Last week, Sony announced they will be offering comic book content as digital downloads for the PSP portable gaming device, via the Playstation store. This confirms rumors of Sony seeking significant comics content for the device dating back to March 2009. While an exact release date has not been determined, a roll out in December 2009 is expected.

The PSP (PlayStation Portable) is Sony's portable version of their PS3 gaming platform. Much like the iPhone's App Store, the PlayStation Store is an e-commerce site that allows PSP users to purchase and download content. While comics material has occasionally shown up on gaming systems like PlayStation and Xbox in the past, this is the first robust program aimed at bringing a large number of publishers to the gaming world.

Adding a digital reader is yet another move by Sony towards mobile reading devices; this effectively turns the PSP into an eReader. (Sony has been developing a separate eReader to compete with the Kindle.)

Initial publishers announced for the platform include Marvel and mobile device comics distributor iVerse Media, which has deals in place with IDW, Archie and selected Image titles. The project seems to have originated within Sony, and the “Autoflow” navigation system for reading comics on the PSP is Sony’s software.

Marvel was targeted by Sony to participate. “This version of the digital comic on PSP arrangement between Marvel and Sony originated with Sony,” says John Dokes, Vice President, Sales and Marketing, Marvel Entertainment, Inc. “Some of the items that are currently exclusive to the Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited offering will be available to the PSP. The library will also include Classic and recent materials—no day and date correspondence to the print offering." In the “near term,” this will essentially be single issue downloads of Digital Comics Unlimited material, he said.

iVerse came on board a different way. “We became involved after hearing about it as a rumor,” reports iVerse CEO Michael Murphy. “I made contact with Sony, explained who we were and what we did, and we moved forward from there.”

Spider-Man, Fantastic Four and Star Trek have been mentioned as titles which will be available at the Playstation store. While iVerse’s Murphy isn’t ready to release a full publisher and title list, he does offer the following: “I can say we will be releasing hundreds of comics on the PSP over the next year, and most of them will be recent releases. Will we be doing any day and date with print releases? I don't know yet—but anything is possible.”

Archie Comic Publications, Inc. CEO, Jon Goldwater reports that all Archie titles will be available, but wasn't certain how close the digital releases would be to the print releases. “It depends on the title—some will have a little lag and some will not.”

Marvel isn't the only publisher that Sony wanted. Proof, an Image title about a Sasquatch working for a secret government agency tracking down cryptozoological creatures, was one of the titles featured in initial announcements, and according to Proof writer Alex Grecian, “the PSP people asked specifically for Proof.”

The price point for these digital downloads hasn't been announced. Marvel has a suggested retail price of $1.99, but it isn’t clear if this will be the standard price for all publishers.

How large a potential market is the PSP? Sony listed sales at 55.9 million units through June 2009 and projected sales of 70.9 million units through March of 2010. The current primary competition for mobile comics viewing, iPhone, had 45 million users as of July 2009. The PSP comics offering is initially starting in the UK, US, Irish, Australian, New Zealand and South African Playstation stores only, so the PSP market is probably comparable to the size of the iPhone market at this point.

[Todd Allen is a technology consultant and adjunct professor with Columbia College Chicago's Arts, Entertainment & Media Management department. Allen's book, The Economics of Web Comics, is taught at the college level. His further comics industry commentary is available at Indignant Online. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of PW Comics Week.]