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What's the Deal with UMD-PG?

This article talks about eroge (porn games) for the PSP, though no explicit content is shown or discussed.

The PSP was released at an interesting point in time. Initially released in 2004, it attempts to fill the niche of a “convergence device” that lets you do everything with one bit of hardware. It had multimedia support, as well as games that were closer to software and avoided needing age classification. Even more interestingly, people sold porn for the PSP, and the ways in which eroge managed to make its way onto it while avoid traditional games classification is not only really interesting but also not well documented, and I’d like to fix that! This is an attempt to contextualise what Sony was doing with the PSP, and maybe we’ll even figure out what the fuck UMD-PG actually means along the way.

Table of contents:

The DS vs. The PSP

While the PSP is our main focus here, I want to contextualise it, so we’re going to talk for a little bit (a lot) about other contemporary devices. This includes the DS, which I’m going to talk about a lot for an essay that is ostensibly about the PSP, but that’s because I think it serves as an interesting contrast!

We can see this contrast in how these consoles were announced that their respective press conferences at E3 2004, as well as the differences between their design ethos. The DS announcement gets a lot of hype from the audience, but it is presented here by Reggie Fils-Aimé as a game console first and foremost. It was announced to have wireless compatability, but the focus of this was about playing with other consoles, and not any kind of web browsing or using any non-game applications. Then, once people got their hands on the DS, they realised it barely had a system menu at all: it freezes if you take the DS cartridge out, and it requires you to restart your console to go back to the main menu from the system settings or Pictochat.

Focusing on the design ethos, if we go back in time a little bit, we can look at Nintendo’s project Iris, intended to be the successor to the GBA before the DS was conceptualised. It shared a lot of the same hardware but didn’t have the second screen or touch/wireless capabilities. From this we can conclude that the DS, even before it was the DS, was planned to only be a games console, and the only things added at the last minute were conductive to gaming first and foremost.

Meanwhile, within the first few sentences of the reveal for the PSP, Kaz Hirai compares the PSP to a broader range of mobile devices, such as “cell phones, digital music devices, productivity tools, and gaming machines.” Sony’s press conference dedicates time to showing video playback on their device, at a resolution of 480x272 on a 4.3-inch screen, and while he didn’t describe it as a “convergence device” it definitely fits the bill. It had an OS and system menu that wasn’t barebones. It wasn’t just a game console, because it could play music and video, let you read comics, connect to the internet, and do all sorts of other things with peripherals that were released later such as a GPS accessory and even a TV tuner!

We all have phones now, but back when the PSP was released in 2004 this was a relatively big deal. The first iPod to support video playback was the 5th generation iPod Classic in 2005, so the jump from then-contemporary media players to watching whole movies in 2004 was pretty big. Archon were releasing devices with video playback, such as the Gmini 402, Jukebox Multimedia, and AV series, but these didn’t have screens or resolutions as big as the PSP, yet they were still considered good devices1. Even in 2008 articles like “The quest for the ultimate convergence device”2 mention the PSP as being in the running for the very thing described in its title. Finally, as another point against other devices, David Lynch never said “It’s such a sadness that you think you’ve seen a film on a fucking PSP”, which clearly means he approved of it. Thanks Mr Lynch! I will burn a UMD of Inland Empire posthaste.

No company at the time had a monopoly on devices that can do so many things portably and this was key to Sony’s strategy. It might look like the PSP was the jack of all trades and master of none: it had to compete with game consoles, music players, portable DVD players, and more. However, Sony already owned or distributed licenses for the platforms and storage formats that contained PSP games and UMD VIDEO, as well as music distribution channels. The DS would handily beat the PSP on the video game front, but this design choice allowed them to compete on and get money from other non-video-game sources.

Obviously the Sony Group doesn’t just make games and hardware: Sony Music Entertainment is currently one of the biggest music labels in the world. They were already making money through licensing the distribution of music that they themselves had not made, and the storage formats that contained them as well as the devices that played them. They made the Walkman! This type of thing was not new to them! When the Playstation Store made its way to the PSP in the post-horse armour world of 2008, microtransactions came with it. I remember Disgaea 2 for the PSP specifically having microtransactions for individual characters, for example. Despite this, they were already planning for that as early as 2004. In the same E3 press conference where he announced the PSP, Hirai talks about how online experiences that don’t generate revenue is “the norm, but not for long,” and mentions that the future is in “mini transactions,” listing things like downloadable content, episodic extensions, and user generated content. When he mentions “a multitude of opportunities for downloadable entertainment content,” it’s not hard to imagine what he means: The writing was on the wall, even then.

