Summary: With the PS3 launch just a few months away, JCal recaps recent events and commentary by Sony executives, giving us a context for one of the most exciting and controversial console debates in gaming history.
However, Sony’s upcoming Playstation 3 console has generated, without a doubt, the most talk and the most debate of any of the three next-gen consoles this year. It hasn’t always been for good reasons, though. Ever since Sony’s E3 press conference last May, there have been some serious questions about the console and some game developers and analysts have openly said they don’t think the PS3 will be as successful sales wise as the Xbox 360 and the Wii. In this editorial we will look at the pros and cons that we know of for the PS3, using quotes from Sony PlayStation execs that they have made over the last two months or so following E3 as our guide. Please be aware that Sony has not yet revealed everything about their new console (including specific particulars for their online game service) so our views about the console can and most likely will change in the months leading up to the release of the PS3 in the US on November 17.
Issue 1: Price
The price of the PS3 has been the center point of the debate over the console ever since May 8 when Sony officially announced that the 20 GB hard drive version of the console will be sold for $499 and the 60 GB hard drive version would be sold for $599. (We will examine the other differences between the two versions of the PS3 later in this article). However you slice it, the price point of the PS3 is more expensive than the Xbox 360 ($399 for the version with the hard drive and $299 for the non hard drive version) and the Wii ($250 and it could be less).
The conclusion is pretty simple; the PS3 is going to be pricey. The logical forecast is for the console to most likely sell well when it is first launched to the early adopter crowd but that once that market is finished buying their PS3s the general public will be very wary of picking up a $600 game machine.
Issue 2: Two SKUs
Once again, Sony wants to put the illusion of choice to the consumer but the choices they are giving them represent no choice at all for hardcore gamers. They will want the $599 version or none at all. Since the PS3 will sell to the hardcore gamer first before the general consumer what’s the point in offering the $499 version when Sony could likely sell all of their units in the first few months with only the $599 available?
We thought that Sony might learn some lessons from Microsoft’s mistake but they didn’t. As a result, those $499 versions might be sitting around the local game retailer on launch day while the $599 will be snatched up.
Issue 3: Technology
For the PS3, the two big features of the console will be the Cell multiprocessor and the Blu-Ray disk drive. Both features are the likely reason why Sony is asking so much for the console on launch day but they could hurt the PS3 in the long run.
The Cell multiprocessor is indeed a powerful chip, or rather eight processor units along with another 64 bit unit. According to Sony’s specs it will run at over 4 GHz and will have the theoretical performance of over 256 Gigaflops. In short, it seems to be something that game developers are itching to use. Yet at E3 when Sony actually showed real PS3 games in motion (and not the CGI movies of E3 2005 like the notorious Killzone trailer) the overall looks of the games were about as good as the currently available Xbox 360 titles. That’s to be expected in some ways since first generation games on any console tend not to fully utilize the hardware.
The other big technology reach for the PS3 is the Blu-Ray disk drive. Sony is the major driver of the next gen disk technology, which launched just a couple of weeks ago with a $1,000 Samsung player and a handful of movies (Sony’s own Blu-Ray movie player won’t be in stores until late October, just a few weeks before the PS3 launch). The Blu-Ray disk can hold many times more data and video than the standard DVD format (which is what the Xbox 360 uses and the Nintendo Wii will use). Sony is clearly banking on the acceptance of the PS3 to push the Blu-Ray standard to consumers over the competing HD-DVD, which launched a few months ago (Microsoft will have an HD-DVD add-on for the Xbox 360 this fall but it will be used only for movies).
Yet Sony is taking a huge gamble with launching their next-gen console with a next-gen disk format only a few months after Blu-Ray itself was introduced to the public. Early reviews from movie and tech web sites have not been kind to the Samsung Blu-Ray player with TheDigitalBits.com saying that both Blu-Ray and HD-DVD have launched a year too early to the consumer market. They recommended that people stay away from Blu-Ray until all of the bugs and kinks in the format have been ironed out. One has to wonder if such problems might affect the PS3 when it launches this November.
At their E3 press conference, Sony shocked the audience with a new design of the PS3 controller, returning it to the look of the PS2 controller over the previously seen “batarang” style console that was shown at E3 in 2005. However it was what was inside the new PS3 controller that counted as the real surprise as Sony showed a wireless motion sensing device not unlike Nintendo’s Wii remote controller. The E3 press conference showed the controller being used for the upcoming PS3 exclusive flying action game Warhawk.
