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It Only Does Nothing Useful: Examining Sony’s Hardware Woes

by on April 6, 2012
 

It Only Does Nothing Useful:  Sony’s Hardware Struggles

Every now and then, a gaming company makes a move that just plain doesn’t make sense. Nokia decided to turn a Game Boy into a phone, and simultaneously created the world’s worst gaming system and the world’s worst cell phone. Microsoft launched their first console with a controller that only Andre the Giant could comfortably hold. Nintendo has been rightfully mocked for many years over the fiasco that was the Virtual Boy. More recently, the Big N thought that 3D effects were worth $250 to the average consumer. Yet, none of these companies can hold a candle to Sony in their ability to ineptly launch hardware.

Most companies work on a simple business model. They see a consumer need that is not being filled, and they fill it. Sony seems to operate on a different model. They develop a product, and then they pray a market will emerge for it. Before Sony releases a product, they need to take a moment to pause and think “Who exactly is this for?” Let’s take a look at some of Sony’s recent products to see what I mean.

Exhibit A:  The PSP Go

For all the hate it gets, the PSP Go wasn’t really a bad system. By eliminating the PSP’s UMD drive, Sony was able to create a compact, sleek, and ultra portable system. Judged on its own merits, the Go was arguably the best portable of its generation, but I have to ask who Sony expected to sell this thing to.

Maybe Sony expected its hardcore fanbase to pick up the PSP Go. The PSP’s design was getting long in the tooth, and the PSP Go was a more attractive alternative. However, the loyal Sony fan most likely owned a version of the PSP with a nice sized library of games. If this was the market Sony was going for, they had to realize that a lack of UMD support would mean a quick death for the handheld.

Was the PSP Go made for new adopters who hadn’t taken the PSP plunge? This seems more likely. In comparison to the Go, the PSP 3000 was bulky and garish. Sony may have thought that a sleeker system with a strict focus on downloadable content would attract the iPhone crowd into the Sony fold. If this was Sony’s target audience, the pricepoint of the Go was simply too high. Only a true gamer would pay $250 for a handheld.

So, the PSP Go wasn’t a good fit for Sony’s loyal customers, and it wasn’t a good fit for new adopters. Who was the PSP Go for? Nobody apparently. The device struggled mightily at launch, and was officially dead within two years. Would Sony learn from this failure?

Exhibit B: The Playstation Move

After the Wii’s success, it was only a matter of time before other companies tried to get a slice of that sweet motion controlled pie. Microsoft unveiled the Kinect, a camera that can track your body movements. Even though I’m not a fan of the Kinect, I could at least respect Microsoft for trying something novel. The Move on the other hand is a blatant, but slightly more accurate and ergonomic, rip off of the Wii-mote.

With the Playstation Move, you can see what Sony was going for. They were targeting two distinct gamers. One of these groups were gamers who enjoy the Wii and its motion controlled goodness, but also care about polygon counts and 1080p resolution. The other group is hardcore gamers who wanted motion controls, but didn’t care for Nintendo’s casual leaning Wii console.

The problem is that neither of these markets really exist. The casual Wii fans that Sony was targeting were content with Wii Sports, a game that would have looked dated if it came out in the year 2000. Those gamers simply aren’t too concerned with cutting edge graphics, or at least not concerned enough to pay 400+ dollars. As for the traditional gamer, they simply don’t want to play Call of Duty with a Move controller. Motion controls have become so entwined with casual gaming that so called “hardcore gamers” want nothing to do with them. As for those hardcore gamers who do want motion controlled games, most of those are Nintendo’s most devoted fans. Frankly, the Move has nothing available that will pull these Nintendrones away from the fold. Zelda Skyward Sword or Medieval Moves. Decisions, decisions.

If you don’t believe me, a quick look at some sales figures will convince you. While Just Dance 3 sold a whopping 8.8 million copies on the Wii, and a respectable 1.7 on the Kinect, it has only sold a paltry 300,000 copies on the PS3. Move support has not helped games like Killzone 3 or Resistance 3 eclipse their predecessors, and games like Medieval Moves and Move Heroes have been out and out failures.

