Sony Ericsson Xperia Play
Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

When you take into account the sheer size of the smartphone gaming industry, it's perhaps surprising that none of the traditional players in the video game sector have managed to make much of an impression in that particular hardware space. Instead, it has fallen to the likes of Apple and Google to profit handsomely from the explosion in 'casual' play and the success of third-party titles like Candy Crush and Clash of Clans, which pull in the kind of yearly revenue that would make even Nintendo blush.

In a hardware sector dominated by Apple and Samsung, there have been some notable attempts to create a true 'gaming phone' – Nokia's ill-fated N-Gage being the earliest – but it's Sony Ericsson's much-hyped Xperia Play which arguably got the closest to really nailing the concept, only to fail due to some somewhat basic errors.

The Birth Of The PlayStation Phone

The notion of Sony creating a thoroughbred gaming phone is certainly easy to fathom; back in the 2000s, just as mobile phones were becoming globally ubiquitous, Sony's standing in the games and consumer tech industry was so high that mid-decade rumours regarding a 'PlayStation Phone' were met with extreme levels of enthusiasm from fans. Sony's PlayStation 2 was on track to become the best-selling gaming system of all time (an accolade it still holds to this day), while the PlayStation Portable had proven that the Japanese giant was equally capable of miniaturising its gaming hardware and threatening Nintendo's long-standing stranglehold in the portable arena.

A patent filed in 2006 for a PlayStation smartphone kicked things off, and a year later, Sony Ericsson senior VP of product and application planning Rikko Sakaguchi revealed that the company was working on a gaming-focused device (in case you were wondering, Sony Ericsson was a joint venture between Sony Group Corporation and Ericsson which would become wholly Sony-owned in 2012). Head of Sony Computer Entertainment Europe David Reeves moved to deny such reports, only for Sony Ericsson executive Peter Ahnegard to practically confirm the device existed at the 2007 Games Convention.

Fast forward to 2009, and it seemed as if the PlayStation Phone had been canned due to Sony's reluctance to licence the PlayStation name to the Sony Ericsson joint venture, which apparently triggered a major disagreement between Sony and the Swedish telecommunications company Ericsson. This upset was clearly forgotten quite swiftly because in May of the same year, the head of Sony Ericsson, Hideki Komiyama, hinted that the project was once again an ongoing concern.

In 2010, it was widely reported that the fabled PlayStation Phone was indeed becoming a reality, with tech outlet Engadget releasing the first leaked details on the device, highlighting its PSP Go-like design and Android-based operating system. It says a lot about how sceptical the market was at the time that even when images and video of the device appeared online, many steadfastly refused to believe it was a legitimate product. All of that was swept aside when Sony Ericsson officially unveiled the Xperia Play in February 2011.

While the Xperia Play was very much part of Sony Ericsson's Xperia line – a brand name which is still in use today – the obvious hook back in 2011 was the PlayStation connection. The Xperia Play offered slide-out physical controls at a time when the smartphone industry had almost entirely embraced the concept of the touch-screen. The iconic triangle, circle, square and cross action buttons linked the device with Sony's PlayStation heritage, and this was reinforced by a small logo beneath the D-pad – although it should be noted there was no 'PlayStation' name anywhere on the phone.

Powered by a single-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S2 processor and half a gig of RAM, the Xperia Play's 4-inch, 854 by 480 pixel LCD screen might seem tiny by modern standards, but it was perfectly in line with devices back in 2011. It wasn't a cutting-edge smartphone when compared to its rivals, but the inclusion of physical gaming controls gave it a unique selling point over the competition.

Launching The Xperia Play

Right out of the gate, the Xperia Play's gaming credentials were promoted. Support for classic PlayStation 1 titles was included, with games like WipEout and Jumping Flash running via software emulation and benefitting massively from the phone's physical interface. The issue here was that, beyond the initial selection of titles, Sony Ericsson failed to support the phone with additional games; the Xperia Play could have become a portable PS1 had the company followed through on this.

