After getting off to a strong start in the wake of the American PSP launch last March, the Universal Media Disc (UMD) appears to be on its last legs. Sales of movies on the PSP's once-hot proprietary format have slowed to a trickle, causing several major movie studios to cease supporting it. In March, the Hollywood Reporter ran an article claiming that the home-entertainment divisions of Universal Studios and Paramount Pictures have "completely stopped" releasing films on the format, and other studios have been cutting back their release slates.
Perhaps more disturbing for Sony were unconfirmed reports that retail colossi Wal-Mart and Best Buy were scaling back UMD displays in their stores. This week, speculation turned into reality when Target decided to discontinue stocking UMDs entirely. A manager at a San Francisco Bay Area Target outlet told GameSpot, "We no longer carry PSP movies. We stopped carrying them nationwide."
At virtually the same time, Sony announced the forthcoming release of a pair of Memory Stick Entertainment Packs (MSEP). The packages will come in 1GB (MSX-M1GSTEP) and 2GB (MEX-M2GSEP) Memory Stick Duos for about $60 and $100--the standard retail price for both items.
Though tech-savvy PSP owners have been converting their DVDs to the PSP-compatible MPEG-4 files via third-party applications for more than a year, the Entertainment Packs mark the first time Sony has officially released movies for direct download to Memory Stick Duo, the PSP's storage format.
However, the initial batch of Mem-Stick-ready movies are a very limited selection of Sony Pictures titles--all of which received decidedly mixed reviews. Each of the two packs will come bundled with an installer DVD that contains four films--Hitch, S.W.A.T., The Grudge, or XXX: State of the Union. The movies will play in 240x320-pixel resolution, lower than the 480x272-pixel resolution PSPs are capable of.
However, purchasers of the packs will be able to copy only one of the four films onto their new memory sticks--the others will then be locked. "The code given with the MSEP will unlock one of the four movies," a Sony rep told GameSpot. "Through a special Digital Rights Management [solution] designed by Sony Electronics and SCEA, this [movie] is then downloadable for the PSP."
Fortunately, the movie will be automatically converted to MPEG-4 by the unlocking process, and will be easier to load onto a PSP via a USB cable. Unfortunately, the conversion software on the Memory Stick Entertainment Pack installer DVD will only work on the four films on the disc. "If you own other movies that you want on your Memory Stick, you have to have conversion software," said the Sony rep. Also, the film will also be playable solely on the portable, not on the PC it was transferred from, as "it is a special promotion for getting movies on your PSP."
Many will take Sony's introduction of direct-to-Memory Stick movies as an acknowledgment that the UMD format has failed and as a sign it is prepping consumers for digital distribution. Sony, though, refutes such suggestions. "The UMD was never a factor in the development of this product [the Memory Stick Entertainment Pack]," the rep told GameSpot.
Sony also wouldn't comment on the implications that Memory Stick movies had for the future of the UMD format. However, the rep did say that their introduction was primarily about giving more options to consumers. "We're a universal entertainment company and we're able to offer the consumer more choice," said the rep. "Bundling Sony content with Sony hardware is something we can offer that others can't."