In my review of the Xperia Play last week, I mentioned that Mark from our sibling gaming site Kotaku was not at all keen on the device. Given that the Xperia Play represents a relatively rare moment when the subject matter for Kotaku and Lifehacker collide, we figured it was worth going head-to-head to discuss the merits of what happens when an Android phone meets a Sony controller. Here's what went down.
Picture by Carsten Knobloch
MARK: So Mr Angus Kidman, obviously the remit of our websites is different – I’m interested in the Xperia Play for games and you’re interested in the Xperia play for... well, I’m not sure what you do over there at Lifehacker, I guess make your digital world more streamlined or whatever – but regardless, I had my issues with the device. I’m keen to hear what you think of the Xperia Play?
ANGUS: As I’ve already blathered on about at some length, I was quite impressed with it – more than I expected to be. Lifehacker is, as you correctly if somewhat rudely surmised, not particularly concerned with games. However, it’s a key part of the Lifehacker ethos that having multi-functional gear is generally better than having something that only does one thing well. And I think that’s the core of why I like the Xperia Play – because it means that when you do want to play games on your mobile device (and nearly everyone does), you have a much wider range of choices than with a standard touch-screen device. You can easily play games like platformers and racing titles which, in my experience, suck twenty types of eggs on touch-screen devices.
I spend a good proportion of my working life playing with Android phones, and in terms of its actual phone functionality, the Xperia Play is unremarkable – it does everything well, but not in a way that’s radically different to any other device. So it’s the controller – and the possibilities that it represents – that get me excited.
Now turning the question on its head: as someone who presumably has the Sony button layout permanently wired into your brain, why didn’t you like it?
MARK: Indeed the Sony button layout is hardwired into my brain – as is the ability to instantly recognise when something doesn’t quite feel right. My initial qualms with the Xperia were purely instinctual – the shoulder button positioning felt clumsy, the face buttons were too small, the D-pad felt clicky. I understand that plenty of my problems with the button layout of the Xperia play could be easily attributed to form over function – the Xperia Play is, after all, a phone first and foremost; but it feels like a missed opportunity.
The D-pad in most respects is an archaic device. Nowadays it’s used primarily for fighting games by players who don’t want to fork out for an analogue stick. Now, as gamers, we’re being asked to use this D-pad to play a series of old games, or clumsily position our finger two centimetres to the right on two track pads which, quite frankly don’t work well at all.
In many ways the medium is the message – the way we control games affects the games we play – so, in short, Xperia users can expect to get used to paying over the odds for PlayStation 1 remakes and borked ports, while the rest of the smartphone market enjoys a streamlined gaming experience tailor made for multi-touch devices.
ANGUS: Having witnessed some of your lunch choices, I might choose to question your instincts. But there’s a bigger issue here: it’s not like you can’t play all those multi-touch games on the Xperia Play as well. It doesn’t eliminate those choices, or force you to only play games which have been coded to use the controllers – it just gives you more options. (And give me a clicky D-pad over a failed attempt to implement a D-pad on a touch screen any day.)
I noticed that when the sample devices came into our offices, both you and Nick from Giz did the same thing: played FIFA 10 for a few minutes and then cast the device away in disgust, saying ‘FIFA 11 on the iPhone is so much better!’ That seems to me like an epoch-defining case of totally missing the point. One game you prefer on a different platform does not prove that the whole concept of trying to expand on the range of ways you can interact with games on a phone is a bad idea – it just demonstrates that not all programmers code games equally well. I strongly suspect that this is not news.
Android has a very strong culture of both free and ad-supported gaming, and that’s already pretty evident in the games which are Xperia-enabled at this point. Yes, there’s ports of older games, and I for one am very happy to relive the experience of Crash Bandicoot on my phone. But there’s also a lot of other titles kicking around as well. My eight-year-old nephew kept himself happily occupied for many hours downloading titles to try over the weekend, and he didn’t have to spend any of my ill-gotten cash to do so. Even better, I didn’t have to give any of that dosh to Apple. This makes me happy. Is there anything you can imagine happening to the Xperia Play design or software that might make you happy?
MARK: To be perfectly honest, I think some of my issues with the Xperia Play aren’t completely rational - you might be right on that point. Part of my problem has to do with Sony’s entire direction when it comes to convergence.
Simply put – I’m not really sure what they’re trying to achieve with the Xperia Play.
Take the NGP. It’s a next generation device. It has an incredible OLED screen. It will have 3G. It features incredible processing power. It is relatively small. Here is a device that does absolutely everything – music, video, web browsing, games – everything except make a bloody phone call.
My point being – why not let the NGP make phone calls? Why do I have to deal with this inferior piece of technology when Sony are already in the process of creating the ultimate convergence device? Just let me have my NGP – I will make that my go-to device, it will replace my iPhone. It will be incredible.
Give me my PlayStation phone. I don’t want this Xperia thing!
ANGUS: You’ll get no argument from me that Sony’s strategies often defy any kind of rational analysis. Let us never forget that its previous genius ideas have included adding rootkit software to music CDs, not letting us play older PlayStation games on a PS3, and KISS Pinball.
But to return to the issue at hand: we don’t even a semblance of a local price or release date for the NGP yet, so I just haven’t given it much active consideration. I worry though that adding phone calls to the NGP might result in a phone that’s about as pleasant to use as the N-Gage.
To my mind, a smart phone has to do a lot more than make calls and offer browsing. The beauty of Android is how it integrates all your Google accounts and features, as well as opening up this huge seam of applications. The NGP isn’t going to do any of that out of the box, though with luck there’ll be some serious hacking going on. In the meantime, I’m happy that Mark is even willing to contemplate giving up his iPhone at some point in the future. There may yet be hope for humanity.