Switched On: Resetting Sony's player-haters

Ross Rubin
R. Rubin|11.08.06

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Switched On: Resetting Sony's player-haters

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment

Brian: I'm not the Messiah! Will you please listen? I am not the Messiah, do you understand? Honestly!
Woman: Only the true Messiah denies His divinity.
Brian: What? Well, what sort of chance does that give me? All right! I am the Messiah!
Followers: He is! He is the Messiah!
--Life of Brian

Sony has been held to a no-win standard with the PlayStation 3. The company has been widely criticized for delays resulting from production of a leading-edge optical drive, for failing at its attempt to launch globally because of product shortages, and for cutting costs by not including rumble capability in its controllers or HDMI cables in its boxes. Many fans are angry -- Nickelback-angry even.

Yet, each of these decisions would have received criticism had they been made differently. Had the PS3 not included Blu-Ray, Sony would have been accused of ignoring corporate synergy. Had Sony not attempted a global launch, it would have been taken flak for being behind the times in terms of distribution and -- were there not product shortages -- demand would have been perceived as weak. Finally, including haptics technology or HDMI cables would have added cost to what is already the most expensive console in many years.

Indeed, with a technology-savvy competitor such as Microsoft entering the market in the last generation, it's difficult to consider what Sony should have done differently. The company has achieved dominant success across two generations of videogame consoles by investing in leading-edge technology. Defying convention may work for the Wii, but Sony's success has been the convention. And let's forget about Nintendo and Microsoft for a moment; what about the more than 100 million PlayStation 2s the company has sold? It had to aim high to present a compelling enough reason to upgrade.

"When you're a market leader," said Sony Computer Entertainment SVP of Marketing Peter Dille in a recent Engadget interview, "you're gonna take a lot of slings and arrows." That has certainly been true of the more memorable quotes from SCEA executives in the past year. Sony is criticized when executives suggest that its hardware prowess may be slipping but also when they crow that the next generation doesn't start until the PlayStation 3 launches.

The latter comment clearly got under Microsoft's usually thick skin and that's exactly what smack-talk is designed to do. At the Xbox 360 event this week, Microsoft further embraced convergence and beat Sony to the punch in offering movies and TV shows downloaded directly to its console. At the same time, Gears of War was held up as a challenge to anyone doubting that the Xbox 360 embraced the next generation of gaming. As what Microsoft predicts will be a million gamers will find out this holiday season, Gears of War is certainly among the most visceral combat video games ever released for any console.

So, Sony's competition is indeed formidable and the time is at hand. PlayStation 3 is – by far – its most important product of the year. But at the Play Beyond event in New York City last week, gamers didn't care about any of that. While playing MotorStorm, a collective shout of surprise and delight came from onlookers as a crashing vehicle shot into the air, off of a cliff, and landed onto another in a graphically stunning and physically realistic way. If Sony can capture that level of enthusiasm consistently, it will be ready to rumble.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group and a contributing editor for LAPTOP. Views expressed in Switched On are his own. Feedback is welcome at fliptheswitch@gmail.com.
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