Sony's Suicidal PS4 Strategy

Sony’s PS4 launch event wasn’t just the Emperor’s New Console – hordes of people excitedly singing the praises of something that doesn’t exist – it was the Emperor’s New Empire. Sony have made their standard mistake of assuming they’ve already won the market before even launching the product, and immediately crippling it to make more money. If Sony entered a 100 meter dash they’d get ready, get set, and then stroll off the track to sell spectators exclusive photos of their 1st place finish.

The main point of the event was seemingly to publicly announce that they knew that three plus one is four. That was the sum total of the engineering development on display, since they didn’t actually have a PS4. They just wanted to let the world know that there would be one, and that any PS3-owning suckers should get ready to buy it because their old games won’t work anymore. One of the few hard details available was that the PS4 will not have any backwards compatibility. Just in case any traitorous fans were thinking about buying the wrong Sony product this year.

The PS3 did the same thing. Early versions had backwards compatibility, giving players access to the PS2 library, aka “the greatest game collection in existence at the time.” It’s hard to overstress just how utterly Sony won the PS2 console generation. They were kings, no, pharaohs, ruling a land deserted of any serious competition from the towering peak of a vast stack of games. People scoffed at the idea of “those people who make Windows” trying to be gamers. The only thing an Xbox seemed good for was blue-screen-of-death jokes. It would have taken a determined, multi-billion dollar hardware effort to throw Sony off the top spot. And that’s exactly what Sony did.

The PS3 came out with all the giant fanfare of a Zeppelin launch, and each unit cost about the same. And moved off the shelves at about the same speed, which is to say that “speed” was entirely the wrong word and the Zeppelin was going down in flames. In response Sony stripped out the backwards compatibility. Allegedly to bring the costs down, but that was like saving money by refusing to stock toilet paper on the Titanic. They needed to boost PS3 games sales figures to look like they weren’t losing the console battle, and that meant that anybody buying other Sony games was buying the wrong Sony games. It’s not so much the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing, as much as the right hand desperately scrabbling for grip to pull the company up from a cliff while the left hand hits it with a hammer.

The PS3 was also apparently incompatible with the incredibly popular DualShock 2 computer, and buyers were told that DualShock was old school and they should buy a Sixaxis. Until the next year, when the DualShock 3 was made available and suddenly DualShock was profitable. I mean cool again. Sony’s target market is the guy from Memento. Or maybe a goldfish living in an Atlantean bank.

The masterpiece of their failed attempts at monopolizing themselves was the Utter Media Disaster, aka the UMD, the proprietary format for the PlayStation Portable. The hardware was so badly designed that hacked consoles actually ran faster than legal ones, but so torturously designed that the hackers would buy one legal game each because even a hacked console simply ran faster if it found one. Even when it was playing installed games. It didn’t matter if that disc was the game you were actually playing, as long as it proved that you’d paid Sony some money the system worked better. That’s not a victory for anti-piracy, that’s hardware proof that Sony design decisions are now electronically disconnected from gameplay.

Which is why the PS4 will play PS3 games. You just need to buy them again. The New York event didn’t even prove that the PS4 could play PS4 games, instead showing rendered videos and hoping that we all fall for that for the millionth time, but they announced plans for a download service where you can buy all your favorites again. You might recognize this from the Sony Blu-Ray. You won’t recognize it from the Sony UMD, because gnomes don’t exist and so nobody paid full price to watch a movie on a PSP’s tiny screen. Especially since those UMDs were designed specifically so that you couldn’t output video from the PSP to a real screen. Someone needs to explain to Sony that purchases aren’t like orgasms – it’s not a good thing if you make the other person do it multiple times.

And that download service? It’s being built by the same company that created PlayStation home, who thought that paying to artificially queue for games which should never have insulted a bit of binary code was a good idea. Even if it’s working when you want to play, and miraculously lets you use your own console without forcing a half-hour update first, converting games for emulation is difficult and expensive. Which means they’ll mostly convert games so popular that they already have sequels on the new console. Because gods know we need yet another God of War. We wouldn’t hold out hope for obscure titles like Killer 7. It’s more likely to be the top ten games of each year, probably released at about the same speed as they were originally made.

The upshot? The PS4 doesn’t even exist, won’t until the end of the year, and it already makes PS3 games look obsolete. Ensuring a full year where no-one will buy a console which only recently clambered out of its billion-dollar hole. It takes some balls to come out and tell the world “all our latest and most-advertised games will be useless soon!” It also takes some balls to be caught having sex with a casserole – not everything driven by balls is good, and now no-one wants anything you’ve made.

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