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A PS3 Retrospective And A Look At The Future

 

Sony is many things; it is unwieldy, involved in too many markets and straddled with poor communications between departments that are only now being worn down. I have been accused, at least once, in the comments section of this site of being a PlayStation fanboy. There may be some truth to that, and certainly, after this article, I’m sure I’ll be accused of it many more times. I love my PlayStation 3 but I also love my Xbox 360.

In total – combining both home and handheld consoles – sales of PlayStation systems have reached about 380 million. In recent years one of the few bright spots for Sony has been the PlayStation. This was highlighted at an Nintendo investor conference recently when Satoru Iwata commented “Sony’s PlayStation 3 remains in good shape.” He was speaking about the Japanese market.

However, at this same conference the company also revealed figures for the bestselling consoles in each region so far this year. Yes the Xbox 360 has enjoyed enormous, continuing success in North America but in Japan it is virtually non-existent with most retailers no longer stocking the console. The PS3 has sold as many as 70,000 units a week this year in its home market, second only to the 3DS.

In Europe it is a markedly different picture, the PS3 is by far the best performing console shifting as many as 100,000 units a week. The Xbox 360 is third in that region, behind the 3DS. Australia has also been dominated by the PS3 for some time. There must, therefore, be a residual loyalty and interest in the system globally. This bodes well for the PS4.

Many have pointed out that a large number of gamers were put off by the PS3’s price tag when it launched. That is almost certainly true; however, in the UK the PS3 actually reached sales of one million faster than the PS2.

Then there is the matter of the total number of current generation consoles each company has sold. Last November lifetime sales of the PS3 stood at 56 million. Lifetime sales of the Xbox 360 stood at 57.3 million. I the gap has widened since then to 4.7 million, a sizable gap, but not an insurmountable one. In addition to this, as of January this year, the PS2 was still being produced and sold in developing markets for less than $100. A huge proportion of the system’s sales came after the price dropped below $150.

While numerous analysts have predicted that ultimately the PS3 will outsell the 360 even if that won’t happen for some time. Nor does there seem to be a need for the company to lower the consoles’ price given it’s worldwide sales.

“I don’t believe the PlayStation 3 needs a price drop at the moment. Sales have been consistent and in-line to what one would expect for a platform that continues to successfully grow its install base so late in a console cycle,” commented Jesse Divnich, vice president of insights and analysis at market research firm EEDAR recently.

On that basis, it is difficult to suggest that the PS3 has failed by any means, especially in light of that even if the PS4 is announced at E3 it will likely have many more years left in it. Another factor to be considered is that many 360 owners have changed their console at least once; I suspect the number of PS3 owners who have done the same is significantly lower, though on that issue I could be entirely wrong.

In addition, Strategy Analytics, another industry analyst group, expects sales of the PS3 this year to be 13 million compared to 13.8 million for the Xbox 360, hardly a huge difference but the group’s research also found that the PS3 is the most played console. 44% of PS3 gamers play every week compared to 40% for the 360 and 30% for the Wii. What the margin of error of these statistics is I don’t know, but clearly there is a dedicated install base ready for the PS4.

While to suggest that gamers’ Sony has lost to Microsoft will never go back is a stretch, if the PS4 launches earlier than the Xbox 720 for the same or a lower price there’s no guarantee what could happen. Launching earlier isn’t even a guarantee of success either, the Dreamcast came out 4 months before the PlayStation after all. There is no way to know where gamers, and their cash, will go.

And no one outside of Microsoft or Sony knows when their next gen systems will be launched, anything on the internet at the moment is simple speculation. All of the platform holders have made mistakes this generation, not least Sony.

Satoru Iwata has even admitted that the Wii’s focus on the casual market has hurt them.

Sony may have failed to make Blu Ray’s mass market but it quickly destroyed the high definition DVD format and the PS3 is almost universally accepted as the best Blu Ray player around. That’s 60 million potential customers for that format while recent rumours suggest the Xbox 720 could have a Blu Ray drive, though again that is just a rumour. There are other rumours that say it won’t have a disk drive at all. My suspicion would be that regardless of whether or not the 720 is a blu-ray player it will have a disk drive, the world isn’t quite ready for digital only.