In other words: Nintendo’s ambition for the DS was to make a new game console that could do better than the GBA, whereas Sony’s ambition for the PSP was to encompass basically everything the iPhone was doing 3 years before it was even announced and take a cut from all of it. The PSP was a console that could only exist in the specific time it was released, before the iPhone and Android devices had managed to swallow the “convergence device” market whole.

Everyone Else Plays Catch-up

Despite how the PSP was better fit for general-purpose software, the DS had a much wider install base than the PSP, which means it got a lot more software that strayed away from the traditional definition of game. I’m not going too in-depth here because this essay will never be finished if I do, but you have things like Art Academy and e-book collections and the DS Web Browser, for example. More importantly than that, the DS (and GBA) could also be used as video playback devices, in some weird roundabout ways.

In 2003 Nintendo announced what would become Game Boy Advance Video, which was branding for cartridges that contained video. However, all of these were of shows primarily for young audiences like Spongebob, and the only movies released in this format were Shrek, Shrek 2, and Shark Tale. GBA cartridges simply didn’t have the space to hold any long amount of video even with its heavy compression. These were also released in… 2004, the year the PSP came out, so the contrast is very stark! If you’re interested, f4mi has a good video about Game Boy Advance Video that you should check out.

It’s also worth comparing GBA Video to the VideoNow, a portable video player also aimed at children. The original 2003 device used a bespoke optical disc format called PVD, and had a non-backlit black and white screen of only 80x80 non-square pixels! Only in 2004 did it get a release with a colour screen, at a size comparable to the PSP but at the smaller resolution of 240x160 and on much discs that were much larger (physically) than UMDs. At the very least more stuff was announced for VideoNow than for GBA Video.

The DS also had DSvision exclusively in Japan, which was similar to GBA Video, except you bought a DSVision cartridge and then bought microSD cards that would slot in to it. You could watch movies and shows and read manga on it, and you could buy new releases online and then download them onto a microSD card instead of always needing to buy physical media. Needless to say this was pretty cumbersome when you consider that removing the cartridge to swap out the microSD cards would require restarting the DS each time! Not a lot of DSvision releases are archived: No-Intro’s database only catalogues 8 releases, though many more were available. The video playback feature is pretty similar to video playback on some R4 cartridges, though it can only play stuff specifically for DSvision.

There’s other examples we could use here, but it would be too wordy for a post that is meant to be about the PSP. Again, this is about contrast: look at all the weird hacks that had to be done to turn the DS into a media player! Meanwhile, the PSP… just does that. You can play movies and stuff on it just fine. Wild!

The PSP as a Media Device

So what does the PSP do differently to accommodate that? There’s a few things, but what I want to talk about is the most important and most interesting one: their proprietary disc medium, the Universal Media Disc, or UMD.

An image of a UMD. It’s a disc smaller than a CD in a plastic case that only exposes a small section of it.
An image of a UMD. It’s a disc smaller than a CD in a plastic case that only exposes a small section of it.

Visually it’s plastic case makes it resemble a Minidisc, another storage medium created by Sony specifically for music, though UMDs can hold other types of media. They can hold about 1.8 gigabytes, and as the name “Universal Media Disc” suggests they don’t hold just games! Both movies and music were distributed via UMD early in the PSP’s lifecycle. By 2001, the Minidisc was suffering as MP3 players started to take off, so Sony took the hint by the PSPs release in 2004: you didn’t see much music for UMD, though it did exist. The main multimedia usage for UMDs was UMD VIDEO, which meant you could buy movies and shows and watch them on the go.

