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Who Is This For? The Sony Problem And The Solution

by on December 8, 2012
 

The next generation of consoles is rapidly approaching.  Nintendo has already launched its horse in the next gen race before its competitors have even announced their new systems.  It’s highly expected that both Sony and Microsoft will announce their new consoles at next year’s E3.  If I was a Sony fan, I think I’d be a little concerned right about now.  The PS3 has finally managed to find its footing, but Sony has had great difficulty when it comes to launching new hardware.  Sony’s last truly successful hardware launch was way back when the PS2 debuted.  Since then, Sony has repeatedly made the same mistake.  They’ve designed hardware without defining its market.

While I can’t claim to have an intimate knowledge of Sony’s internal workings, I think I could make an educated guess as to how their gaming division works in terms of hardware production. I imagine there is a group of yes men who agree with any idea presented from the top brass. In their defense, these ideas sound good on paper. Sony’s products are generally well made and often sport interesting functionality. Sadly, nobody stops to ask the crucial question: Who is this product for?

Exhibit A: The PSP Go

For all of the flak it got, the PSP was a fairly successful product. Sony had the first handheld console outside of Nintendo that could truly be called a success, but that success was overlooked due to the unprecedented sales of the Nintendo DS. By 2009 it was clear that the PSP wouldn’t match its competitor, but Sony had an ace up their sleeve. Sony was set to release a smaller version of their PSP that focused on digital distribution. With Marcus and a smaller slicker PSP, Sony was ready to turn the tide in the handheld war.

Things didn’t quite turn out as Sony hoped The PSP Go failed to give the PSP a meaningful boost, and it was discontinued after a couple of unsuccessful years. The thing is, like many of Sony’s hardware releases, the PSP Go was not a bad product. It was a sleek portable that was small and convenient to carry. Digital downloads made the need to carry around a pocketful of games a thing of the past. The PSP Go even had a somewhat more powerful processor than the good ol’ PSP 3000.

Who Was This For?

Here’s the million dollar question. Who was the PSP Go designed for? Was it designed for avid PSP gamers who were looking for a smaller and more portable option? If so, the lack of UMD support or any method of transferring UMD games to digital games (in the US at least) was a deal breaker.  Forget backwards compatibility, the PSP Go wasn’t even sideways compatible.  Was the PSP meant for the late adopter who was just arriving to the portable gaming scene? If so, the price of $250 made it a poor option. For the life of me, I can’t figure out exactly who Sony thought would buy the PSP Go.

Exhibit B: The Playstation Move

With the introduction of the Wii, motion controls were suddenly the hottest thing in the gaming world. It was only a matter of time before others joined in on the trend. In 2009, Microsoft showed off the Kinect, a camera which tracked players bodies to control games. Sony showed off their own motion controlled solution, and it was… kind of similar to the Wii.

Functionally, the Move worked well. It was accurate and ergonomic. It was certainly more accurate than the standard Wii remote, and was superior in many aspects to the Wii Motion Plus enhanced Wiimote. The real advantage of the Move was the fact that it would connect to superior hardware. The PS3 was capable of top HD graphics and was far more capable than the dated tech in the Wii. With the combination of powerful hardware and accurate motion sensing technology, what could go wrong?

Who Was It For?

Once again, we have to ask who the target audience for the Playstation Move was. Was the device made for Wii Sports fans who wanted to play games in HD? Did such gamers really exist? If so, did these casual gamers want to pay $400 for Wii Sports HD? Was the Playstation Move for “hardcore” gamers who wanted to play motion controlled games? If so, Sony should have realized that “hardcore” gamers had little interest in motion controlled games. Perhaps some gamers could have been lured over from Nintendo’s fanbase, but Sony never developed an adequate software library to support the peripheral.  Was Sorcery going to draw Nintendo devotees away from Skyward Sword?

Exhibit C: Xperia Play

For those of us who like to play our games on the go, a cell phone/PSP hybrid is the holy grail. A device that combines all of the features we’ve come to rely on in our smartphone with high quality software and the buttons that gamers need would be a dream come true. Sony took a stab at creating this divine combination with the Xperia Play. After months of speculation, the Xperia Play made its debut on the grandest and most expensive stage of all. Sony ushered in their new device with an ad during the Superbowl. Sony proudly proclaimed that the Android was ready to play.

The Xperia Play did feature the best controls to be found in a cell phone, and it had the features you’d expect out of a cell phone. It was also a pretty well designed phone with a nice curvy aesthetic and a sleek layout (I’m a sucker for flip up screens). It was, as advertised, an Android phone with a d-pad and buttons, and it did what it was supposed to do fairly well.

Who Was This For?

The Xperia Play still has me scratching my head. You’d guess that the Xperia Play was designed for gamers hoping to free up some pocket space with a phone that could play high quality games. However, the selling point of the Xperia Play was its ability to access the Playstation Pocket app which enabled the Xperia Play to play PS1 games like Crash Bandicoot. Not quite the killer app to entice gamers to sign a contract and shove their DS in a closet. Gamers could also use the Xperia Play to play certain Droid games with enhanced control. Playing Zenonia and Nova with touch controls was nice, but hardly appealing to gamers looking for experiences like God of War: Chains of Olympus and Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep. Maybe the Xperia Play was for avid mobile gamers looking for a better gameplay experience? In that case, the Xperia Play was outclassed by many other Droid Phones. It was doubtful that the dpad and buttons of the Xperia play would convince mobile gamers to choose the Xperia Play over the Galaxy SII.

The Xperia Play did eventually find a small but devoted market in the homebrew communities. The Xperia’s fair amount of power and its buttons made the device a natural fit for running NES, SNES, and PS1 emulators. Somehow, I doubt that this is what Sony intended for the device.