Then there’s the matter of the PlayStation’s formidable back catalog. The success of PlayStation’s Classics HD collections and the recently added but quickly expanding option to download PS2 games suggests that a great many gamers do have fond memories of Sony’s past systems. There have been too many games this generation that I haven’t played or haven’t finished, I will want to be able to that on future consoles.

I suspect many other gamers would as well. The great paradox of gaming is that as much as we look forward to new technology we also hanker for retro gaming experiences. One of my favorite games so far this year was actually the Jak and Daxter trilogy edition and I am looking forward to the Ratchet and Clank collection, games I never got the chance to play first time round.

This tradition will carry forward to all of the next generation consoles and with games like LittleBigPlanet, Uncharted, and Journey this should bode well for the PS4, both if those franchises receive sequels/spin-offs and so on or if they’re released as downloads or in retail collections, the former is certainly likely.

The PS3 did not have a brilliant launch line up, Resistance Fall of Man, was probably the highlight, but in the long run mediocre launch games don’t really impact on long term sales. The 3DS is proof of that.

And yes the PSN and SOE hacks last may well have damaged the company in the public’s eye but as Jack Tretton revealed at E3 last year, only a few weeks after the hack, usage had returned to over 90%. While the number of PSN accounts has risen, in the millions, since then, now standing at over 90 million, at least 15 million higher than before the attack. It is also double the number of Xbox Live accounts.

Yes PSN accounts are free, barring the premium Plus service, but the point here is that any damage done to the company was entirely minimal and should have no bearing whatsoever on the PS4.

Compare Microsoft and Sony. Microsoft is a software company, which before the first Xbox only dabbled in hardware. Sony is a hardware and entertainment company. In fact, if anything, the PS3 is the glorified PC, I’m unaware of the situation now but several years ago both University of Massachusetts and the US air force were using PS3s for research and number crunching with the since disabled Other OS feature. Both companies have created flexible hardware, both future consoles will draw on enormous technical expertise.

Another statistic to consider, given that the PS3 has been out for less time than the 360 – and even then it didn’t launch in Europe until March 2007- is that on a month by month basis, to achieve the system’s current sales, it has actually outsold the 360. Averaging 925,000 units a month compared to 800,000. This bodes well for the PS4.

While in terms of games the statistic for software sales is something like Sony’s top 11 games just about selling the same figure as Microsoft’s top four.

Clearly, Microsoft knows what it’s doing but sales of the Uncharted series have topped 17 million, Sony knows what it’s doing too. Yes, the PS3’s hardware has been criticised as overly complicated but I wonder if that has more to do with lazy developers than actual problems with the infrastructure.

Regardless issues with lag do affect the PS3 more commonly than the 360 but it is not an exclusive problem my any means, lag issues in Mass Effect 3 were far worse, or at least far more widespread, on 360 than on PS3 following an update last month. Even if Sony did make a mistake, hardware wise, this generation there’s no guarantee they’ll do so again.

It was also suggested that early models overheated, perhaps they did, and some PS3’s do suffer from the Yellow Light of Death. However, I sincerely doubt the total affected PS3s is anywhere near the “unacceptable number” (Microsoft in 2007) of 360’s which were killed by the Red Ring of Death. The bill for that calamity ran to the hundreds of millions with Microsoft putting $1 billion aside to deal with it.

Furthermore any speculation that the PS4 will have less processing power than the 720 is based purely on the latest rumours. We simply don’t know and a console have enhanced processing power or graphical fidelity doesn’t necessarily guarantee success. The Xbox was technically a more advanced console the PS2 yet the PS2 outsold it multiple times over. The PSP was more advanced than the DS, just as the Vita is more powerful than the 3Ds and both the PS3 and the 360 are more powerful than the Wii while some developers have even suggested that the Wii U will only match those systems. Other industry insiders have said Nintendo’s new console will be more powerful.

Regardless of what the Wii U is ultimately capable of the point here is that history has shown us that technology is not necessarily the deciding factor in any console generation.