Interestingly, a UMD could hold multiple different types of media at once. The UMD VIDEO version of the movie Stealth came with a demo for Wipeout that had exclusive content, for example. From what I gather based on topics in the Redump forum3 this is a UMD split into 2 layers/partitions, one of which is for a game and the other for the movie. Some UMD demo discs listed in that discussion had similar structures, and you can see how these would work in this YouTube video. The PSP system menu has multiple options for games, video, and music, and the UMD is listed separately on each of them. When each section is selected, it displays different information, as you can see below. Each of these sections ran in different “modes”: from this we can gather that while the PSP was the only device that would ever support games on UMD, we can imagine other devices choosing to implement support for only music/videos.

A PSP displaying the splash screen for Demo Disc for PSP vol. 1. By hovering over the UMD entry in the Music tab, it displays “Music Contents Line up” with a tracklist.
A PSP displaying the splash screen for Demo Disc for PSP vol. 1. By hovering over the UMD entry in the Music tab, it displays “Music Contents Line up” with a tracklist.

It’s worth pointing out the point in time where UMD VIDEO existed. Portable video players at the time had similar flows to portable music players: they let you copy videos to their internal storage, though your video had to have the right format and codec and whatever for your device, which wasn’t standardised at all. While some devices had microphones, cameras, radio antennae or TV tuners and let you record media through those, you either had to deal with awful quality or some kind of DRM/copy protection or maybe even both. Unlike online music distribution, however, online video distribution was much worse: YouTube launched in February 2005, whereas iTunes may have allowed people to buy music but they didn’t let you buy videos until October 2005. UMDs presented a disc smaller than a DVD but at similar quality, meaning they’re easier to carry around, even if they contain less stuff. If you wanted to watch movies and shows on the go at the time and already had a PSP, it was one of your best options. Then the iPhone came out and that was that, more or less. This is why the PSP is so interestingly well-timed: it came out late enough to have a good enough screen to watch videos on, but early enough for UMDs to make sense as a video distribution method, before online video distribution took off. It really could have only been released in 2004.

We can tell that Sony intended for multi-device UMD support not just from what Kaz Hirai said, but also from the fact that UMDs store video at a resolution higher than the PSP can display. However, despite the use case for UMDs, the PSP was the only device that supported them. For why that might be, I want to refer to @Modren’s comment on my post on Cohost: UMD only makes sense for portable devices, you could use a portable DVD player for your already existing DVD collection, and companies didn’t want to license UMD support from Sony. You also couldn’t buy blank UMDs and there wasn’t any consumer hardware for writing to them. Despite how Hirai talked at E3 2004 about UMD’s potential as a storage medium, support for UMD media outside of games dropped off quickly.

Anyway, I mentioned eroge for the PSP, but actual porn video was released for the PSP as well. One of the reasons that the VHS format won over Sony’s Betamax format was because adult videos were predominantly on VHS, so porn on UMD as a method of encouraging adoption makes sense. I don’t know why someone would watch porn on the go like that at the time of its 2005 release but its there! It’s a better way of getting sexual gratification than struggling through unofficial Famicom strip mahjong games, at least. I don’t have a PSP nor do I have any physical or digital copies of any porn released on UMD, and emulators don’t really support UMD VIDEO either, but we can assume it’s like all other UMD VIDEO releases, where it uses the built-in video player functionality of the PSP.

There was also The Silent Hill Experience, which contained animated digital comics, as well as “music, video, and trailers”. This was specifically a UMD VIDEO release, with no age classification. All of these things are connected via menus, kind of like how DVD menus worked. I wish I had more to say about it but I can’t check it out myself.

Even outside of UMD VIDEO specific things, the PSP had honest-to-god capital A Apps released for it. Passport to Rome is a PSP “game”, except it doesn’t have any age classification. It’s a travel guide to Rome, NOT AN ACTUAL PASSPORT, so don’t use it as ID or whatever. There’s other versions of this game that function as travel guides to a few other places in Europe too. I say capital A App because it really does feel like the kind of thing someone would download for an iPhone circa 2008. It doesn’t have any background music or any stylistic flourishes, unlike instructional DS games like Cooking Guide: Can’t Decide What To Eat? or Art Academy. It feels utilitarian. While I’m not going into it much in the interest of time, this game is the impetus for me writing this essay: the fact that something like this exists reminded me about how uniquely positioned the PSP was for developers to treat it this way.

