When Sony presented its “Next Generation Portable” device (which I’ll refer to as ‘PSP2′ for the rest of the post) and other plans for portable gaming yesterday, they proudly started their presentation with a bold slide: (images courtesy of Engadget)
Now, when Sony does a bold claim like this, I get very excited. The interface they introduced in 2003 with the mediocre “PSX” product and later used as the main UI for their flagship consoles like the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Portable was known as the “XrossMediaBar“, and despite its awkward — ‘X-treme marketing’ — name, it was (and still is) an amazing piece of work. In fact, Sony managed to innovate in the stale and extremely unfriendly gaming console interface and create something that was devoid of useless flashy crap, extremely scalable, discoverable, elegant and intuitive.
That’s why it’s no surprise that Sony has decided to outright kill the XMB in its PSP2 console and replace it with an absolute train-wreck UI that shows they lost all sense of what a good interface looks like.
What prompted Sony to kill its primary user interface, which won awards and got major praise? Some people may say that the almost childish, late-nineties ‘bubble icon’ look they have going on in the new interface (marketing-named “LiveArea”) is key to be friendlier for the touch-based interactions the new device will have. However, the Xross Media Bar was easily adjustable for touch, and even while I’d admit there’s a great argument to design a new interface around touch (after all, XMB was specifically optimized for the PlayStation controller input), departing from all of XMB’s core values is hard to justify. We can say LiveArea wasn’t made the way it is purely for making touch input easier.
However, let’s take a look at the competition Sony is facing.
The 3DS, set to release early this year, with Nintendo’s typical interface aesthetic.
… and of course iOS, the touch-based elephant in the room. Apple’s begun marketing the iPod touch as a gaming device and now has several “triple A” titles in the App Store (their actual gameplay quality remains up for debate).
(iPhone photo by Anthony Sigalas)
Ah, now we see why Sony pressured several of its (no doubt talented) interaction and visual designers to disregard their feelings and years of experience to create a saltless and hideous “me-too” interface. Sony is afraid that its sterile and modern aesthetic actually scared off potential customers, particularly the more casual gamers. I have no doubt that there may be some truth in that (I suppose Android 3.0 for tablets will be a good test of that, with its extremely geek-techy look), but to say “LiveArea” is the solution…
Actual usage of LiveArea will show how much of a failure it actually is. But for now, I mourn the loss of the mindset at Sony that led to innovations in interface design which enabled millions of users to get more out of their feature-rich consoles. To decide your interfaces shouldn’t necessarily ape those of your competitors takes balls, and I’m afraid Sony’s put all of those in LiveArea — in the wrong way.