Can Sony Make the Big Comeback?
What Do E3's Tea Leaves Tell Us About the Suffering of Sony?
By Bill "The Game Doctor" Kunkel
Many consider it merely a sign of Sony’s past power in the
videogame industry that some prescient business analysts are still insisting
that it will eventually dominate this generation of console gaming.
After all, an awful lot of PS3 titles’ release dates have been pushed back,
indicating that either the third party developers are afraid the system will
crash and burn altogether (as when that dreaded name “Playstation4” escaped into
the online ether) or they would at least prefer to cut their losses and produce
a 360 and maybe even a Wii SKU.
In the online console war, Microsoft seems to be lapping the field (achieving
the first online convergence in which Xbox 360 gamers can face off online
against owners of the PC version of FASA’s Shadowrun) while Nintendo has
had the smarts to discuss a variety of unique online options, including a
much-reported sit down with the Second Life creators.
The Wii’s position looks unassailable, but the fact is that Nintendo is shrewdly
keeping the supply of systems short of demand. This has compelled many gamers
(okay, I’m one of them; happy now?) to give in to strong-arm retail tactics and
buy $400+ bundles of extra controllers, memory cards and half-assed games I
didn’t want in order to get the $250 system. But even if Nintendo can nudge up
its price point through crafty retail gamesmanship, Sony will ultimately have to
realize that a $600 system is not going to dominate this market. Hell, they’re
losing money on every system they sell even if they charge $700, so would Sony
rather make a consistent price drop, even to $550, than wind up with the world’s
biggest Blu-Ray landfill?
Only Sony can answer that.
Sony has seemingly been snake bitten of late, what with its batteries frying
half the laptops in America, the sense that Blu-Ray may be the Beta Max of the
early 21st Century and, of course, the dismal rollout of the PS3. Sony’s
blunders have been legion, the products of hubris and the belief that whatever
worked for one game generation will work for the next. Remember that the PS2
would have dried up and possibly blown away in its first six months based
exclusively on its available software selection. But the PS2 also played PSone
software and, more significantly, was a cheap (if far from ideal) DVD player
that had the good fortune to break just prior to the point where DVD players en
masse dropped from the $500 to the $50 range. In fact, the word was that the top
selling piece of software for the PS2 during those first uncertain six months
was the movie “The Matrix.”
Since they were already committed to Blu-Ray, I’m sure that including a Hi-Def
DVD player using that tech must have seemed like a no-brainer for the PS3. But
while everyone had a TV when the PS2 arrived, not everyone has a hi-def TV at
the moment. Then Microsoft conveniently decided to switch its support from Blu-Ray
to the less expensive HDTV DVD format. And then Sony shot itself in the
corporate foot yet again by announcing it would not permit porn to license its
Blu-Ray tech. Given that porn has been the driving force in advancing everything
from streaming video to digicams, this blue-nosed attitude left most of the
world scratching its head.
Those with an interest in history may see a similarity between the PS3’s
situation and that of the Nintendo SNES back in the early 90's. Because Sega had
lost the previous generation, it was able to release its Genesis about a year
earlier than the SNES, whereas Nintendo’s NES games were still selling well and
the company didn’t believe in making an NES reverse-compatible peripheral for
its new system.
By waiting that additional year, it is generally conceded that the SNES lost the
war to the Genesis during this generation. But it was really quite a close call.
Near the end, in fact, Sega was so desperate to buttress its increasingly dated
technology that it began producing a series of disastrously unsuccessful
peripherals (how about that Sega CD and 32X, huh?). Nintendo, meanwhile, with
the help of Rare, suddenly leapfrogged all the other 16-bit games with SNES
titles like Donkey Kong Country. Sega would never again produce another
dominant game system.
Of course, the SNES sold a lot better from Day One than the PS3 has.
So here’s what I’m suggesting, Sony boys: Guarantee that you and other
publishers will continue to support the PS3 until at least 2015. In other words,
gamers would be buying TWO traditional generations worth of gameplay. Everybody
at E3 acknowledged that games such as Killzone 2 really opened their eyes
but the really hot stuff on the PS3 probably won’t be out until holiday 2008, by
which time the Wii and 360 could have an insurmountable lead.
Still, wouldn’t it be nice to own a machine that you won’t have to trade in
three to four years from now? Hell, the PS2 is kicking more ass than the PS3
right now because there are a zillion of them out there and the games have
evolved impressively without pricing themselves into oblivion. Give developers a
chance to have couple of swings at the PS3 instead of the usual one,
one-and-a-half (given that it takes up to three years to develop a top game
these days) and imagine what PS3 developers will be doing in another half
decade. Imagine the PS3 equivalent of God of War 2, for example. In
short, the lifespan of game systems has to be lengthened. I still play more
games on the PS2 than I do on any of my next-gen systems.
So can the PS3 come back from the image portrayed on that now-famous EGM cover
that showed the system a target for rotten tomatoes? It can, but only if Sony
takes the long view.
As for the new PSP, well, we’ve finally reached the point where we are actually
seeing entertaining and inventive games being developed for the PSP (including
Dead Head Fred and the new Pirates of the Caribbean title), a
system that otherwise has a higher percentage of tossed-off titles than any
other system in memory (except perhaps for the days when they were trying to do
Dragon’s Lair on the original GameBoy). And the new, revised PSP actually
looks cool, so if they can develop a killer app and work out that
thumbscrew-like control nub thing, even that seemingly-lost system may
eventually sell half as many units as the DS.
Remember, no hardware company has ever dominated the market for three successive
generations. Can Sony break that jinx, or will it become yet another victim? The
answers are largely in Sony’s hands.