What The Fuck Does UMD-PG Mean

OK so picture this. I’m in a used game store. I see a copy of Passport to Rome for the PSP and it says on the box that it doesn’t require classification. And then, it reminds me of one thing I had heard offhand, in Hazel’s video on Elfen Lied, where she very briefly talks about the eroge (explicit visual novel) School Days:

School Days is also significant in the realm of PSP archival, because it was released on a super uncommon UMD format, UMD-PG, that was created so that eroge could exist on the platform without them being classified as games within the PSP’s catalogue.

And I start thinking about it again. I get home, watch the video by Hazel again to try and find this clip, and she shows an image like this on screen:

2 game boxes. The one on the left is for School Days: UMD-PG Edition. It has an 18+ sticker on it but no CERO rating, and the top of the box says UMD VIDEO instead of PSP.
2 game boxes. The one on the left is for School Days: UMD-PG Edition. It has an 18+ sticker on it but no CERO rating, and the top of the box says UMD VIDEO instead of PSP.

This raises a lot of questions! What’s with the sticker? Why is it a UMD VIDEO??? School Days actually is a video game, not a video, so we are left with a pretty big question:

What the fuck is UMD-PG???

Firstly: The “PG” part of UMD-PG doesn’t mean “porn game”, it means “player’s game.” This is the most straightforward about this format, yet it raises more questions. It’s a game, yet the box says it’s a video? What the hell do they mean?

As Hazel says in that video, UMD-PG is a super uncommon format. VNDB currently has 56 titles in its database4 that have a UMD-PG edition, and if we check Redump’s page that lists currently undumped Japanese PSP games5 we can see that there are 50 UMD-PG titles that are undumped. Additionally, most PSP emulators do not support these games, meaning that the only real way that you can play these in the modern day is to track down a PSP and a physical copy of one of these exceedingly rare games (or an ISO of one of the few that have been dumped), which explains why so few people even know what the deal is with UMD-PG.

Even in pretty authoritative places, information is vague at best or confusing and contradictory with no real source at worst. Let’s take a look at this thread on the official forum for JPCSP. This is a PSP emulator that, unlike PPSSPP, attempts to emulate at least a few of the things needed to play UMD VIDEO! Maybe we finally have a concrete answer… except we don’t, really. A senior member describes it as simply a UMD VIDEO. From what I now know, this is incorrect. A junior member has more information. They compare it to a flash game among other things, which isn’t a comparison I would make, but it’s a little closer to the truth. There’s multiple reddit threads and forum threads that have discussions almost exactly like this. People will say one thing, then someone else will say another. Some will talk about “censorship from Sony” and some will talk about age ratings. Since there is so little documentation to how any of these UMD-PG games (if they even are games) work it’s impossible to actually determine the truth from these comments. However, I have found some videos that I think make it reasonably clear not just what they are but how they function and how players would have interacted with them.

When it came to playing back movies, UMD VIDEO was a format much like DVD, and supported menus very analogous DVD menus. As far as I can tell, this menu system is the system that powers UMD-PG games. For some more information, we can look at this comment on a GutHub issue for PPSSPP, which uses this analogy as well as some slightly more technical information. This also matches what the junior member in the JPCSP thread said.

While most UMD-PG games have not been dumped, there are a few that have, and a few of those have gameplay that has been uploaded. One of these is a reddit thread asking for more info on a game called Boku Dake no Kajitsu, which appears to be an eroge only released for PSP via the UMD-PG format. If you want to be confused, take a look at its box art:

Cover art for Boku Dake no Kajitsu. It does not say “UMD-PG” anywhere, and the top part of the box says “UMD VIDEO for PSP”.
Cover art for Boku Dake no Kajitsu. It does not say “UMD-PG” anywhere, and the top part of the box says “UMD VIDEO for PSP”.

Those details in the alt text drive me wild. Why does this game say “UMD VIDEO for PSP”? It’s different from basically every other UMD-PG game I’ve seen! Who knows…

Regardless, in that reddit thread, a commenter linked to a gameplay video on YouTube (please do not mention that you came here from this blog post, it won’t be funny). First of all, the person playing the game selects it in UMD VIDEO mode:

Screenshot from the PSP menu. It displays a splash screen for Boku Dake no Kajitsu under the Video tab.
Screenshot from the PSP menu. It displays a splash screen for Boku Dake no Kajitsu under the Video tab.

