You may remember Bill Kunkel from his gig with Electronic Games Magazine in the 80's, Sega Visions in the 90's, or his work with dozens of computer games over the past 20 years. He's an insider through and through but one who enjoys sharing his experiences and insights. "The Kunkel Report" will re-live some truly memorable experiences through the eyes of one of gaming's most prolific personalities.

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.

--Bill Kunkel

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Last updated: Thursday, July 19, 2007 08:04 AM