Exhibit C: The Playstation 3D Display

Sony has been pushing 3D hard for a very long time. As producers of 3D films, manufacturers of 3D Blu-rays, and makers of 3D TVs, Sony has a big stake in the 3D game. Their most recent attempt to push 3D into our homes and our hearts was the Playstation 3D Display.

The Playstation 3D Display is a 3D monitor capable of connecting to any 3D device with an HDMI output. The Playstation 3D Display has fairly good specs with a 240 hz refresh rate and full 1080p resolution. The device even sports a nice style, and the appealing Playstation branding. That all sounds pretty great until you realize that it’s 24” and $500.

Who exactly is the Playstation 3D made for? I’m sure that they exist somewhere, but I’ve yet to meet someone who cares more about their TV’s 3D capabilities than its size. Twenty four inches is exceedingly small, even for the average bedroom. I don’t think that there are many people out there who will pay $500 dollars for a 24” TV regardless of its 3D capabilities or Simulview. The display makes somewhat more sense as a computer monitor, but even then, the price will likely scare off potential buyers.

Again Sony created a nice product with no obvious market, and again the product flopped. Within a few weeks, the Playstation 3D Display was down to $400 dollars, and another price drop soon followed. The system now sells for $300 dollars after a staggering 40% price cut. Even at this new lower price, nobody seems particularly interested.

Exhibit D: The Playstation Vita

The PSVita is the latest in Sony’s line of struggling hardware. The Vita certainly isn’t an outright flop like the PSP Go was. The Vita may still have a bright future ahead of it, but Sony has some issues to address before the Vita can be a success.

Sony’s strategy in the handheld market is simple. Since the days of the PSP, Sony has attempted to bring console quality gaming to the handheld market. To its credit, the PSVita does a tremendous job of creating a console experience. Despite some poorly implemented touch controls, Uncharted: Golden Abyss is a great handheld version of the Uncharted experience. Games like Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3 and Rayman Origins haven’t lost much in their transition to the small screen.

The problem once again is a matter of audience. Gamers have shown time and time again that they’re not looking for a powerful handheld that offers console style gaming. If gamers were looking for this, then the Game Gear would have beaten the Game Boy, and the PSP would have trounced the DS. The most popular games for handheld systems have been games like Brain Age, Nintendogs, New Super Mario Brothers, Monster Hunter, and of course, Pokemon. These are experiences that were markedly different from what consoles of the time were offering.

Producing console style games takes console style budgets. Console style budgets necessitate console style sales to ensure console style profits. As of now, it doesn’t look like the demand for console style games is large enough to support the Vita. After less than a month on the market, the hype surrounding the Vita has died down. The system is regularly being outsold by the 3DS, and many are already expected a 3DS style price cut for the Vita. The Vita’s chief competitor is less expensive to develop for, and it boasts a larger install base.

Readers may rightfully point out that it is still too early in the Vita’s lifespan to predict its future. After all, the 3DS and PS3 had very rough starts as well, but each has went on to become a success. However, it seems clear that Sony is intent on following the same strategy it did during the PSP era. If Sony uses the same strategy, they’re going to see the same results. This will leave Sony as a distant second to Nintendo, which is definitely not the position they’d like to be in.

Just Stop and Think Before You Make A Product

Sony’s last five pieces of hardware (the PS3, the PSP Go, the Move, the 3D Display, and the Vita) have all had poor launches. This is a clear sign that Sony is simply not listening to customer demands. Sony was able to turn the tides with the PS3, and they made a rather impressive comeback in the console market, but they can’t count on that happening every time. Sony can’t spend their entire existence digging themselves out of holes. Sony needs to learn from their past.

None of the products I mentioned are inherently bad products (the Vita in particular has tons of potential), but no clear audience exists for them.  Before they release a product, Sony needs to ask themselves a few basic questions. Who is this product for? Why will this audience want this product? How much will they pay for this product? If Sony doesn’t show some more foresight in the future, I fear for their gaming division.

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