Between 2004 and 2009 I worked on quite a few PSP games:
- Prince of Persia: Revelations
- Prince of Persia: Rival Swords
- Blitz: The League
- Godzilla: Unleashed
- Army of 2: 40th Day
Working for Sony on the PSP wasn't fundamentally different for working for Nintendo or Microsoft - every hardware provider had a list of dos and don'ts which you had to adhere to pretty exactly. It's strange to remember now, in the days of open-platform development, but the '90s and '00s were a time of strict manufacturer creative control.
Sony was riding high at the time, so while their creative restrictions might have been a bit more strict, nobody thought they were unreasonable. However, in retrospect, the creative restrictions imposed by Sony for PSP developers were a pretty bad idea.
Not a Portable PS2
When the PSP was announced, everyone thought it would be a portable PS2. Imagine playing PS2 games on the go! Developers were given some specs which, to put it bluntly, turned out to be outright lies. The initial PSP hardware was a portable PS1 - not a portable PS2. But many of the early projects for the system were ports (or simultaneous-releases) of the most popular PS2 games. To make this work, developers had to slash content mercilessly, remove particle effects, downgrade textures, and reduce character counts.
Sony didn't like this trend at all - they feared that the PSP would be an "also-ran" device, with inferior versions of the games they were already selling for the PS2. So Sony introduced one of the most infamous mandates ever: Any port which appeared on the PSP had to have 30% more content than the original game.
30% More What?
I can almost imagine some board room executives making this mandate in good faith - but in practice it was an absolute quality-killer. Teams already struggling to finish their projects were now given the unenviable task of creating 30% more content in the same period of time. How could they do that? By cutting the quality of the game overall. 130% of the content at 50% of the quality leaves any game in a sorry state.
The other big problem this mandate created was the fact that instead of allowing teams to determine what the PSP was actually good at (Patapon, Loco Roco) Sony was issuing clear directives for how to put out low-quality ports. The fact that these directives were designed to prevent the proliferation of low-quality ports didn't matter - that was just an ironic side-note.
Imagine you need to buy a present for your boss. Your boss doesn't want any pets, so she delivers the following memo to all executives: "If anyone gets me a pet, it must not be a dog, bird, or fish. Any cats must be declawed, female, and at least 1 year old. All pets must be housebroken." Your boss might be trying to dissuade people from buying pets - but that memo also reads like a set of instructions for exactly what type of pet to buy. This effect was in full swing on the PSP - people were clamoring at the gates to produce more and more low-quality ports, rather than finding unique expressive techniques.
Across the Divide
At this same time, Nintendo's DS was really taking off. That device had no clear mandate at all - Nintendo themselves didn't seem to really shower it with praise. Early games like XX/XY were rather odd mash-ups, and many people were uncertain that the device would prove itself.
But Nintendo kept exploring new techniques for the handheld, and eventually strong third-party games like Trauma Center turned it into a powerhouse. Apple has taken this same approach with the iPhone - just let people try out different techniques, and let the market indicate where things should go.
The PSP wasn't a bad device - it was just badly positioned. Sony insisted that people buy it for a specific reason - and as it turns out that reason wasn't very compelling. People really wanted portable game experiences and media center capabilities - not PS2 ports with extra content. Sony put a strangle-hold on developers, and ended up choking off the lifeblood of their own device.