However, the motion sensing features of the PS3 controller were only shown on Warhawk during E3. When asked, many developers had not yet decided if they were going to use those features in their PS3 games, leading some to speculate that Sony cooked up the motion sensing features at the last minute (Sony has denied this, saying they have been developing this feature for some time). However of bigger concern to some gamers was the announcement of the lack of rumble support for the PS3 controller. Officially, Sony said that the rumble feature had to be removed to add the motion sensing features. However, many speculate that the real reason was Sony’s ongoing legal battle with force feedback technology company Immersion who claimed Sony violated their trademarks when they put rumble features in the PS2 controller. Sony has denied Immersion’s claims, despite a judge’s ruling that Sony pay Immersion for the rumble tech (the case is now under appeal.)
The tech behind the PS3 is both impressive and a concern. Can game developers use the Cell to its utmost? Will the choice of a Blu-Ray disk drive help or hurt the console? Will players decide to miss the rumble to enjoy the freedom of movement that the motion sensing tech gives the PS3 controller? Time will tell.
Issue 4: Online
That was certainly not the case for Microsoft’s Xbox console. Xbox Live launched in 2002, a year after the launch of the Xbox itself and while there was a fee to sign up there was no extra equipment needed to play and Microsoft and third parties used it for not just online games but a way to give Xbox players a real sense of community. A year before the launch of the Xbox 360, the original Xbox started up Xbox Live Arcade, which gave folks a chance to pay for and download smaller simpler games.
It’s now the next generation and with the launch of the Xbox 360, Microsoft has shown that it can learn and expand from the lessons of the original Xbox Live. There’s an even deeper sense of a community with Xbox game achievements, gamer themes and pictures for the Xbox 360 desktops to unlock; downloadable demos, movies, patches and add-ons for games and most especially the new Xbox Live Arcade which gives new life to older games and new life to independently made titles.
Sony has plans for its own online network for the PS3 console that on the surface sound a lot like what Microsoft has done for Xbox Live. Like the PS2 it will be free to use but Sony has yet to give a lot of details about the service itself, including pricing for things like add-ons for games and downloadable titles similar to Xbox Live Arcade. At E3 Sony execs were once again claiming that the PS3 is more than just a game machine. Unlike Microsoft Sony doesn’t seem to have learned that it’s not good to promise what you can’t deliver. Sony tried and failed with a similar plan for a iTunes music download service and until more details are learned about the PS3’s online plans it pays to be skeptical about what Sony might bring to the table (we are not going to even mention the Nintendo Wii’s promised online support because there is even less info about it than the PS3).
Issue 5: Games
So what will the PS3 have in store for gamers come launch day on November 17? Well so far the results are mixed. Much like the Xbox 360 launch last year, the PS3 looks like it will have a number of solid titles like the first person shooter Resistance: Fall of Man, the action-RPG Untold Legends: Dark Kingdom; the hack and slash fighting game Heavenly Sword and the futuristic flying shooter Warhawk. However, none of the titles look like it will be a PS3 system seller a few months down the road. Indeed, many gamers are already looking ahead to fall 2007 to get the PS3 games that they really want, like Final Fantasy XIII, Tekken 6 and Metal Gear Solid 4. Sony lost a big semi-exclusive franchise when it was announced that Grand Theft Auto 4 would debut in late 2007 on both the PS3 and the Xbox 360 at the same time (previously the GTA franchise on the PS2 debuted on that console several months before anywhere else).
So will the PS3 launch titles turn out to be more than expected or will the Xbox 360 second generation games and the launch of the Wii be enough to swamp the PS3? Good question.
The end? Not yet….
With several months to go before the launch of the PS3, there are still enough questions and possibilities that we can’t close the door on the console’s chances in the marketplace. However, the fact that there are concerns and questions about the PS3’s chances when there were almost none before E3 has to be troubling to Sony. In interview after interview, Sony execs seem to be on the defensive about the price, the technology and other issues of the PS3 and the research firm DFC Intelligence stated just last week that Sony coming in third in the next-gen console war was a real possibility. Sony has a lot riding on this console’s success and indeed the entire game industry could be adversely affected if the PS3 does not perform up to expectations sales wise.
The truth is at this stage it’s actually a little fun to speculate about the PS3 but the fun is due to be over in a few months when the console actually is in stores. Will it be a big success like the PS2 or will it be a disappointment like Sony’s portable console the PSP? Things could still swing in Sony’s favor but for now its looking like, for the first time in Sony’s 11 year history of being in the console game space, they could be the underdog.
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