The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

July 16, 2007

Console Check-Up: Sony

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Brian Lutz @ 12:49 am

Note:  This is the last of three posts that take a look at some predictions I made for the current generation of video game consoles last October prior to the PS3 and Wii launches.  In this post, I will take a look at the predictions I made for Sony.  If you haven’t seen the two posts before this one, I would suggest reading the first one (or at least the introduction to that post) to give a bit of background on this.

Back when I made the predictions I am basing this on, I stated that whether they intended to do so or not, Sony has found themselves betting the proverbial farm on the Playstation 3.  I also stated that I believed that if the PS3 had been designed as a reasonable incremental upgrade over the previous generation which could be sold at a lower price point than the $599 it was launched at, there would have been a lot less people questioning their strategy with regards to the PS3.  I questioned the decision to include Blu-Ray with the system, as it was one of the major contributing factors to the high price tag, and wondered if Sony was ever going to stop making PR blunders on a regular basis and get their act together.

Nine months later, a lot of the questions about the PS3 still have not been answered, but it is clear that the system is not on the path to duplicate the success of the PS2.  In spite of initial shortages that resulted in people camping out for days to get a system at launch (a lot of those to resell for significant profits on eBay) the intitial demand quickly faded, and within weeks of launch PS3s were readily available on the shelf (while Jack Tretton offered $1,200 for any PS3 that was found on the shelf for more than five mniutes in an interview,) and people who camped in line for days for their launch day PS3s ended up returning them to the store after being unable to sell them on eBay.  This was just one in a lengthy series of PR and marketing blunders committed by Sony over the course of the last year, dating back to the trainwreck that was their 2006 E3 press briefing.  Notable incidents included multiple instances of using screenshots of Xbox 360 exclusive Project Gotham Racing 3 to promote Gran Turismo HD, the use of racist themes in advertising to promote the PSP in Europe, and one of the most inept attempts at astroturfing to date.  And that was just the Playstation division (it seems that the rest of the company wasn’t exactly having a good year on the PR front either.)  Although the PS3 does appear to be selling reasonably well in the PAL territories (Europe and Australia,) sales in the US and Japan remain sluggish, with the PS3 not only outsold by Nintendo products, but the PS2 as well, and the Xbox 360 in the US.

At times, I have wondered if the constant PR issues that have plagued Sony have been the result of a problem with corporate culture.  A lot of the PR issues that have occured lately for Sony lead me to believe that they are well aware of the realities of the market as it stands, but that groupthink and a fear of possible reprecussions have led to subordinates either having to stretch the truth or just make things up entirely in order to make their reports look good.  Even in that situation, there is no way in the media-saturated world we live in that Sony executives could truly be ignorant of the issues facing the system.  PR blunders aside, Sony’s approach to marketing the PS3 has also been heavy-handed.  Especially when compared to Nintendo and Microsoft’s marketing, Sony’s marketing strategy seems to carry a “we know what’s best for you” attitude that I find off-putting.

Marketing and PR aside, it does appear that Sony is taking steps in the right direction.  For the time being at least, it looks like their gamble with Blu-Ray might actually have worked, with Blu-Ray outselling HD-DVD and Blockbuster making the decision to stock only Blu-Ray movies in its stores.  Whether or not Blu-Ray actually does anything to improve gaming is still a question under debate, but it looks at this point like it stands a good chance of hanging around for a while.  I don’t own any hardware for either format currently, and I personally do not care either way on this one (since I very rarely watch movies, but that’s a topic for another post). In the short term, the question is one of whether or not Sony will be able to convince people to upgrade to Blu-Ray over their standard DVD players, and I suspect in a lot of cases, this might turn out to be a harder sell than they might have bargained for.

Although the PS3 is stll behind the Xbox 360 in games, this won’t always be the case.  There are a number of games coming for the PS3 which should move systems (in particular Metal Gear Solid 4 and Final Fantasy XIII should move systems in Japan when they are released, and look like they will both remain exclusive to the PS3,) although they have also “lost” a number of exclusives that have become multiplatform releases.  If they’re going to sell consoles with their games though, they have a significant burden of proof to deal with.  One game they seem to be counting on to move systems is LittleBigPlanet, a physics-based platformer with extrordinary graphics.  I have to admit that the game looks rather impressive, but to me it looks like something to get if you happen to have the system, not something to run out and buy a system for.  Since Sony seems determined to stick with their elevated price point (the recent “price cut” appears to have been primarily designed to phase out the 60GB model in favor of an 80GB model with the hardware PS2 support removed at the same $600 price) I am going to take a lot of convincing that I need to get a PS3.  Given the fact that the Wii, Xbox 360, and even the PS2 outsell the PS3 on a regular basis, I suspect that I’m not the only one.

On the other hand, in spite of the domination of the handheld market by the Nintendo DS, the PSP has actually done quite well as of late, and suffers primarily by comparison to the juggernaut that is the DS.  Over time, the type of games that previously would have gone to the PS2 by default seem to be finding their way to the PSP, which has allowed the handheld to build up a surprisingly deep library of titles.  Although the UMD movie format has pretty much fizzled out by now (it’s kind of hard to justify a “universal media disc” format that ends up playing on only one proprietary device) there are enough good games for the PSP now and upcoming that it’s easier to justify buying one as a gaming device alone.  I actually intend to get one sometime soon to “catch up” on the games that I missed previously once the new model comes out.  In the meantime, the PS2 also continues to sell well, actually outselling the Xbox 360 at the present time.  The massive game library and the low price point ensure that they should be able to count on the PS2 continuing to sell for a while, at least until there are games worth getting a PS3 for.

 To be honest, I have no clue where the PS3 is going to end up at this point, because it’s so hard to figure out where it is right now.  It’s pretty clear that it’s not selling nearly as many systems as Sony would like it to be, and it also appears that they are aware of their current image problems (as evidenced by the removal of Ken Kutaragi.)  Mostly they need to get their act together, put out compelling games and give people something to talk about besides their latest PR blunder.  Perhaps they could do themselves some good by hiring what Bill Simmons calls a VP of Common Sense (read the response to the first letter for more details on the concept.)  Basically someone who can tell Jack Tretton or Kaz Hirai when it’s time to just be quiet.  Even if they do get their proverbial ducks in a row quickly, it doesn’t look particularly likely that they’re ever going to recapture the success of the PSX or the PS2.  They continue to insist that they will stick with the PS3 for ten years, which may be what they need to actually make one worth buying.

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