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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

5 Ways That Sony Botched The PS3 (And Why They Did The Right Thing)

By now, most can agree that Sony has totally and completely borked the launch of the Playstation 3. At every turn, it seems that Sony consistently made the wrong calls. It's easy to mock them in hindsight and assume that everyone involved in the launch has an IQ of a wet tuna salad sandwich, but Sony actually made some easily-defended decisions that just turned out very, very badly.


1) The PS3 is really difficult to program for.

Why it was dumb: "Of COURSE people aren't going to make games for your system if it's hard to do! Developers are going to go to other consoles because it's easier! Everyone knows this!"

Why it wasn't dumb: It's never been a problem.

The PS2 was notoriously difficult to program for. The PS2 was the weakest of the three consoles of the last generation, even weaker than the supposedly lightweight Gamecube. The only reason that devs were able to get games to run as well as they did was because they offloaded some instructions through the PS1 chip that was in there for downwards compatibility. (Hey, that's the name of this blog!) It made programming for the PS2 far more complex than it should have been. It's also why downwards compatibility is so ridiculously difficult to do on the PS3. Did that stop developers from making games for it? Absolutely not! It was the best-supported of the three consoles by third parties. Developers may not have wanted to, but they made games for it anyway because they had to.

Likewise, Sony was depending on the loyalty of third parties to make games for the PS3. It didn't work out as Sony planned because of all the other things that went wrong at exactly the same time, limiting the console's popularity. That, in turn, made it a less attractive system to make games for.

2) They shouldn't have included a Blu-Ray drive with it.

Why it was dumb: "It made the system so much more expensive, and everyone is using streaming video now anyway! The 360 got Netflix all without adding an expensive high-def drive! Idiots!"

Why it wasn't dumb: The idea worked with the PS2, XBox and PS1. It also helped kill the Gamecube right in the cradle.

When the PS2 launched, DVD players were upwards of $300. Why buy a DVD player when you can buy a PS2 which gets you a DVD player AND a state-of-the-art gaming system for $299? It was a no-brainer, and moved a lot of people who were on the fence about which system to get over the the side of the PS2. The XBox launched their remote to control DVDs as well, but it wasn't as widely embraced as the PS2 was. The Gamecube didn't get adopted by the public at large for precisely that reason. Similarly, the PS1 could also play CDs, so when given the choice between a Nintendo 64 that played nothing but games or a PS1, a lot of people chose the PS1.

Sony made the same call with Blu-Ray. They assumed (rightly) that a lot of people who would be interested in a PS3 would also have interest in a high-definition TV, and Blu-Ray was the next logical step up from DVDs. Blu-Ray players were all far more expensive than the launch price of the PS3, so they assumed that the same thing that drove people to buy the PS2 would push them to buy the PS3.

However, where Sony erred wasn't in the strategy they employed, but rather by overestimating how many people would be interested in high-def media players so soon after upgrading to DVD. They also could have been a little more farsighted as far as streaming video was concerned, but hindsight is always 20/20. While streaming video was making moves toward the mainstream at the time of the PS3 launch, it hadn't really caught fire in the way that it has now. Sony could have been a little more proactive, but it's easy to predict the future when you're already in it.

3. The price.

Why it was dumb: "Why would ANYONE pay $600 for a video game system when there are cheaper alternatives right there?"

Why it wasn't dumb: It worked before, though not to the same degree.

The PS2 launched at $299. The Gamecube launched at $249. Over time, the Gamecube plummeted in price repeatedly, but always managed to be outdistanced by the more-expensive PS2 by miles. The XBox was at the same price at launch and still stayed ahead of the Gamecube throughout almost the entire generation.

Sony figured the same things would happen: The more-expensive PS3 would sell more than its rivals because it was the better, more powerful system. It could have worked, except that they underestimated the degree to which consumers would be willing to pay for a system. It still might have worked even AFTER that, but we got hit with the worst recession in 60 years right after the PS3 launched. Sony couldn't have forseen that occurrence.

4) The continuing arrogance from Sony.

Why it was dumb: "Didn't they see that their sales figures were bad? How blind did they have to be?"

Why it wasn't dumb: Sony had no reason to be nervous.

The PS1 and the N64 were tied near the beginning of their launches. Nintendo offered Super Mario 64 and Zelda: Ocarina of Time along with a slew of other properties. Slowly but surely, the PS1 started inching away as developers left the N64 and came over to the PS1.

Old GillThe PS2 and the Gamecube were tied near the beginning of their launches. Nintendo offered Star Fox Adventures and Super Smash Bros. Melee along with a slew of other properties. Slowly but surely, the PS2 started inching away as developers left the Gamecube and came over to the PS2.

In Sony's eyes, who was to say that this wouldn't happen again? Besides, when you're the market leader you can be arrogant. Sony still viewed itself as the market leader, and rightly so. They led the last two generations. On top of that, talking like Old Gill from The Simpsons ("Please buy this! The wolf is at Old Gill's door!") doesn't help matters. It doesn't help with your investors, it doesn't help with developers, and it's awful for company morale.

5) The 10-year plan.

Why it was dumb: "It just shows how stupid Sony is. How can you say that a console is going to be good for ten years? None of them are."

Why it wasn't dumb: Other consoles have lasted nearly that long, and none of them were as powerful as the PS3.

A console shelf life of 7-8 years is not uncommon, even for consoles that are underpowered for their generation. The NES (technically inferior to the Master System) launched in 1983, and the last notable game came out in 1991 (Kirby's Adventure). The Super Nintendo (which had a lower clock speed than the Genesis) launched in 1990, and top-shelf games were being released through 1997. The Playstation was released in 1994 and was still getting games as recently as a few years ago. Even the PS2, launched in 2000, got a AAA game last year in Persona 4.

Armed with that information, do you see how Sony could easily talk about ten years? Why is it unrealistic to think that a very powerful console would have a life cycle slightly longer than other, less powerful consoles?

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Most of these errors can be charged to looking at the patterns that were already established in the past and repeating them with an extra dose of hubris. Sony attempted to emulate the PS1 and PS2 launches in every way, and why shouldn't they have? The only problem is they walked in with the assumption that people would buy the PS3 just because it was the PS3 instead of being more humble about the fickleness of the gaming public. I can guarantee that they've learned these lessons and will come back stronger in the next generation.