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[Stephen Totilo] Exclusive: The making of the PlayStation Portal


Sony’s unusual and perpetually sold out new handheld gaming device, the PlayStation Portal, is hotter than the company thought it would be.

“Although we don’t have any numbers to share, the demand has continued to exceed our expectations,” PlayStation’s VP of product management Hiromi Wakai recently told me.

The Portal is a $200 portable that looks like someone snapped a PS5 controller in half and attached the parts to opposite sides of an eight-inch screen.
It’s not a dedicated handheld, not a new PSP nor a new Vita that plays games made just for it. Instead, it’s a streaming device that pulls in games over a WiFi connection from a user’s PlayStation 5. It’s best thought of as a PS5 peripheral, a luxury purchase for a console owner, akin to buying a high-end controller to enhance the experience.

Sony announced the Portal last May, to the befuddlement of many in the gaming community, then launched it in November, leading to constant sell-outs of supply.

But Sony has barely talked about the machine.

My conversation with Wakai, conducted over email earlier this month, amounts to the first extensive interview Sony has given about what used to be known as Project Q. Wakai has worked in the PlayStation group since 2005.

A new spin on an old idea — not a Vita 2

The Portal has its roots in Sony’s introduction of Remote Play for the PlayStation 3 back in 2006. Since then, Sony has let players stream games from PS3, PS4 and PS5 consoles to an expanding array of devices, including Sony’s original dedicated handheld gaming system, the PlayStation Portable, as well as PCs, phones and tablets

Sony doesn’t share Remote Play user numbers, but Wakai says usage has been steady and has increased proportionately with console sales. iPhones and iPads are the devices most frequently connected via Remote Play, she says . It’s clearly a concept Sony is into.
“The original idea of [the] PlayStation Portal remote player came from our goal to provide high quality console gaming experiences in the players’ hands,” Wakai told me.

“We presumed that we would be able to achieve this goal at an affordable price by utilizing a technical solution often referred to as ‘Thin Client’ (A system that performs a majority of the processes on the servers instead of the local hardware), while maintaining the full features of a DualSense wireless controller and a screen that is capable of displaying content with crisp image and text.”

She credits the idea of playing PlayStation’s best games without a TV to Hideaki Nishino, the head of Sony’s PlayStation Experience Group.
One key guiding principle for the Portal project that helps explain its uncomplicated feature set that simply apes the PS5’s controls and display proportions: “We also did not want to ask for any additional work from game creators to achieve this goal.” PS5 games needed to work on the Portal with no strings attached.

The Portal was never meant to be a dedicated handheld, Wakai said. “The initial discussions of this product started out from the question of how to expand the PS5 console game experience, not launch a separate handheld device.”

In 2021, Sony began planning for the Portal and in 2022 began proper product development. The original product concept was put together by Edwin Foo, VP of product development, an Apple veteran who joined Sony in 2021 and has also overseen the development of headsets and earbuds for PlayStation.
The Portal’s team included Sony staff who had previously worked on the PS5, the Vita handheld and the PlayStation App, Wakai said. She joined the Portal project after Foo created his concept. Wakai “then led the project towards launch, from breaking down the concept into the actual product, deciding product specifications, and finally delivering it to the market.”

During development, Sony considered using a smaller screen but settled on the Portal’s final eight-inch spec to set it apart from phones and tablets. Wakai said.

The team chose the “Portal” name to evoke “the sensation of peering through a window called the remote player” into the world of the PS5. As the system connects to a PS5, it shows a circular section of the connected PS5’s screen—a portal, perhaps—before filling out the full display.

Confusion, then success

Sony’s May 2023 reveal of the Portal bewildered some onlookers who were unsure what to make of Sony’s semi-return to portable gaming.

PlayStation had produced two generations of dedicated handheld systems with their own line-ups of games, but no third gen had emerged after the discontinuation of the Vita in 2019.
Wakai’s team knew the Portal would seem niche. “From the beginning, PlayStation Portal was intended to be a product best suited for people with specific needs and those who want to play in a specific way, so the reactions after the announcement were very much within our expectations,” she said.

She credits early fans of the new device for talking up possible use cases to more skeptical onlookers. Internally, Sony had brainstormed numerous scenarios for which the Portal might be useful: a person wants to play their PS5 games while chatting with someone in the same room who is using the TV, a person wants to play their PS5 games in their bedroom even though their console is elsewhere in their house, etc.
At launch, Wakai’s team heard a lot of positive feedback from initial Portal adopters, especially those with strong internet at home, Wakai said. Others have reported lag due to unstable home internet, and some of those have said they’ve upgraded their internet as a result, she noted.

(The Portal can also be used outside of a user’s home but is susceptible to laggy WiFi connections. My own experience with the unit is that it works superbly in my house and has enabled me to play PS5 games late at night, even when I want to stay within earshot of my sleeping kids. Its performance has been understandably choppier and blotchier when logging in outside of my home on other WiFi networks. Wakai and Sony advise a minimum connection speed of 5 Mbps).

Popular games to play on the Portal have included EA Sports FC, Call of Duty, Fortnite and Marvel’s Spider-Man 2, Wakai said. In other words: the biggest games on PlayStation.

What’s next

For now, Sony promotes the Portal strictly as a PS5 extender.

The Portal does not play games natively, though some Google engineers said last week that they hacked it to play emulated PSP games natively (this was after my interview with Wakai).
It also doesn’t directly stream games from Sony’s cloud servers, even though Sony lets PS5 users stream scores of games, from PS3 to PS5 over the cloud to the console. Could that change? “We don’t have anything to share regarding future plans at this point,” Wakai said.

U.S. game tracking firm Circana announced last week that it was reclassifying the Portal as a peripheral rather than gaming hardware, noting it ranked fifth among accessories for consumer spending in January. “PlayStation Portal selling out, but not a ton being made,” Circana’s Mat Piscatella noted.
Sony’s current PlayStation Portal priority is supply. “The production is running smoothly and we’ve been shipping more units consistently,” Wakai said.

“We will continue to bring more units to the market, so please stay tuned.”
 
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Tsaki

Member
That's encouraging for the Portal 2 to get a good R&D budget.

L9I0jyV.gif
 

Dorfdad

Gold Member
It better support psn cloud streaming in a patch this year. Such a wasted oppertunity when it can easily support it.
 

Shake Your Rump

Gold Member
“Although we don’t have any numbers to share, the demand has continued to exceed our expectations,” PlayStation’s VP of product management Hiromi Wakai recently told me.

"Trust me bro"

They obviously have numbers. They say they had expectations, so what were they? They say the demand exceeds it, so what is it?
 

FrankWza

Member
"Trust me bro"

They obviously have numbers. They say they had expectations, so what were they? They say the demand exceeds it, so what is it?
The number is higher than DoA but between parents returning them because they didn't know they needed a PS5 for Timmy and millions sold.
 

Rac3r

Member
"Trust me bro"

They obviously have numbers. They say they had expectations, so what were they? They say the demand exceeds it, so what is it?

The thing is always sold out in America. After a quick search, looks like its sold out in stores in the UK as well. They very likely manufactured based on projections and underestimated its popularity. Based on that, it's not hard to believe that they "exceeded expectations" even if the total volume of sales isn't that high.
 
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