Gamers of all varieties have never had it so good. We sit on the cusp of a brand new console generation like no other before it. The PS5 and Xbox Series X are pushing the very concept of hardware-based gaming in new directions, with digital-only consoles, cloud gaming, and subscription services all playing a larger role than ever before.
Meanwhile, hugely popular franchises like Fortnite, Call of Duty, PUBG have all enjoyed significant success on mobile. In fact, there’s an interesting dynamic at play between the upward trends in mobile and console gaming.
Players no longer want to be tied-in to just their big-screen experiences and the future of gaming offers a solution — the ability to continue playing your favorite console title, right there on your smartphone. If there were ever a time for a brand to jump into the mix with a dedicated gaming phone that capitalizes on all of the above, this is it.
Yes, it’s time for a PlayStation phone.
The time is (still) right for a PlayStation phone
Hold on, haven’t we been here before? Yes, absolutely. Two years ago my colleague wrote up a pretty solid pitch for a Sony-made, PlayStation-branded smartphone and spiritual successor to the Xperia Play.
The mobile gaming industry has matured significantly since then, however. A PlayStation phone has always been a potentially viable avenue for Sony’s underperforming smartphone division, but there are several factors at play that make it the perfect time to pull the trigger.
There’s the obvious argument that smartphone gaming is massive — far bigger than the console gaming industry. But it’s not just throwaway casual games that are drawing in the big bucks anymore.
That aforementioned trio of Fortnite, Call of Duty Mobile, and PUBG Mobile command hundreds of millions of downloads and have spawned esports leagues of their own. Indie developers are also embracing smartphone gaming by the droves. Games like Stardew Valley, Dead Souls, Terraria, and Hotline Miami show that smartphones are a natural fit for console-class games when given the proper care and attention.
Mobile gaming has never been bigger or better.
The addition of scalable graphics and settings has shown that these don’t have to be cut-down editions either. Sure, PUBG Mobile will run on a bare-bones smartphone. But move to a high-end phone like the OnePlus 8 Pro, and you can enjoy the game in all its 90Hz glory with HDR and all the trimmings.
This spurt in gaming software has led to an increasing trend of bespoke gaming mobile hardware to match. However, while Asus, Red Magic, Black Shark, and previously Razer have pushed forward on bleeding-edge specs, dedicated modes to boost gaming performance, and innovative features like ultrasonic triggers, these aren’t essential to a smartphone gaming experience.
Nearly all flagship phones today — most recently evidenced with the Galaxy Note 20 series — have gaming tweaks built-in, leaving gaming phones as a niche category. But Sony is in a unique position to deliver a gaming phone with immediate, global brand-name recognition, top-tier hardware, and a fantastic library of games, all in a package that could lead to mainstream success.
The thought of Sony’s traditionally disparate divisions could ever come together to make something like a PlayStation phone happen has always felt like a pipe dream. That all changed recently, and we’ve now seen that the typically siloed Xperia team is open to collaboration.
Lessons learned from the Xperia 1 II
After years of pitful sales and hardware fumbles, Sony finally released a top contender in 2020. The Xperia 1 II was built with input from the team behind the Alpha camera series and it shows in the imaging performance, often the Achilles heel of Sony smartphones.
PlayStation, however, is a significantly bigger and more identifiable brand than Alpha. A PlayStation phone could help the company gain some much-needed eyeballs at a time when the lines between console and mobile gaming are blurrier than ever.
If the recent partnership with the company’s Alpha division is any indication, Sony can certainly build an excellent smartphone that can inculcate the best of Xperia and the best of PlayStation in a single device.
The PlayStation 5’s design is already head-turning in all the right ways. All those curves could very easily transition into the blueprint for a smartphone. An ergonomically curved device that fits great in the hand while sporting that stunning white and black finish with blue accents would be right up my alley.
Controls are another area that Sony would need to focus on. Perfecting ultrasonic triggers would be one option, but if that’s too much of a stretch I’m sure many would take an honest to goodness DualShock-branded controller that would work seamlessly with the phone.
