Friday, November 02, 2007


Videogame Update

So what, precisely, are Sony doing?

The story of the PS3 took another twist recently when Sony announced that a cut-down version of the PS3 would shortly be released worldwide, removing PS2 compatibility (and not a lot else) from the existing 60gb model and costing a fair chunk less. This comes after innumerable delays and problems, which started with Sony launching the PS3 in two separate versions in two main territories, followed by just one version with a slightly different hardware configuration in the third territory, before re-exporting that new hardware configuration back to the first two territories and dropping the lesser of the two models there, only to now re-introduce a cut-down model at a lower price around the world and remove the existing standard model from shop shelves as soon as it runs out. So they started out with two models, gave up on one, then decided they’d given up on the wrong one and reintroduced the other, giving up on the initially favored one. What on earth are they up to?

The answer is that after much tinkering around with the hardware they have finally settled on a final design, nearly a year into it being on sale. The new version has an air of finality to it, decisively dropping some features, adding others, and removing all other hardware options to finally create a single version of the console. Presumably the new arrangement reflects a competitive sales price balanced against a competitive production price, with un-needed features finally excised. Why didn’t they start out here? Given their previous technical and supply difficulties, they must have brought the console’s release forward quite sharply when Microsoft made a surprise announcement that it was abandoning the Xbox and making the generational leap forward. The result has just been a mess, with very few killer games (and even fewer exclusives) in place, and crucial parts of the console’s online infrastructure still very much in development. PS3 today isn’t quite so much of a work in progress as it used to be, but it’s still a good few months away from being at the stage that they should have launched at.

In the meantime, what’s going on with the PSP?

With the flow of games slowing to a trickle as the DS really takes off, Sony keep on unveiling new gimmicks to make the machine more attractive. Streamed TV content over the internet. GPS functionality. A camera enabling video telephony. What a mess! Sony clearly haven’t learnt the lessons of their attempts at convergence to date, as Bluray resolutely fails to make PS3 sales take off and the first generation of PSP gimmicks – including the much-vaunted UMD movie format – slowly fade away.

What seems to have happened is that Sony have taken their eyes off the ball. The videogame industry is – and always was – all about the games. People buy PS3s because it has amazing games – or rather, they would if it did – not because it’s a glorified DVD player. Similarly, people will buy the PSP for their handheld fix of GTA or Metal Gear, not because it’s (again) a glorified DVD player, or an MP3 player, or a photo-slideshow viewer, or an internet browser, or a GPS device, or a videophone, or even because it streams their TV over the internet (although that last one does sound pretty cool). People who buy it for the videogames may end up using it for something else – but what Sony fail to realize is that the target market for these gimmicks is a subset of the market that buys it for the games. In other words, the added functionality is a way of milking some cash out of people who buy a PSP for Loco Roco, but not a way of drawing in people who wouldn’t otherwise buy one. As Nintendo have shown so ably, the way to expand the market is to make the gameplay itself more accessible, not to bolt on lots of irrelevant extras. Anyone who really wants a device that does one of those other things will shell out for a specialized gadget that does them better. Sony seem to be emulating instead a failed Nintendo strategy from the previous generation, when Nintendo proudly created games to take advantage of gimmicks like GBA-GameCube connectivity, then sat back and watched as no-one bought the things.

At the end of the day, must-have games are both necessary and sufficient for a games machine to take off and succeed. Hardware gimmicks are neither – consumers don’t need them in order for the machine to be an attractive purchase, and they’re not enough to make it an attractive purchase in the absence of decent games. With Nintendo wowing the mainstream with Wii Sports and Brain Training, and Microsoft successfully nabbing Sony’s key exclusives while turning its own brands (Halo, Gears of War) into genuine blockbusters, Sony desperately need to get their act together and concentrate on the software if they’re to have any hope of being a leader in the current generation of games machines. It’s the games, stupid!

In other news, I know I've been very quiet lately - everything has been rather hectic, but now that things are calming down a bit I'll be doing my best to catch up on the blogging. More stuff soon!

Its good to have you back Nat, I've missed my weekly blog. Is it the same story with phones? I just want a good phone but it seems I have to buy all sorts of extras that I don't need.
Have you sent this to Sian?
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