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PlayStation Portable coming next month

Sony reveals North American launch date and other details for its new handheld game machine. Photos: PSP heads stateside

Sony is set to launch another battle in the emerging handheld-game war when it brings its PlayStation Portable to North America next month.

After months of speculation, the electronics giant on Thursday set a stateside time and date for the device. The PSP will go on sale in the United States and Canada on March 24 for $250.

That price buys a bundle with several extras, most notably a copy of the Sony film "Spider-Man 2" loaded on the new 1.8GB Universal Media Disc (UMD) format Sony has debuted with the PSP.

News.context

What's new:
The speculation is over. Sony has pinpointed March 24 as the North American arrival date of the PlayStation Portable.

Bottom line:
By packaging the PSP with such extras as the movie "Spider-Man 2," Sony is seeking to promote the device as more than just a game box. Will that blur the company's marketing message?

More stories on Sony PSP

Jack Tretton, executive vice president for Sony Computer Entertainment America, said that while the PSP has primarily been designed as a game device, Sony wants to make it clear from the start that it can do more.

"There's no question from a corporate standpoint that this is a true convergence device," Tretton said. "Having the movie content right in the box will show consumers that from Day One."

Schelley Olhava, an analyst for research company IDC, said the inclusion of "Spider-Man 2" in the PSP package is a surprising choice. "Sony has to walk a very careful marketing path now," she said. "People are going to buy this to play games. When you start packaging other things with it, that kind of blurs the message."

The strategy is particularly risky, Olhava said, if Sony is unable to get other music and movie companies to quickly support the UMD format.

"They're definitely putting a stake in the ground saying, 'This is not just a video game system,'" she said. "The question is how quickly they're going to have other content available. If all you have is 'Spider-Man 2' for the first year, that's not going to be very persuasive."

Sony revealed plans for the PSP last year, positioning it as potential breakthrough machine that would do for digital media what the Walkman did for analog music. Besides the new UMD media format, the device includes built-in wireless networking and 3D graphics capabilities.

But the PSP has been a difficult birth for Sony, with the company dogged by development and production issues that pushed back the device's North American introduction and limited its Japanese launch in December to 200,000 units.

The PSP brings Sony into a tough market long dominated by Nintendo's Game Boy devices. Nintendo is looking to expand its lead with the new DS, and advanced handheld-game players with capabilities such as wireless networking and touch-sensitive screens.

Nintendo launched the DS in North America in late November, and the gadget quickly became the hot item of the holiday shopping season. Soon afterward, the company boosted already optimistic sales estimates to predict worldwide sales of 5 million units by March 31, the end of the company's fiscal year.

Sony has worked to build up production capacity since the PSP's Japanese launch. It now expects to ship 3 million units globally by March 31. Of those, 1 million units are slated for the North American market. Since the PSP's release in Japan on Dec. 12, a total of 800,000 units have been shipped.

The PSP will arrive in North America with a much broader software library than it had when it launched in Japan. The company said 24 titles from publishers including Activision, Capcom, Eidos Interactive, Electronic Arts, Koei, Konami, Namco and Sony will be available at launch time, including PSP versions of popular PlayStation 2 games such as the "Need for Speed" racing franchise and the "Metal Gear" action games.

Sony's software prices will start at $39, it said.

Tretton said the library of launch games belies reports that developers have had a tough time tapping into the PSP.

"There was a lot of speculation before we rolled out the dates that we were looking at a short development window," he said. "This software library...is a testament to how powerful the machine is and how great the development kits are."

The PSP will still be dogged by other questions, particularly those surrounding the device's battery life. Sony estimates the device will run for three to six hours on a battery charge, with units running movies and visually complex games on the lower end of that range.

Tretton said that's plenty of juice to accommodate typical usage patterns. "Three to six hours is a long time to be holding a device in your hands and staring at a screen," he said.

But Sony is aiming for an older, more sophisticated demographic with the PSP than the back-seat crowd that has dominated handheld games to date, Olhava said. "You're talking about people who (have) jobs; they travel," she said. "They may be disappointed if the battery doesn't make it through a typical airline flight."

Separately, Sony Online Entertainment said Thursday it has set up a development studio in Seattle to boost production of games for global markets. Matt Wilson, formerly with Microsoft, will be its executive producer, the company said.

Dinesh Sharma contributed to this report.