At various points in the video, you can see the PSP video control panel pop up. Most features like play and pause are disabled, but it’s there. In fact, at the very end, you can see it pop up during “gameplay” in which a character sprite and text box are on screen while music plays. Here is an image of that, for posterity:

Screenshot from Boku Dake no Kajitsu. The PSP video control panel with most options disabled has popped up over a character and text box.
Screenshot from Boku Dake no Kajitsu. The PSP video control panel with most options disabled has popped up over a character and text box.

So we have at least part of this solved. UMD-PG games are videos and they run in UMD VIDEO mode, hence the UMD VIDEO branding on the box. But how does the interactivity work? For that, we can fittingly return to the UMD-PG version of School Days. One video shows some additional parts of how UMD-PG games work that we can use to figure out how UMD-PG ports were made. For one, it does have choices available. Again, this is in the video, but I am posting it here for posterity:

Screenshot of School Days UMD-PG Edition. On screen is a menu allowing you to select one of two choices.
Screenshot of School Days UMD-PG Edition. On screen is a menu allowing you to select one of two choices.

According to VNDB, School Days UMD-PG Edition was released on 4 UMDs. This sounds unwieldly as hell, and also makes me ask: if it’s on 4 UMDs, how does it handle swapping between them? Are they utilising some sort of save memory within the PSP? Can UMD VIDEOs even do that? Hell, eroge are pretty long in general, so what’s the save mechanism for these things?

Turns out no, UMD-PG games don’t use save memory, to my knowledge, though I don’t know enough about the PSP to know whether UMD VIDEO mode could use it in general (though I would assume not). In School Days UMD-PG edition, when you would need to swap UMDs, the game shows you a password. Then, when you put the next UMD in, you enter the password, and it takes you to the next scene. Weird! Here is a screenshot of the password menu from that same video:

Screenshot of School Days UMD-PG Edition. Below text saying PASSWORD are the digits 2893, and below those is a bunch of mostly-Japanese text I can’t translate, though the phrase “Disc 2” is present.
Screenshot of School Days UMD-PG Edition. Below text saying PASSWORD are the digits 2893, and below those is a bunch of mostly-Japanese text I can’t translate, though the phrase “Disc 2” is present.

So there we have it. The gameplay of UMD-PG games is just video playback, with some clever scripting capabilities thrown in to allow for multiple choices and endings. Now we also know why UMD-PG games are not rated by CERO: they are videos! It would be like if the ESRB had to rate specifically the part of my DVD of Treasure Planet that had the behind-the-scenes minigame where you search the ship for the treasure map. Hence, they could get away with just slapping an 18+ sticker on the game box, and managed to avoid classification. This also explains why people talked about “censorship from Sony”: Sony Computer Entertainment wouldn’t want to release porn, sure, but these releases are outside of their jurisdiction.

I don’t know all of the technical details behind UMD-PG, and I don’t need to because I’m not a PSP homebrew or emulator dev, but hopefully this gives enough of an insight into what UMD-PG means that people can stop saying whatever the fuck they want about it.

In Conclusion

I don’t really have any additional things I want to add here. If I tried to make some grand statement at the end of every blog post it would get old fast and take way too long for me to write everything. I just wanted to share something cool! However, if renpy could add support for exporting a visual novel to UMD-PG format I would like that very much thanks

  1. “Archos Gmini400 review: Archos Gmini400” by John Morris for CNET, published on the 23rd of September 2004. https://www.cnet.com/reviews/archos-gmini400-review/

  2. “The quest for the ultimate convergence device”, by Leigh D. Stark for Cybershack, published on the 19th of August 2008. https://cybershack.com.au/cybershack/the-quest-for-the-ultimate-convergence-device/

  3. http://forum.redump.org/post/45825/#p45825

  4. Search for “umd-pg” on the visual novel database: https://vndb.org/r?q=umd-pg;fil=;s=released;o=d;p=1

  5. http://wiki.redump.org/index.php?title=Sony_PSP_Japan_Missing_Games

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