Third-party smartphone controllers are rarely built to great standards, but Microsoft has already teamed up with several brands to make sure its own mobile gaming aspirations aren’t tanked by awful gamepads. Yet while the Xbox-branded Razer Kishi looks the part, it’s still a reskinned controller rather than a true Xbox gamepad. Sony could easily take the lead with in-house peripherals.
Heck, go all out if you want. How about a smartphone that can transform — Nintendo Switch-style — into a portable cloud streaming-based Playstation 5 complete with attachable controllers kitted out with those fancy DualSense haptics and adaptive triggers? Sign me up for that!
Content is key, and Sony has some of the best
Hardware is only part of the equation though. Sony has an enviable library of first-party content that could transition to smartphone gaming. The company tried its hand once before with PlayStation Mobile, but the framework and scope were far too limited, resulting in lackluster titles that didn’t stand out.
The perfect modern PlayStation phone wouldn’t just be yet another Android gaming machine with some mediocre exclusives, however. Sony needs to make this the home of PS5 experiences on-the-go.
Between Google Stadia and Microsoft’s upcoming xCloud service, cloud gaming is indeed a reality and Sony needs to show it can compete. Sony’s own cloud service, PS Now, enjoyed an overhaul last year, but in its current state — locked to consoles and PC and boasting a fairly mundane library of games — it leaves the door open for Microsoft’s Game Pass/xCloud combo to dominate the space.
While Stadia and GeForce Now have extended to multiple platforms, so far Microsoft’s cloud ambitions have settled on mobile as the primary target. It’s a simple pitch: Xbox gaming on your phone. What it doesn’t have is a device to boost the service’s profile. Microsoft has technically re-entered the mobile space with the Surface Duo, but gaming isn’t a big focus for the dual-screen device. Instead, Microsoft is busy pairing up with Samsung for marketing deals and Razer, 8BitDo, and other accessory partners.
Like xCloud, I’d want to see Sony’s cloud streaming push available on all Android phones (and iOS too, but that seems unlikely right now). But that doesn’t mean Sony couldn’t bring together the best talent from its PlayStation and mobile divisions to create a marquee phone/handheld-hybrid to elevate its own game streaming service.
Just imagine: official, Sony-made mobile gaming hardware capable of running PS5 games via the cloud and the very best Android games, featuring some of those fancy DualSense haptics. Sony could even bundle it with PS5 consoles and ride the hype wave to bolster sales. Who needs a new Sony handheld console when you’ve got a PlayStation phone?
Speaking of handhelds, Sony could very easily bring over its stellar library of PSP and — dare I say — even PS Vita games to the platform. At least the former can be very easily emulated on Android phones. Even mid-rangers have no trouble at all running the games at high frame rates. The PS Vita would take a bit more work, but the platform had some stellar titles like Persona 4 Golden and Gravity Rush. If it’s not possible on native hardware, then PS Now is right there too.
Sadly, we still don’t know much about the future of PS Now and Sony’s broader cloud gaming ambitions, but a much-needed reboot would tie in perfectly with a PlayStation phone and lend some much-needed legitimacy to the platform as the cloud gaming wars truly begin.
A PlayStation phone could become the flagship bearer of PS Now and remote streaming while packing an enviable PlayStation classics library.
Of course, there’s also Remote Play. I still find myself reaching out to my PS Vita to stream my PS4 games while away from the big screen. I’m one of those who bought a 3G capable Vita on the promise of portable PS4 gaming. While that promise didn’t pan out, hardware has certainly improved by leaps and bounds since then. Sony’s given up on its portable strategy, but a 5G capable phone could fill the void for those more interested in remote streaming over cloud services.
The Xperia Play was ahead of its time and the PS Vita had its heart in the right place, but ultimately both couldn’t grab a wider audience. With the PS5 and the true dawn of cloud gaming on the horizon, now would be the perfect time for a PlayStation phone that succeeds where Sony’s previous attempts at both mobile gaming and handhelds have failed.
What do you think? What killer features would make a PlayStation phone worth your while?