not remove them. We don't want 25,000 Minis on the system if 24,000 are just poor-quality clones of the same four games. Even at the reduced price, purchasing an SDK and needing to pay for an ESRB rating speaks to dedication and a developer's commitment to a certain level of quality."
Even so, Lempel is aware that not all Minis will be gems. "You're going to get some Minis that will be fantastic and some that will be less so. That's just the nature of the business. Any gaming channel you'd care to name has its great products and some that are not so great."