Curmudgeon Gamer
Curmudgeoning all games equally.
02 March 2007
Xbox is the new PlayStation
By now most of the videogame industry has realized that the Xbox 360 is the new PlayStation 2. What many have yet to comprehend, however, is that Sony is perfectly happy to let that happen.

Seeds of this Generation

Go back to the launch of the Xbox and GameCube back in 2001. The first console generation of the 21st century had completely launched and Sony was building its commanding lead. The seeds of our current generation -- Xbox 360, Wii, and PlayStation 3 -- were sown then and are just now beginning to bear fruit.
  • The original Xbox attracted developers with its easy-to-use tools and integrated online services. Despite the change in machine architecture and continuing subscription costs for consumers, the Xbox 360 is lauded for improving on the gold standard its predecessor set for developers and online consumers.

  • The GameCube played host to Nintendo's first party games, nontraditional games like Animal Crossing, and experimental controls like the Donkey Konga bongos and the Odama microphone. The Wii got a Zelda game at launch, packed in the crowd favorite Wii Sports, and would be nothing without its remarkable Wii controller.

  • The PlayStation 2 puzzled developers with its non-standard architecture and primitive toolchain, leaving them to make of it what they could. The PlayStation 3 and its Cell architecture are even more unusual than the PS2, and developers are striving to understand its strengths and limitations.
Sony's PlayStation 2 dominated that last generation, perhaps on the power of the PlayStation brand and its one year headstart. The PlayStation 2 was the console everyone owned, offering thousands of games, from dreck to art, from cross-platform million-sellers to unique third-party exclusives.

Microsoft covets that role for its Xbox 360, and it will have it. Sony is willingly giving up. Like the PlayStation 2 before, it will offer thousands of games, from dreck to art, from cross-platform million-sellers to unique third-party exclusives. Only, there won't be as many of that last group -- the unique third-party exclusives -- much to Microsoft's dismay.

Sony's Gambit: First-Party Power

This is Sony's vision for the PlayStation 3: a powerful multi-use system headlined by huge first-party exclusives, bolstered by big-name cross-platform titles. They want their first-party games to be to their console what the Spider-man movies have been to their movie business. They want to diminish the role of the cheaper, lesser games that plagued its PSOne and PlayStation 2. They want you to think premium cable, only for videogames.

From that perspective Sony's apparent indifference to exclusivity for games like Grand Theft Auto 4, Assassin's Creed, Virtua Fighter 5 makes a lot more sense. Sony expects publishers and developers to feel obligated to make those big games for PlayStation 3, along with other platforms. Indeed, to maximize profits, publishers will need to bring those games to several platforms, and the Wii isn't even in the running. Eventually developers will tame the Cell, out of necessity, and Sony will have its sufficient software base.

As the importance of third-party exclusives diminishes, and cross-platform games become the norm, the first-party offerings will be the key to attracting consumers. And that is Sony's ace.

Phil Harrison recently explained exactly this to The Guardian: "[Developing new titles in-house is] absolutely the strategy. When we launched the PlayStation, there were no accompanying games developed by Sony. When we launched the PlayStation 2, there was one: Fantavision, which, beautiful game though it was, was no game on which to launch a platform. But the PS3 will launch with more exclusive, high-quality games from our studios than we've ever done before."

As reported by Screen Digest in late February, Sony's internal studios have more than 2.5 times the manpower of Microsoft's studios. In fact, Sony has more studio staff than Nintendo and Microsoft combined. If cross-platform exclusives are taken for granted, then Sony is in a far stronger position than Microsoft to define its platform with unique software. Killzone 2, Warhawk, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune -- these are but the beginning for Sony and their stable of developers. Microsoft had its year to set the standard for next-generation games with the likes of Gears of War, but from this point forward Sony intends to define the standard for which everyone else strives. It is the quality Sony hopes to achieve with software, the exceptional experience that they intend to offer, that justifies the high price of entry that the PlayStation 3 commands.

Incidentally, Sony isn't shutting out smaller games on the PlayStation 3 altogether. Lesser games, by developers big and small, will find room not on store shelves but on Sony's PlayStation Network as low-cost downloads. Think of it as one more step toward Phil Harrison's dream of disc-less PlayStation 4. And as can happen on Xbox Live Arcade, developers will perform an end run around the big publishers, something they all want to do.

The Stakes

In about a year's time we should have an idea of whether Sony's plans are going to pay off. Sony's initial crop of big-budget first-party games should have had a chance with reviewers and consumers. Europe's reception of the PlayStation 3 will have been assessed, and the viability of a $600 console will have been determined. This has to be the year of the PlayStation 3, or Sony will have a grim five years burning money to support a product few people wanted.

The greatest risk right now is that frustrated third parties could balk at the abstruse Cell architecture and the Blu-Ray data transfer issues and start handing exclusives to Microsoft. The added Xbox 360 momentum could create the positive feedback loop that sold more than 100 million PlayStation 2 consoles. If that happens, Sony would have handed Microsoft the keys to the kingdom on a silver platter.

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--Matt Matthews at 05:39
Comment [ 9 ]

Comments on this post:

So far, all that's showing up on PSN are games that either SHOULD have been major titles, or those that are produced by a Sony internal studio or under contract with Sony.

External teams aren't striving to figure out the PS3, they're giving up, and farming it out to subcontractors from all reports.

While it is well and good to suggest that Sony is aping Nintendo's strategy, the problem is that they aren't. The cornerstone of Nintendo's strategy has been hardware profitability combined with a strong first party. Sony appears to be losing money hand over fist.

