Since the unveiling of the Playstation 4 in February Sony has been riding on a wave of positive consumer reaction that is in stark contrast to where they were just six years ago. E3 and the subsequent opening of the flood gates of preorders have bolstered that into something more tangible. Sony is poised to sell a lot of Playstation 4’s this holiday and it knows it. While their hard work and smart approach should be commended we should not put them on a pedestal just yet. Sony still has a lot to prove.
There are numerous questions about the experience that the Playstation 4 is going to bring and how committed Sony will be to it. As a fan of the Vita I can tell you first hand what it feels like to see Sony hedge its bets and shake consumer confidence. While it would be folly to think they would do the same with their flagship console there are serious questions as to Sony’s financial situation and how that affects their videogame business. Many people would argue that the lack of compelling software is the reason the Vita is not selling well and while I do think it does have a lack of high-profile titles that the problem isn’t just software. The problem is that most of the world does not know that it exists. Sony has been very reluctant to advertise the machine. Is this because they don’t think it will sell or is this a sign of their financial belt-tightening? Zipper Interactive made what still stands as the best shooter on the Vita and was promptly shut down. It’s hard to reconcile that… a system needs quality games, a studio makes a quality game, Sony shuts down the studio. If Zipper was the only casualty there that would be understandable, especially with how Socom 4 and MAG under performed. Studio Liverpool was also closed down after the release of Wipeout 2048 which 19 months later is still the best racing game and all around value on the Vita. And while BigBig’s Little Deviants wasn’t particularly thrilling they were a talented studio who had made two superb Pursuit Force games and an excellent Motorstorm game for the PSP.
Why would Sony shut down studios capable of making quality Vita titles? Really. I’m asking that because I don’t know the answer. I can only guess that it has to do with money, because nearly everything does, but if those three studios still existed we would have 3 more high quality games on a platform that is starved for it. Sony also seems to be reluctant to woo third-party developers with sweetheart deals (aka moneyhats) to develop for the system. Their third-party people are incredibly passionate and are busting their asses to sign as many studios to produce software as possible but it’s mostly been in the indie space because bigger developers are reticent about the platform and so is Sony. What we are left with is a wonderful handheld that is getting amazing games from smaller teams but seemingly has very little backing in the form of capital to secure games or advertise which makes it a very real possibility that the system will never move out of its niche status. Major Sony first party studios aren’t developing for it. Sony isn’t putting money into advertising it. Sony isn’t putting money into securing exclusive software. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why the Vita’s install base is growing at an alarmingly slow rate.
We already know that Microsoft is going to put a billion dollars into pushing the Xbox One during its first year. What we don’t know is what Sony is planning on doing. Whether you love it or hate it, advertising is a big deal. If you look at the Kinect, for instance, when that was introduced it was almost universally panned by gamers around the world. As more and more videos surfaced of extreme lag and there was a lack of any software outside of a dancing game that had anyone excited. So how did Microsoft rewrite the narrative of the Kinect and sell 20+million units? They spent Five Hundred Million Dollars advertising the device and writing their own version of the narrative that the $500,000,000 made sure got out to everyone on Earth. The Xbox One is currently in a similar position where the facts about the system don’t paint a picture that is thrilling many people but if you’re going to rewrite history I think a billion dollars could do it. What will Sony do to counter this? Again, I have no idea. And considering that they spent $40,000,000 to advertise the Vita launch, not even one tenth of the Kinect’s advertising, I’m not confident that Sony corporate is willing to spend the money to compete on this front.
This lack of willingness to spend money also seems to be spilling over to third-party exclusives. Microsoft has shown off Dead Rising 3 and Titanfall as two third-party exclusives that they obviously paid a lot of money to secure. What games have Sony locked down? They couldn’t even close the deal on Kingdom Hearts 3 or FFXV – two games which will sell a ton in Japan where Microsoft isn’t even competing. Again, this feels like Sony being hesitant to go big. Their first party lineup for launch is not much to write home about either. While I am of the opinion that system launches aren’t as big of a deal as many people make them out to be, there is no denying that Microsoft has more big hitters. Forza is a flagship title for them. Killzone is a good choice for launch because it’s more beauty than brawn and we tend to enjoy those types of experiences at launch but the series just does not have the gravitas to carry a launch lineup as the big exclusive game. Driveclub is from one of my favorite developers on the planet but has looked average at best in showings so far. Knack is a niche title that is getting a lot of play because Mark Cerny is attached to it. I think Knack is going to be great but I don’t think it will be moving systems.
There are also many questions around what the Playstation 4 experience is going to be like. While we, of course, beat the “GAMES GAMES GAMES” drum we do require a good experience outside of gaming. There are millions of complaints around the web about the XMB, the speed of Sony’s downloads, and the PSN Store redesign. I personally loved the XMB but that love certainly is not universal. The pictures we’ve seen so far make the PS4’s OS look like the PS3’s new store which is straight up awful. It will hopefully be smoother but the simplicity of the XMB has seemingly been replaced with a crappy Metro knockoff. Sony does hardware and Microsoft does software – we know that – and it doesn’t seem like that perception is changing. This will not make or break the system for most of us but it is a big deal and I hope Sony has some surprises up its sleeve when it comes to the OS. And to be fair we haven’t seen much of the Xbox One’s yet either and Vista + Windows 8 prove they don’t bat 1.000 when it comes to operating systems.
While I do believe the Kinect is an albatross around the Xbox One’s neck there is a very good chance that I’m wrong. I often am. If Sony and I are wrong Sony will be in perpetual catch up by not including the camera and the fact that it is technologically inferior. This is a big “if” and I am personally happy that Sony did not include the camera in the box but I cannot ignore the fact that this is a huge question mark going forward. If the Kinect 2 does change the world like Microsoft is betting Sony’s add-on will have an impossible time playing catch up.
I am bullish on Sony’s chances this generation. Like most of the known internet I am impressed with Mark Cerny as a speaker and thinker, I’m impressed with Shuhei Yoshida, Adam Boyes, and Shahid Ahmad and the incredible support they give to developers and I believe that it will pay off. It really feels like a winning strategy. Sony needs to tread carefully however because they clearly have a lot of work to do to keep this going. Sony hasn’t won the war yet. In fact the troops don’t even hit the ground until November. Shore up your weaknesses, Sony. Please. And advertise the Vita!