Sony (NYSE:SNE) recently announced that it will stop supporting PlayStation Mobile, a cross-platform gaming service it launched nearly three years ago. PS Mobile featured games that could be played on both Sony-certified Android devices and the PS Vita. Sony's core idea was that a single game could be played across multiple devices.
At the time, PS Mobile seemed like an elegant response to predictions that smartphone games would render handhelds like the PS Vita and Nintendo (OTC:NTDOY) 3DS obsolete. To complement the service, Sony launched the Xperia Play -- nicknamed the "PlayStation phone" -- which featured a slide-out PlayStation controller to play PS Mobile and controller-compatible Android games.
That ambitious strategy seemed solid, so why did it sputter out so quickly? Let's take look back at why PS Mobile failed, and whether or not its successor, PS Now, can finally realize Sony's dream of playing a single game across multiple devices.
Why PS Mobile failed
Enthusiasm for PS Mobile waned when gamers realized that the service didn't offer classic PlayStation games like Final Fantasy, Metal Gear Solid, or Resident Evil on smartphones.
PS Mobile mostly featured lesser-known titles from indie developers. Sony didn't make things easier by charging studios $99 per year for a full-year development license. Last May, Sony completely dropped the license fee, but by that time, no one was interested in the platform. Meanwhile, popular PlayStation franchises like Final Fantasy were ported straight to iOS and Android, rendering PS Mobile irrelevant.
PS Mobile was not the first time that a company tried to straddle the handheld and mobile gaming markets with a single device. Nokia tried it over a decade ago with the N-Gage, but the buttons were clumsy, the screen was small, and the games looked terrible compared to Nintendo's Game Boy Advance. Nokia secured well-known franchises like Call of Duty, FIFA Football, Elder Scrolls, and Tomb Raider, but the games paled in comparison to their full-size counterparts.
More recently, Nvidia (NASDAQ:NVDA) launched the SHIELD handheld console and tablet. Both were high-end devices designed to play more demanding 3-D games -- like Half-Life 2 and Portal -- on Android. Like Sony, Nvidia envisions a future where gamers buy a game once and play it across multiple devices.
What lessons did Sony learn?
Sony had the right idea with PS Mobile, but the idea was ahead of its time. The problem was the hardware -- the complexity of PS Mobile titles was hampered by hardware restrictions. A PS Mobile title couldn't take full advantage of the graphical muscle of the PS Vita, because it had to be compatible with the weakest handset on Sony's list of certified devices. In addition, the game could suffer from hardware compatibility issues because the list included various handsets from six different manufacturers.
However, Sony hasn't given up on the idea of playing the same game on different screens. With Remote Play, it allows gamers to play local PS3 and PS4 games on the PS Vita, PSP, or PlayStation TV.
With its new cloud gaming service, PS Now, Sony will stream PS1, PS2, and PS3 games to the PS3, PS4, PS Vita, PlayStation TV, and select BRAVIA TVs. But the key difference is that PS Now's cloud-based games are basically interactive HD videos being streamed back onto the device. This means that as long as gamers have adequate bandwidth -- at least 5 Mbps -- they can play a PS3 game on a PS Vita.
There are still plenty of hurdles for PS Now to overcome, such as pricing and bandwidth, but it's clear that Sony scrapped PS Mobile to clear the way for PS Now. If Sony sets an attractive subscription-based pricing model for PS Now after the beta period ends, we might even see full PlayStation games streamed to mobile devices.
The Foolish takeaway
Sony certainly has a much grander long-term vision for video games than Microsoft or Nintendo.
Microsoft offers Xbox-branded games for Windows Phones, but like PS Mobile titles, they aren't full-featured Xbox games. Microsoft's SmartGlass offers neat second-screen tricks for films and games, but it simply enhances, not expands, the Xbox One ecosystem. Meanwhile, Nintendo refuses to expand into smartphones or tablet games, out of fear of diluting its flagship franchises.
PS Mobile didn't work, but its failure helped Sony refine its "play anywhere" strategy for PS Now. If the PS4, Xbox One, and Wii U truly represent the final generation of dedicated gaming consoles, as many analysts have predicted, Sony's fledgling ventures into cross-platform cloud gaming could help it dominate the next generation of "console" games.