Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Road to E3: The Fallout of Falling Relevance


At last year’s E3, Sony had the best press conference of the three console manufacturers – in hardcore geek parlance, it “won” the show. While a positive notch on the belt for the beleaguered company, it actually had less to do with the cards it dealt during the media briefing – announcing MAG, unveiling God of War III in trailer form, blowing out Resistance 2 – and more to do with the fact that it simply didn’t flounder at the podium as much as Microsoft, who devoted nearly the entire show to previously announced titles that were due to ship just a few months later, or waste the opportunity as did Nintendo, who focused exclusively on mainstream press back-scratching.

Such a turn of events simply underscores what a microcosm the Electronic Entertainment Expo can truly be. While Sony was dominating within the walls of the Los Angeles Convention Center, it was being trounced in the global videogame marketplace; the Xbox 360 outsold the PlayStation 3 by a factor of almost two-to-one in 2008, while the Wii did so at a rate of roughly three-to-one. The PlayStation Portable, the console veteran’s first handheld, is still struggling to find an audience beyond the esoteric tech fetishists, despite Sony’s recent efforts at assembling (finally) a robust game lineup and the fact that the portable system has been on the market for over four years. And adding insult to injury, Sony posted its first loss in the fourteen-year existence of the PlayStation platform, and it was a doozie: a whopping $1.1 billion, attributable to the high price tag of all PS systems (the PSP and PS3 hit store shelves at the ludicrous price points of $249 and $599, respectively, while the PS2, released in October of 2000, was dropped to $99 just two months ago) as well, of course, to the still-sour economy.

Clearly, the former industry giant is in desperate need of a turnaround, a resurrection from the dustbin of gaming irrelevance – what Nintendo has managed to pull off within the past five years. And since it cannot do so by simply closing the book on the current generation and starting afresh with new hardware designed around new gameplay directions, as the big N has done, it is left with only one option: renovating what it already has. Nothing short of a revamping of the PlayStation brand is in order.

There is no better opportunity to do so than at E3, particularly in a year that looks to have a banner show. While Nintendo promises to get back in touch with its hardcore fanbase and Microsoft sets out to “reinvent” home entertainment for the casual crowd, Sony needs to convince both demographics to give its dead-last systems a go. Taking a number (yet again) from Nintendo’s playbook, Sony is following a surefire path to turn heads and get its largely ignored machines back on the radar scope of consumers of all stripes: redesigns. Pictures have been floating around the internet for the past several weeks of the PSP Go, a sleeker, thinner portable that drops the disc drive (goodbye, useless UMDs!) and adds both a built-in hard drive and touch screen for direct competition against the dominating DS and the quickly-expanding iPhone. Rumors have been circulating, meanwhile, around the PS three, Sony’s obligatory redesign of its console, resulting in a significantly smaller and quieter version of the PS3 that would also, incidentally, provide the perfect occasion for a price drop (although there might be some reason to doubt the validity of this report: Sony has officially denied that the supposedly leaked pictures of the new model are legitimate; both the PS one and PS two, meanwhile, were released later in their respective systems’ lifespans).

But even if both machines do, indeed, end up getting makeovers, it still doesn’t address the fundamental problem plaguing the current iterations: just who, exactly, is the intended userbase? Sony marketed the original PlayStation to diehard gamers, but only the hardest of the hardcore could afford any console priced at a whopping $600 – and still find it difficult to do so with one at the PS3’s current price of $400, particularly in a tanking economy. And although the company originally attempted to angle its current system as a bargain-priced multimedia unit – when the initial standalone Blu-ray DVD players hit store shelves at $1,199, half that for a model that could also play PSX, PS2, and PS3 games was, indeed, a steal – that, too, has been stripped from it: now BR players are half the price of the PS3, retailing at a paltry $199. Even worse, the breadth and depth of the system’s software library – what made the PS2 in particular such a phenomenal success the world over – is nowhere near that of the Xbox 360, let alone that of its predecessor. Thanks to Microsoft releasing first and PS3 sales remaining persistently and consistently sluggish since launch, more and more developers are bringing their titles over to the 360 – even their exclusive ones, the titles that gamers from all walks of life would buy a PlayStation specifically for: Capcom’s Devil May Cry 4, Take-two’s Grand Theft Auto IV, Square Enix’s upcoming Final Fantasy XIII (and, if rumors are to be trusted, Konami’s forthcoming Metal Gear Solid 5).

The only target user left over is the aforementioned tech fetishist, the electronics-obsessed uber-chic geek who has to go out and buy a flat-screen TV or iPhone or, yes, BR-DVD player right on day one. While he and his buddies are undoubtedly loyal to the tech gurus that constitute Sony, they are a profoundly limited bunch – certainly not enough to form the fundamental or, even, entire basis for a handheld or console system’s success. That they comprise the PS3’s major install base is reflected in the machine’s perennially low sales (although things are starting to look up in the Land of the Rising Sun, as more and more average Japanese discard their Wiis and return to the PlayStation dynasty); if they continue to remain Sony’s biggest type of consumer, then the PS3 and PSP, redesigns or no, will be the last hardware the electronics giant makes before being forced to transform into a software-only company, as Sega did eight years ago.

So how to revamp? Clearly identify the core user, then cater to his needs. If it’s the hardcore gamer (which it had better be; what kind of casual gamer would drop four hundred bucks on a system that only has stymied and half-hearted motion control?), ease the bar of entry; $299 for the PlayStation 3 is both fair and needed. An expansion of budget software, which Sony just announced at least year’s E3, is also a big requisite – a development the company has already overseen, days before its press conference. And a huge slew of must-have titles, something which the system wasn’t able to pull off until a year-and-a-half into its lifespan, must not only be maintained, it must also be constantly, aggressively advertised. Here, again, Sony is one step ahead: by releasing both Killzone 2 and Infamous in the first half of this year, it’s already got a leg up on its two competitors’ 2009 lineups and heads into E3 with a good deal of momentum.

It’s just that first point that still stands in the way – and will continue to, if industry insiders are at all correct in their analysis. Even if history repeats itself and Sony manages to walk out of the LACC with its head held high and a victory crown clutched firmly in its hand, it still has to face an outside world both daunting and bleak.

Extinction typically looks that way to the endangered species.

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