Exhibit D: The Playstation 3D Display

Sony makes TVs.  Sony makes video game systems.  Logically, Sony should be able to make a kick ass TV for gamers.  Sony finally combined their two passions with the Playstation 3D DIsplay, a TV (well technically a monitor) designed specifically for the Playstation 3.  The Playstation 3D Display featured an impressive 240 HZ refresh rate, full 1080p HD, 3D and a unique simulview feature that made screen watching a thing of the past.  Oh, and it was 24 inches big.

Who Was This For?

When they revealed the Playstation 3D Display, Sony explained that its purpose was to make 3D affordable and accessible to the masses.  Sony’s marketing team didn’t seem to realize the public’s general apathy towards 3D (a lesson Nintendo would learn the hard way as well).  There were some people looking for 3D TVs, but those people were not interested in a meager 24″ screen.  The Playstation 3D Display’s size did make it appealing to someone in a dorm room or someone looking for a second TV for the bedroom, but it was prohibitively expensive for this audience.  The TV was too small for entertainment junkies and too expensive for the typical 24″ TV market.

The technology market is a volatile one, but few products have seen such an incredibly swift fall from grace.  Within weeks of its release, the Playstation 3D Display was down from 500 to 400 bucks.  By the end of two months, it was down to about 300.  This year, the device hovered around the 200 dollar mark.  It seems like the last of Sony’s stock was sold off this Black Friday for 100 bucks a pop.

Exhibit E: The Playstation Vita

Sony’s had a hard time making successful hardware, and their most recent portable console has followed that pattern. On paper, the Vita is one hell of a machine. The specs of the Playstation Vita make the 3DS look like a joke. While modern smartphones beat out the Vita, the Vita’s gaming optimization should keep it at the high end of gaming visuals for the foreseeable future. It’s the first dedicated handheld to feature twin analog sticks, and it’s rather well designed in an aesthetic sense. Its graphics approach those of the PS3 and X-Box 360.

Who Was This For?

You would assume that Sony wanted to reach the “hardcore” gamers with the Vita. They wanted the folks who play Call of Duty, Uncharted, God Of War, and maybe even games like Final Fantasy. I seriously doubt that Sony ever expected the Vita to outsell the 3DS. I think Sony expected the Vita to have a smaller market, but a market that was more willing to spend their hard earned cash on games.

What went wrong with the Vita? Sony understood what market they were shooting for this time, but not how to appeal to that market. Counter-intuitive as it may seem, most people who own handheld games are likely to play them mostly at home. Why this is the case is a whole different article, but the short version is that handhelds offer different experiences than consoles that true gaming fans appreciate. A console experience on the go sounds nice in theory, but time and time again, we’ve seen that’s not what sells in the portable market.  Portable ports of PS3 games aren’t going to cut it.  Games from popular franchises developed by second tier studios aren’t going to cut it either.  Games like Gravity Rush are a good start, but the software support for the Vita is sorely lacking.

The Sony Problem

These examples encapsulate the problem that Sony’s had over these past years. Sony doesn’t have a clear idea who they’re marketing to.  Sony’s tagline for the PS3 is “It Only Does Everything”.  Unfortunately, when you try to do everything you don’t do any one thing particularly well.  Products like the Playstation Move tried to please hardcore and casual gamers and wound up appealing to neither audience.  The PSP Go couldn’t figure out whether it should appeal to new adopters or longtime PSP fans.  The Xperia Play existed in a limbo between handheld gaming console and cell phone.  The Playstation TV was too high tech and expensive for those who might buy a small TV and too small for the 3DTV market.

The Solution

The point of this exercise wasn’t to bash Sony for the sake of bashing Sony. While I’ve dwelt on the negative, that doesn’t mean that Sony does nothing well. In fact, there are a lot of things I love about Sony. Original fat PS3 notwithstanding, I’m a big fan of Sony’s hardware design.  Sony’s products look a whole lot nicer than their rivals.  Sony’s major first party releases generally sport nearly unrivaled levels of polish in terms of visual style and gameplay. Sony is one of the few companies that invests in new IPs throughout a console generation. We just saw Sony launch a new IP, and next year already has two new IPs slated in. This is unheard of this late in the console cycle. While Sony sometimes have a nasty habit of copying their rivals (usually Nintendo) they’re also capable of making surprisingly ahead of the curve products like Heavy Rain and LittleBigPlanet.

In short, Sony excels in execution. When Sony sets out to make something, they usually make it very well. With the possible exception of the Xperia Play, none of the products I’ve listed above are bad or poorly done. They’re well crafted products that perform their intended functions well, but there isn’t a clear market for them.  If Sony had spent a bit more time defining their audience before releasing the devices, they could have been very successful.

In the coming generation, Sony has a huge opportunity. As much as I love Nintendo, I accept that they’ll never be the company of choice for hardcore gaming, and I wouldn’t want them to be. Meanwhile, Microsoft seems to be focused more on Apple than their rivals in the gaming sector. The days of Microsoft being the company that caters to hardcore gamers ended with the Kinect. While Microsoft is distracted, Sony has the potential to steal a large portion of the X-Box fan base from under their nose.

If Sony wants to eat away at the X-Box’s audience, they need to have a big company meeting. They have to look over the mistakes I’ve listed above. They have to make a decision to focus squarely on the hardcore gaming market. After they do that, they have to think very deeply about how they can best serve that market. From there, Sony just needs to do what they do best and make excellent and polished products. In short, Sony needs to stop trying to do everything and focus on doing one thing really well.  If they do this, Sony could see tremendous success in the coming generation. However, if Sony maintains its unfocussed approach, the PS4 may wind up as exhibit F on my list.

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