Crossing the road towards the venue I was looking for I stopped at stared at the building in the distance. It was looking rather sorry for itself, broken windows, graffiti and a tired concrete look. Outside, a woman in a grey boiler suit directed me to the press/guest list queue. This rather odd venue is the “Old Sorting Office” in the heart of London and the location of Thursday's (March 31st) launch of Sony Ericsson’s much anticipated “Playstation phone” officially named the Xperia Play. Inside was a party venue that was a complete contrast to the outside of the building, a location inspired by computer games and the sights of the far east. It might have been a sorting office once, but for that day only it was the "Xperia Play Rooms". This was going to be an interesting evening.
It looked like Sony Ericsson wanted to give the new phone a launch to remember. At one end of the room was the shell of a helicopter and an American car (and occasionally Dom Joly). In another corner some sort of rocket launcher (I'm assuming a fake one) and a strange area where we were treated to a performance from rapper Tinchy Stryder (I wasn't sure who he was at first but fortunately I recognised some of his songs, one of those moments when it doesn't pay to be at the wrong end of your thirties!). Great lighting and lots of dry ice added to the atmosphere.
Wandering around the hall were various people, again in grey boiler suits, carrying the Xperia Play, and its less famous non-gaming sibling, the Xperia Arc and offering people at the event the chance to try the new handsets for themselves. During the evening I managed to get a few goes on it and I have to say I really liked the idea of using a proper gaming controller with mobile phone games. The device has clever a slideout gaming controller with directional buttons and the shape buttons (circle, triangle etc) that will be familiar to anybody that has used a Playstation. It also has two touchpad analogue controllers in the middle.
The Xperia Play is one of only a few handsets to be designed specifically with gaming in mind (the Nokia N-Gage is one of the few examples I can think of) and yet mobile gaming consoles like the PlayStation Portable and the Nintendo DS are very popular. Games have been available on phones for many years yet playing them has often been a suboptimal experience. A good example is the ice hockey game I have on my HTC Desire. It relies on using an area of the touch screen as a controller, which means that your thumb is always obscuring part of the screen, you also get no physical feedback. This makes for a disappointing experience that a dedicated gaming phone can easily overcome with a physical controller, before it even gets to its other features.
While enjoying playing games I found out a bit more about the new handset. It is powered by Android 2.3 and looked to have a very smooth user interface. You can browse games through a special portal then you actually buy them through the Android Market. Sony Ericsson are working with some large games software houses to bring titles to market that are optimised for the device. Gaming on it is a lot cheaper than console gaming, purchasing a title is expected to set you back between £5 and £10 which didn't seem bad depending on how much game play you got.
I was told that you should be able to play games solidly on it for five hours on one charge of the battery or it will do nine hours of mixed gaming and other use. Of course periods of not using it – because you might be at work for instance will extend the battery life. One thing to note is despite the “Playstation” certification and stories about compatibility with the Playstation 1 you won't be able to just load up your old discs to the phone. The games are actually remastered to work on the device, and presumably this will mean reducing the size of them too. So if you have a favourite title be prepared to pay again. However the Playstation brand is very strong in gaming and could help the phone succeed.
So who will buy it? I asked about the target groups and was told that it is aimed at the 18-26 age group, particularly those already into gaming. This seems logical and I think this is a device that is very different from other smartphones, something aimed at a niche market who will really appreciate the gaming controller and tailored games. It will be interesting to see how the games sell on the platform, particularly as people are used to very cheap “apps”, but in comparison to the costs of console games they might seem very reasonable. It is certainly fun and I can see how it could improve things like long commutes to work. I'm hoping to have an Xperia Play on test soon so watch out for a review. Thanks to the organisers for a very enjoyable event and for inviting me. The Xperia Play went on sale on Friday 1st April although there have been stories of supply issues. If you get your hands on one it would be great to hear what you think in the comments.
Photo credits -the photo of the queue of people and the Xperia phone are from the Xperia play phone are from the Sony Ericsson Press Office/Brando and the other pictures are by me.