While Sony’s history of powerful yet simple to use interfaces should almost certainly continue with the PS4. The XMB menu system won a rather long winded Technology & Engineering Emmy Award for “Outstanding Innovation and Achievement in Advanced Media Technology for the Best Use of Personal Media Display and Presentation Technology” in 2006.

Yes Sony have moved away from it recently, for example with the PlayStation Vita, and yes it is outdated, but it remains a relatively user friendly interface and is certainly more aesthetic than the original Xbox 360 dashboard. I would also argue that the most recent changes to the Xbox dashboard have made some things harder to find while the company’s Window’s 8 preview has made certain tasks on PC slightly trickier because of its obvious aim of the OS at the touchscreen and mobile market.

Both companies suffer many of the same flaws, they are simply too big, and Microsoft is every bit as notorious for bureaucracy and poor communication as Sony.

The sales of next generation systems will be lower for Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony. Particularly for Nintendo, who cannot possibly hope to recapture the casual market from iOS and Android platforms. In fairness to the company though they do seem to be finally accepting that the internet is too important to ignore, with Wii U games being released digitally and at retail on day one. I would argue that of the three next gen systems –  I find rumours of a Valve or Apple console unlikely (and Apple TV is not the same as a console, though it may grow to be) – the Wii U is probably the one most likely to “fail”.

Though the GameCube arguably failed, the Wii is the best selling console of this generation. Which means that even if the PS3 never leaves third place in sales terms there should be no impediment to the PS4 being the second, or best, selling console of the next generation.

So could the PS4 fail? As much as I hope it does not yes, but the threat that I see isn’t Microsoft. It’s Sony itself. The companies disastrous loses – which due to complicated tax dealings with the US government aren’t quite as bad as they seem (but which are still quite brutal) – could bring down the PlayStation business, but again, being one of the company’s shining lights in recent years I suspect that Sony Computer Entertainment would be bought by somebody. Who know? Maybe even Microsoft.

I hope that doesn’t happen, I still have a great deal of respect for the company, and Kaz Hirai has said gaming will form one of Sony’s pillars going forward.

As for the controllers, the Xbox controller is more responsive, but I believe the PlayStation controller is better arranged and feels less bulky in your hands, though that is purely my opinion. While the special edition Xbox controllers that allow for the adjustable D-pad are surely an admission of sorts that the standard 360 controller isn’t perfect. None of them are. The move to motion control will carry forward to the next generation as much as might wish it not to. Kinect 2.0 will likely be met by Move 2.0, even if that is only a copycat version of Kinect.

Microsoft too, seems to be getting squeezed on all sides, just as Sony is even if its financials are much healthier. Windows Phone will probably never catch either Android or iPhone. The company’s investment in Barnes & Noble’s Nook e-reader has been largely written off as too little too late to compete with Amazon’s Kindle. Even the Windows OS division, which according to the company’s latest financial report seems to have recently stabilised , has lost ground to both tablets and even Macs.

In a few years Microsoft, regardless of how much money it has now, may well not be a threat to Apple at all. Or they may wipe out Apple all together, highly unlikely as that may be. Who knows if Hirai can do to Sony what Jobs did to Apple than the Japanese company could well destroy both of them in 20 years’ time (again highly unlikely but in technology anything is possible, in the 1990s no one could have predicted Apple’s revival). After all the company Apple wanted to be in 1995 was Sony.

No one would want to be in that position now. The technology and games industries have changed beyond all recognition since the PlayStation launched. The collapse of Sega and Atari as console makers wasn’t predicted. There’s no guarantee of what will happen to the PS4 but given what we know at the actually moment (which really is next to nothing) there’s no reason to suspect the system will be a disaster for Sony.

The company is promising 20 new gameplay experiences at E3. That may mean anything, it may hint at a new console or simply mean that ‘just’  another 20 new games will be shown off. Either way we’ll find out soon.

So yes, the PS4 could fail, but I for one will be buying the system the day it launches and I’ll be paying Microsoft the same courtesy when it comes to the 720. And if Sony’s PS4 gambit does fall flat it certainly won’t be because of the gamers who enjoy the adventures of Nathan Drake et al.




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