Elsewhere, Android games were updated to include support for the Xperia Play's controls, with companies like Sega, Electronic Arts and Gameloft releasing a flood of games which played brilliantly on the device (and, in some cases, were exclusive to the Xperia Play for a limited time, as was the case with the Android version of Minecraft). EA even went as far as to enlist British indie rockers Kasabian to create a special commercial for its Xperia Play-ready smartphone version of FIFA 12. The problem was that Sony itself didn't support the phone with first-party releases; there was no unique God of War or Gran Turismo instalment for the Xperia Play, and, as we all know, platform exclusives play a huge role in convincing gamers to adopt a new format.

Official games were one thing, but for many people, the device's allure had more to do with leveraging the incredible number of Android-based retro gaming emulators. The Xperia Play's physical controls made it the perfect handset for playing SNES, Mega Drive, NES, PC Engine, PlayStation and even N64 titles on the move. Ironically, the fact that the Xperia Play was so well-suited to emulation could perhaps be why Sony was reluctant to invest any degree of time and effort into bringing over more classic PS1 titles, as it was insultingly easy to obtain the games online and simply run them via a PlayStation emulator, which were (and still are) freely available on the Android app store.

Indeed, if Sony had hopes of the Xperia Play providing an additional revenue stream when it came to PS1 titles, those were soon dashed. It was reported in May of 2011 that sales for the available games were dismal, numbering in the hundreds rather than the thousands.

"I think there's also an awareness thing for people that are getting their hands on the device and where they are choosing to purchase games," said Dominic Neil-Dwyer, Head of Market Development at Sony Ericsson, said at the time. "There's only a few, at the minute, PlayStation One titles there, and there's more coming on a regular basis, and there's the whole PlayStation as a content provider exclusive to the device, the story about that, that will emerge and people will see. So, there's no concerns, it's a revolutionary device, it's shaking up the market, we're very pleased with it."

The End Of The Road

Sadly, despite its amazing potential as a portable gaming device, the Xperia Play didn't sell in the kind of numbers that Sony Ericsson was anticipating. According to a staffer at the now-defunct British phone retailer Orange, smartphone buyers of the time were embarrassed to be seen with a handset that looked like a games console – somewhat ironic when you consider those same customers were probably playing casual games on their phones on a daily basis.

"The Xperia Play is too much of a gimmick product," said the Orange staffer, who was interviewed alongside store staff from rival retailers Carphone Warehouse, Phones 4u and T-Mobile. "A 20-30-year-old man is unlikely to walk around with the Play and use it as their main phone because they want to look professional. That’s why a BlackBerry or an iPhone is better suited to that market. We have sold a few, but it’s nothing much compared to the other handsets that we have in store. Targeting 12-16-year-olds would have been a smarter move because they would love it [Xperia Play], but the price point means that they just can’t afford it."

Combine this with the fact that the phone had stern competition from the likes of the 3DS and PS Vita (both of which launched in 2011) meant that it was stuck between a rock and a hard place; while it offered an advantage over its smartphone rivals thanks to its gaming controls, it didn't have the kind of software that made it a true competitor to dedicated portable gaming systems.

In May 2012, it was reported that the Xperia Play would not be getting the much-hyped Android 4.0 software update, which was a clear an indication as you could get that Sony Ericsson had effectively pulled the plug on the handset after just over a year on sale. Even a short-lived push for AAA cloud gaming via the now-defunct OnLive (which, ironically, would see its patents purchased by Sony in 2015) couldn't save the device.

Even so, it would appear that plans for an Xperia Play 2 were seemingly quite advanced, as a prototype was discovered in 2020 on a Chinese auction site. However, a full release obviously never happened, and Sony's share of the smartphone market has remained tiny over the past decade. Could another 'PlayStation Phone' change that? Based on the performance of the Xperia Play, perhaps not, but if Sony tried again in the future – and made sure that the PlayStation branding was front and centre this time around – who knows?