In recent days, a few blogs have picked up on the fact that the battery on Sony's upcoming PSP Go will be sealed into the unit and not be user-replaceable, just as it is on all of Apple's latest portable devices and plenty of other new gadgets. The integrated battery isn't new news. But what caught people's attention was an old quote from John Koller, Sony's director of hardware marketing, which PlayStation Insider recently ripped off from a June Ars Technica article that had Koller explaining that the move to a built-in battery was a least partially designed to thwart pirates.
In case you don't know the history behind PSP piracy, it goes something like this: For the original PSP-1000 and second-generation PSP-2000, Sony had a secret "backdoor" system for resuscitating frozen or "bricked" PSPs. The process involved replacing the common PSP battery with a special one that unlocked the system.
Alas, the secret didn't last long, and hackers developed their own custom battery (the appropriately named Pandora's Battery) and firmware that allowed anyone to run illicit "ripped" versions of UMD games along with home-brew applications and PSOne titles that had been converted to run on the PSP. Those in the home-brew community maintain that they're just interested in fully accessing the products they've purchased and that pirating games isn't what their creative efforts are about. But the offshoot of the whole movement has been a flourishing trade in pirated games.
Nintendo faces similar problems with hacked DS systems, but a quick check of The Pirate Bay Top 100 handheld games reveals that the majority of the illegal downloads on the list are for the PSP. As I write this, more than 2,000 people are illegally downloading Dissidia: Final Fantasy, the top game on the list.
It's also worth noting that a counter on another site says that 81,000 people have already downloaded a recent custom firmware upgrade that will potentially allow modders to play that pirated version of Dissidia. A couple of competing custom firmware upgrades are out there, both of which appear to have been created by European hackers, including the infamous Dark Alex, a Spanish programmer who hasn't been heard from for a while. Some speculate that Sony has somehow neutralized Dark Alex either through legal threats or compensation, but Sony reps tell me that while they're aware of him, they [Sony], "Really have no relationship with him."
Although Sony hasn't said that much publicly about the piracy issue, it's acutely aware that tens of thousands of people--and quite possibly hundreds of thousands--never pay for games. Over the years, it's been trying to stay ahead of hackers with a steady stream of new firmware upgrades and additional security features incorporated into the PSP-3000 and the game discs.
In a response to some questions I submitted to Sony for this article, Koller says that, "Piracy is an industry-wide issue that ultimately is bad for consumers. We're continuing to take proactive steps to address the issue of piracy and to minimize its impact on the PSP, from both a legal and technical perspective. For example, firmware updates enable us to apply security patches and enhance or add new features."
Many, if not most, new PSP releases going forward will require you to install Sony's latest firmware to run the title (the firmware comes on the game's UMD disc). At this juncture, hackers appear to be a step behind Sony, though message-board posters on sites like psp-hacks.com remain confident Sony's security measures will be breached and that the real game begins when Sony releases its 6.0 firmware (Sony hasn't announced a launch date yet).
If there's an irony in all this it's that that the UMD format was supposed to prevent piracy and now Sony is seeing the move toward digital downloads as an opportunity to keep pirates at bay. Although a bit late (many argue that the PSP should have skipped physical media from the get-go), it's the right thing to do. That said, Sony does face some serious challenges in making the transition to a UMD-less platform.
- The $250 price tag on the PSP Go is too high (this is fairly self-explanatory, but it's unclear why Sony would bring out a more expensive device unless it was actually being cautious and didn't want to sell as many PSP Gos as it could if it were priced at $179, like the current PSP-3000 is).
- It's unclear just how much people are willing to pay for downloadable games. For a UMD PSP title, you're looking at $30-$40, but the top end for a downloadable game is $29.99 max for a AAA title and $19.99 for AA stuff.
- Currently, there's no way to trade in digitally downloaded games. As it is, popular PSP titles don't fetch all that much money at Gamestop or Amazon. But they fetch something, and trade-ins are how a lot of people help finance the purchase of new games.
Koller says that based on Sony's consumer research, there's strong demand among PSP owners for digital content. "That's why we're launching the PSPgo, which specifically invites consumers who prefer digital content to download games legally," he says. "We're offering a full spectrum of games for PSP owners to download, from bite-sized games in the new 'Minis' section on PlayStation Store to full, large-scale experiences like Gran Turismo."
As far as the pirates go, if history is any indicator, Sony probably won't be able to stop hackers from cracking the Go. (Koller was smart enough not to declare it unhackable; he merely said, "The PSP Go is going to make things tougher on the pirates.")
Ultimately, the company's best defense against piracy may be to offer good, affordable sub-$20 games and applications or perhaps even move to a monthly rental/subscription model that allows you to check out titles for 30 days, with an option to buy at the end. To get to where it wants to go, Sony not only needs to stay one step ahead of the hackers, but it needs to stay one step ahead of the competition. Occasionally, that requires thinking differently.