The Mistake

We should see November’s sales numbers within the next week or so. It’s likely that Nintendo will outsell Microsoft who will outsell Sony in the TV console space. It’s also likely that DS will be quite a long distance ahead of PlayStation Portable for that same period. If you went back to 2005 and told people that Nintendo would be leading the pack with Wii and DS while Sony would be bringing up the rear, no one would believe you. In fact, they’d probably call you a lunatic. I know… because I enjoyed playing Nintendo Gamecube games in 2005, was pretty happy to get on board with Nintendo DS, and that was a sin like no other at the time. Nintendo was a dirty word. One of the dirtiest in gaming as a matter of fact. (It still is with a certain subset of the hardcore, but that’s a story for a different day…)

Here we are in December 2007 and it’s time to figure out where Sony screwed up. After all, no console maker has ever rebounded when they’ve been confined to last place in a generation. We’ve got years upon years of history in this industry that proves that doesn’t happen, so it’s pretty unlikely Sony will buck the trend this time around, despite what some would like you to believe.

It might seem obvious now, but Sony’s biggest error was simply launching the PlayStation 3 in 2006 at all.

Looking back to last year, Sony and Nintendo’s launches were within a week of one another. People were lined up across the country for both systems. Only one of those–Wii–has shown staying power. It’s pretty clear now that price played a role, but I think it was a lot more than price that was the issue.

Nintendo changed the way people play videogames. More importantly, they did it when both Sony and Microsoft offered exactly the same way to play videogames, albeit prettier, as they did in the last generation. This shift cannot be underestimated. However, it didn’t need to be Sony’s downfall and they let it become just that. By launching PlayStation 3 next to the Wii, they made their extremely expensive, complex and powerful machine look downright old. Technology that people can’t see is technology that doesn’t matter to them, and with PS3, that’s what you get.

Have you ever talked to someone about a movie or TV show and explained how something in the film caught your eye, but that person didn’t even notice? Often that will be something technical that we as nerds find unique or interesting. It might even be a fairly major plot point that helps bring everything together, but because that person didn’t catch it, they don’t like the film or show as much as you. I often notice this when discussing film and television, and yes, videogames, with the average guy. Hardcore gamers, the current base for 360 and PS3, simply perceive all these games, systems, film, TV, everything with a completely different set of trained eyes.

So to us, PlayStation 3 looks like something uniquely new. It offers some brilliant graphics, high definition output, Blu-Ray DVD playback, neat stuff. To Average Joe, it looks like it plays the same games that the PS2 did. Their eye isn’t trained the way ours is. Maybe they need to play some Brain Age and Flash Focus?

The Wii on the other hand–you can see the change. There’s this controller that doesn’t look like a controller. You wave it in the air instead of pushing buttons and tilting levers. You point it at the screen and use it sort of like a mouse, but it’s kind of magical in the way it lets you interact with things on the screen. You can grab things, strike things, manipulate them more realistically–and while the technology inside the white plastic is “old”, what the system allows you to do is entirely new.

If Sony were launching PlayStation 3 in 2007, Blu-Ray would seem a lot more important. The power of the system would seem more amplified because hey, it’s two years after 360, it has to be better. Even if they hadn’t messed with the design in that extra year’s time, PS3 software would also have benefitted from the delay. Maybe they could’ve put together something truly brilliant instead of what they’ve got now, a handful of sequels and one wholly unique idea (Eye of Judgement) that’s too much improbably configured technological twaddling instead of solid game design. Best of all, a price of say $499.99 would’ve been almost reasonable today unlike how it looked last year with only one game worth playing at the time of launch. That probably would’ve put Sony in the black with the system, and even given Wii popularity exactly as it has transpired over the last year, PlayStation 3 would be brand spanking new. Imagine the impact of that today.

The real kicker is it would’ve been easily manageable for Sony. PlayStation 2 is still selling well and would have sold even better with another strong Christmas push behind it in 2006 and into mid-2007. That would’ve let Sony wind that business down the right way instead of having to now support two systems almost equally. People would’ve been a lot more ready to dump their PS2 this year for a PlayStation 3 that they had never seen before, even with a higher price tag than the competition. And if Sony really wanted to meet Nintendo’s innovative controls with something of their own, they could’ve done that in the meantime too, though I don’t think their current corporate culture would’ve allowed that.

I don’t think third-party publishers would have minded so much. They still have teams working on games for the PS2 generation of hardware and had them in place for last Christmas too. Even crazier, making people wait another year would have made 360 look even more like Dreamcast–launched too soon and with too little power to truly be the “next generation” of consoles next to the mighty PlayStation 3.

Considering all the money Sony has apparently lost on the system, waiting another year probably couldn’t have cost them more and maybe even cost them a lot less. In the long run it might also have turned PS3 into the winner it was supposed to be. As it stands now, you just can’t relaunch a console. The odds are against you ever turning the tide to the extent that your best bet is almost always to start looking ahead and let the other system just run its course while you batten down the hatches to ride out the storm.

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