They're certainly high up the curve, and I presume they can cut costs until it's profitable at 600 or 500, but when all the other hardware in the market is at 200, where does that leave them?

By Blogger Jeremy, at 02 March, 2007 07:28  

1) "Aping Nintendo's strategy;" very funny. My question is why? What did first-party ever get Nintendo (or Sega), beyond, at best, a sustained fringe relevance?

2.) What the heck does [hu]manpower have to do with good games? There's a correlation, or at least a point of entry, but I don't expect Sony to be the new Take Two anytime soon. Oh, wait... Take Two is also losing dough hand over fist, too.

So why would we expect Sony to be any more successful than Nintendo at doing what Nintendo already does about as well as anyone ever has? Better yet, why would Sony choose that route? Looks like the PS3 design was a fook up.

By Blogger rufbo, at 02 March, 2007 18:16  

I think he answered 1) pretty well. If the market is split evenly and more games are cross-platform, it forces the console makers to increase focus on differentiating themselves from their competitors. First-party games are one way to do this. However, I think it's more likely you'll see more focus (or promotion) on non-game specific features like Xbox Live and the Wiimote, features that change how players experience games from console to console. Sony hasn't really defined themselves yet in these terms because they didn't expect the focus to change from just software to how the users interact with their games.

Sony might very well win Japan in the long run. It'll be interesting to see if Japanese developers are really going to want to jump ship in mass to something like the 360 just because of foreign markets. Sure big titles will be cross platform, but you may see exclusives on the Playstation 3 in Japan out of loyalty. Whichever Final Fantasy ends up on the PS3 (13 now?) is more than likely going to decide it in Japan and abroad.

I can't see the Final Fantasy series pulling a Dragon Quest 9 and going to the DS. Core Final Fantasy games (not spin offs) are all about technological and aesthetic excess. They certainly aren't going to accomplish that on the Wii and the 360 is dead in Japan. To count Sony out now, especially with that still on the table would be unwise.

By Blogger Mordrak, at 02 March, 2007 21:06  

1) Nintendo's first-party strategy has historically involved releasing only a couple of its big games every year or so. This week's headlines were about the Wii's drought of games in the near future and Nintendo's plans to have big games out by the end of the year. Meanwhile, Metro3D is releasing a dozen schlock games that are ports from other platforms...

Sony would need to have its studios putting out the big games far more often. If Sony puts out 6 big name games a year, and bucks the holiday trend to do it, then I think they'll have the first-party strategy right.

2) The headcount isn't enough to guarantee they can do this -- and there is no strong quantity-to-quality connection -- but it does buy them the ability to publish several games with higher-than-average production values. And those games will of course be publicized heavily.

Even though Black (by EA) wasn't a great game, it looked great and sounded great and got lots of publicity. According to the stats that Next-Gen compiled about last year, Black also sold very, very well.

Beyond that, it isn't as if Sony has a bunch of schmucks working for them. I believe that Insomniac, Incog, and Naughty Dog are very well-respected developers. And Sony's interest in Jenova Chen (which resulted in flOw on PSN) and other academics is any sign, they may be casting a wide net indeed to rake in the creative talent they need to guide those skilled developers.

By Blogger jvm, at 02 March, 2007 21:32  

But just doing the math, Sony needs to sell a fantastic number of games to even break even on the PS3. I don't have the numbers, but I think that they would show that Sony platform owners buy fewer games over the life of the console than those who play on other consoles.

My sense is that they pick up the latest Madden, and that's that.

What is Sony's actual record on producing top selling titles? They have had some critical successes (Ico, SotC) but those were basically failures in the market.

By Blogger Jeremy, at 02 March, 2007 21:59  

So on 1.), the claim is that Nintendo just missed the window for riding first-party releases into console dominance [b/c before now -- and now no longer -- its system was at least powerful enough to compete with the rest]? Or is there any thought that the PS3 *is* a convergence box, something Nintendo's never really tried to do, and this will power its [predicted?] success?

Note that when I talked about Nintendo in the last post, the Wii didn't exist for me. That is, Nintendo perfected the beautious first-party release on N64 and CG. The Wii is the fruit, afaict, of that "great first-party" approach.

Your new additions to 2 sound more Xbox-esque to me. Buy Bungie, steal Halo, profit. I'm guessing the argument is Sony's gaming deep pockets (money and development resources in general) is, iyo, enough to not only compensate for a difficult platform, but also to [at least in Sony's eyes, though it sounds like you might agree] win the current gen console war? Sony's going to out MS MS [sic] so well that it will overcome sorry developer tools, then?

By Blogger rufbo, at 02 March, 2007 22:03  

Wow, jeremy, how can you talk out of your ass so much without losing your intestines? You have no more clue here than you have anywhere else on this board. Sony will take first in Japan and NA, and europe doesn't even count.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 03 March, 2007 20:00  

Sony's going to have to start selling more than 50% as many units as Nintendo to win Japan.

And they're going to have to start making money to continue in the business.

Xbox 360 had a tie ratio of 3.9 games per console (retail games) one month after launch. PS2 took about 16 months to get there. In 2.5 years, PS2 got to a 5.6 to 1 tie ratio.

According to the teardown, Sony needs to sell about 20 games per console to break even. Even assuming a drastic cost cutting process, it will be hard to make money on games with PS3.

That's facts.

And I can see your IP address, BTW.

By Blogger Jeremy, at 03 March, 2007 20:32  

Is it safe to post here or am I going to get hacked because of a viewpoint?

hehe =P

By Blogger Mordrak, at 05 March, 2007 12:53  

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