Will the PS3 succeed?

Here we are, almost a month from the PS3 launch. And here are my thoughts on the subject.

Sony really seem to be drinking the Kool-Aid. If the PS3 comes out on top, it will be through a miracle of marketing – I think the odds are stacked against it this time around.

The Sony brand really isn’t that strong any more. The PSP is an expensive brick that is lagging behind the DS in gameplay and sales. And Sony these days seems like a really badly led company: see the controller rumble debacle, their continued insistence on trying to lock in proprietary media (MD, memory stick, UMD, and now Blu-Ray), and the music disc rootkit fiasco.

Comparisons to the PS2 launch don’t hold up very well. When the PS2 launched, the PS was a stronger brand, it had no same-generation competition for almost a year, and crucially, it was a cheap DVD player at a time when DVD was taking off. It also had almost no games for 6 months and frankly was lucky it had no competition as a console or a DVD player. Sony hope that people will buy PS3 for the Blu-Ray. Well, DVD over VHS is a much more significant upgrade. Better picture, better lifetime, no rewinding, extra features. BD (or HD-DVD for that matter) over DVD? Not really worth shelling out for until you’re ready to upgrade anyway (not to mention that you need to buy a new TV too).

What about developers? Well, the big revolution in games programming this year is the move to multi-core architectures. This is happening across the board (on PC too). Look ahead to Xmas 2007 and you’ll see games which are similar in architecture on PC and Xbox 360. Dealing with the 360 is dealing with familiar console issues we’ve all dealt with before – care over memory and cache, with the odd PowerPC gotcha to avoid. But fundamentally the code and data architecture can be similar. Not so with the PS3 – Sony asks us to deal with the triple whammy of multi-core, asymmetric processors, and draconian memory restrictions. Moving to multi-core is already a big deal and a challenge for the industry. I’m not so sure about our ability to handle the PS3 weirdness as well. And it doesn’t help that Microsoft’s development environment and tools beat Sony’s by several country miles.

In a year or so, I can see that the average PS3 game will actually be better than the average Xbox 360 game. But it’s easy to see this from the wrong angle. The risk is that only blockbuster titles will make it to the PS3, because of the bet Sony is asking developers and publishers to make. The PS3 is so difficult and expensive to make a game for that only the high cost, high return titles will make it. It’s a business model which is showing its age and is risky – the industry is already hit-driven and we could do with more efforts to exploit the long tail, along the lines of Xbox Live Arcade or games like Brain Age.

In conclusion, I’ll be getting a Wii when it launches. Maybe someday I’ll get an Xbox 360. It’ll be a long time before I get a PS3, if at all.

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