March 3, 2009

Playstation 3: Purposefully Perplexing

This week, rather than examining an independent non-traditional game, I decided to write about a more mainstream issue in the gaming world, which still affects creativity and innovation in the industry. Before Sony released the Playstation 3, they promised a more powerful alternative to Microsoft’s Xbox 360. The PS3 used a new framework called cell architecture, designed jointly by IBM, Toshiba, and Sony, that was supposed to yield graphics far superior to anything seen before in games. Sony claimed it would blow everything else out of the water in terms of power, processing speed, and graphics capabilities, and the built in Blue-ray player was going to drive the unit’s sales. However, despite the hype and promise, upon its release in 2006, very few consumers bought the PS3. Most blame its lackluster performance on the extremely steep $499 baseline price tag (compared with the $279 cost of the 360 at the time). Some say that Microsoft, having released the 360 an entire year earlier, already had control over the market, leaving little room for Sony. While these two factors both worked against the PS3, the main problem was that consumers had no reason to purchase it. People do not acquire consoles to watch movies; they get them for the games, and unlike its predecessor, the Playstation 3 has had few must-buy exclusives. Additionally, the games offered on both Xbox 360 and PS3 look only marginally better on the latter despite the hype of a technically superior machine.

Ever since Sony released the Playstation 3, developers have been banging their heads against it, trying in vain to take advantage of the promised capabilities. A game studio at which I worked (I will not mention the company’s name so as not to violate the NDA I signed) had so much trouble programming for it that they were forced to release the PS3 SKU of their game almost three months later than the PC and Xbox 360 versions. Midway executive producer Shaun Himmerick went so far as to say, on the weekly podcast, “This Xbox Life,” that the PS3 is “a huge pain in the ass.” One would think that Sony would want to combat this image, but in the March issue of the Official Playstation Magazine, Sony CEO Kaz Harai emphasizes the difficulty, claiming that these troubles are in fact intentional by saying, “we don’t provide the ‘easy to program for’ console that [developers] want, because ‘easy to program for’ means that anybody will be able to take advantage of pretty much what the hardware can do.” He thinks that making it challenging to develop for the platform will force the games to mature during the cycle. As a side effect, this model shuts out the small or independent developers, leaving space only for those with the time and resources to crack the console, and even these companies spend money struggling with the hardware, instead of putting it towards refining the gameplay.

By placing this strain on developers, Sony does, however, discourage an oversaturated market full of half-baked titles like those of the Atari 2600 in the 1980’s. Games were so inexpensive and easy to develop that companies like Johnson and Johnson and Purina started making them (Tooth Protectors, pictured below, and Chase the Chuck Wagon respectively), and this influx of mediocrity contributed in part to the video game crash of 1983. While there are still some pretty terrible games like M&M’s Adventure for the Wii and the Xbox Live download Yaris commissioned by Toyota (which X360 Magazine UK simply and elegantly called “a festering turd”), Sony is being far too cautious. The video game industry has matured dramatically in the past twenty-five years, and consumers can for the most part, with the help of Internet resources that were previously unavailable, separate what is worth their time from what is not. Conversely, this steep learning curve for developers results not only in an absence of poor, highly licensed titles, but also a lack of quality selections that could drive the sale of PS3 units. As a result, the Playstation 3 launch was unimpressive and left Sony with a much smaller market share than they had enjoyed in the previous generation with the PS2. There have, though, been some impressive exclusives in the past year or two, such as Naughty Dog’s Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, Konami’s Metal Gear Solid 4, and LittleBigPlanet by Media Molecule, but none of these offerings has been able to spark hardware sales like Halo 3 or Gears of War have for the 360. Furthermore, Grand Theft Auto IV, the current number one rated game on Metacritic for both consoles and originally slated to be a Playstation exclusive, not only released on both systems simultaneously, but also offered unique downloadable content to Xbox owners. It is also worth pointing out that Naughty Dog, owned by Sony, is able to successfully realize the cell processor’s power partly because it has an entire group called the ICE Team in house devoted to dissecting the PS3 and figuring out how to reach its potential; a luxury most developers, especially indie studios, do not have.

The fact that Sony intentionally made it difficult to program for the Playstation in a strange attempt to increase the length of the console’s life makes me seriously question their judgment. While Sony has a very strong set of first party houses that have made such extraordinary games as Gran Turismo, God of War, Twisted Metal, Shadows of the Colossus and ICO, a console cannot survive without third party support, and by causing so many problems for outside developers, Sony is straining this relationship. Independent studios will continue to have trouble grappling with the architecture, and as a result I do not expect to see too many underground and fresh titles like Katamari Damacy on the Playstation this cycle. Hope remains with PSN (Playstation Network), as games like Everyday Shooter and Flower are innovative and have been released to some success and critical acclaim, but XBLA (Xbox Live Arcade) and WiiWare remain better portals for downloadable titles, primarily because of the install bases Microsoft and Nintendo have accumulated. Maybe in five years or so, as long as they do not get too tired of wrestling with the cell framework, developers will unleash the graphical and processing power of the PS3, but because so much time and so many resources have to be devoted to this struggle, innovation in design will more often than not be brushed aside. In either case, I am happy that Sony is finally giving an honest assessment of the PS3: cell processor, built in Blue-ray, and deliberate confusion.


  1. As someone with zero knowledge of the gaming world, I was interested to read your critique of Sony’s Playstation 3. This industry, it seems, could not be more competitive; with a knowledgeable consumer base that demands the latest technological advances from these suppliers. Sony’s strategy of targeting developers with the necessary and expansive means and revenue with which to maximize the hardware’s potential seems anachronistic. In a time when the internet has democratized everything from music to motion pictures, making the creation and distribution evermore accessible to growing audiences, I would have assumed that innovative companies would exploit these themes to attract and cement a loyal fan base. The fear of flooding the market with mediocre creations, however, seems to be an understandable motive for creating such a difficult programming platform. Yet it would appear to me that these would be filtered out by consumers’ own discerning demand and would invite and encourage participation and contributions that could yield surprising results. I wonder if, with the economic downturn, Sony will not end up deeply regretting its decision to make such an expensive and exclusive product. The creativity of independent and underground studios and even individual creators could give Sony the commercial edge it seems to be lacking.

    You present a very thorough and well formulated argument, and though I realize that your blog is a venue for discussion among your fellow gamers and others who are well versed in the news and issues of the industry, as an outsider I felt like I was at a bit of a disadvantage. Your writing, however, is engaging and makes for an easy to follow and very well-supported argument. It might have been interesting to include a visual comparison of an Xbox 360 versus a PS3 screen shot, in order to emphasize the negligible difference in quality for your readers. In the end, consumers and critics such as you will have the final vote on whether or not Sony’s plans for longevity and superiority will throw competitors to the wayside. Since it seems like it is these very consumers who are driving a demand for more openness and flexibility from producers, Sony would do well to listen and perhaps change its strategy in order to welcome the voices of innovation who challenge the elitist nature of its product.

  2. Jeff, Overall I can hardly find anything to criticize in your post. The writing is fluid, coherent, and easy to follow. I would revise some of the sentences, as some of them could be a little confusing at times. This includes your engagement of some issues that might be new to some readers. It would also be helpful if you could tell your non-expert audience how the three main videogame platforms vary graphic wise. Additionally, make sure that you link all your sources; for example “Metacritic” is not linked to the website (I know there is a link on your link roll but, hey, why not have it twice?). Also some people might not know what "Metacritic" is, so a brief explanation would be adequate. With no further comments, I commend you for your writing skills and I look forward to reading future posts of yours!


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