Sony: A final fall from grace?

May 16, 2011, Author: Ray Willmott

It’s hard to believe that around seven years ago, the Playstation 2 was the best-selling console of all-time. Sony really managed to hit their stride with the Playstation brand and had the best third-party support in the World. Microsoft’s Xbox brand was still very much in its infancy and the Gamecube remained all but forgotten. Truly, the gaming industry stood in Sony’s shadow and it seemed as if they could do no wrong.

Then, something remarkable happened.

Disclaimer:- This Opinion Piece was written on Friday 13th May. Depending on your region, late Saturday 14th, early Sunday 15th May, Sony announced that a firmware update is now available for users to download and change their password. Some territories around the World have also been fortunate enough to experience online play again. While the author has made every effort to ensure the changes reflect the current circumstances, we wanted to advise you that some information may have slipped through that is no longer current. Thanks for your understanding.

Microsoft announced the Xbox 360 and launched it in 2005, despite risking rushed manufactured material within the console. Incredibly, Microsoft managed to launch the system a full year before its competition. At the time, Sony didn’t seem bothered, the PS2 was spouting out some of the best games the system had yet seen and was at an affordable point that it was still selling. Add to that, the 360 console was having one of the highest return rates of any console, with red-rings coming left and right and nobody seemed fully ready to commit to the next-gen. Sony were still in the driver’s seat. Yet, there was one thing that Sony never managed to accomplish with the PS2 that Microsoft was locking down on Xbox and that was a solid, complete online service in Xbox Live. The future had arrived and Xbox’s online platform was starting to gradually attract people. Not just fans, but developers as well.

However, all eyes were still on Sony. Many had waited to see what the PS3 would offer, ignoring the competitors and knew that it couldn’t possibly fail to deliver. The Playstation 2 was an incredible machine and notorious for quality, yet the Playstation 3 promised more. Not only was it the first console to adapt the blu-ray technology (just as its predecessor had been the first to implement DVD) but it also boasted a higher graphical and sound output over its competition. It was also coming bundled with PSN (Sony’s own version of Xbox Live that was free of charge) and had managed to bring with it the promise of the incredible third-party support the PS2 has enjoyed.

Remember the boomerang?

Despite an embarrassing Press Conference held at the E3 expo just months ahead of the Playstation 3 launch, which involved Giant Enemy Crabs and Riiiiiiidge Raceeeer, the PS3 became the best-selling Blu-Ray player on the market and brought new technology into the homes of thousands. However, it all came at a price and a price that many were not willing to pay. Despite Sony’s assurances that this was a ‘bargain’ package and was worth investing in, consumers seemed to have other ideas. When placed against its competition in the 360 and Nintendo’s brand new Wii console, Sony’s console was clearly forcing you to pay for this quality and made many people to reconsider their purchases. What made matters worse was Sony’s launch line-up was, for the most part, uninspiring. By then, Xbox 360 had been out a full year and had already developed a nice catalogue of games, plus it was getting access to all the big releases and the Arcade was a thriving part of the online experience. Then there was the budget-tagged priced of Nintendo Wii, which was offering revolutionary technology out of the box and was getting everybody talking. Oddly, despite the fact that Sony’s online model was free to use and didn’t have a subscription service, Xbox Live, which required you to pay £40 a year for the privilege of Gold, was taking the attention for itself.

Suddenly, Sony’s familiar and previously tangible working money model was struggling to shift sales and was fast falling behind its competitors. The house that built the Playstation 2 quickly found itself in third place. Sony worked around the clock to try and bring the Playstation into even more homes, offering more exciting software, announcing more of their key franchises would be making a return, even releasing classic games on the Network. However, Sony were forced to  reduce the price of the system in order to turn a profit but ultimately had to take parts out in order to do so. Suddenly, PS3’s were no longer backwards compatible with PS2 games in an effort to reduce the costs. Unfortunately for Sony, their rivals were also reducing their rates and continuing to launch compelling software. So their efforts, while they were making a difference to the adoption rate of PS3, were still not making a noticeable impact.

As we all know, 360 managed to gain more and more third-party support (both due to an incredible online experience and by waving a bit of cash around!) and Wii was getting into the homes of people who had never been gamers before. The balance of power had clearly switched and suddenly Sony were the ones playing catch-up.

Sony MOVEing with the times.

It’s only now Sony’s blu-ray strategy has started to pay off, games like Final Fantasy XIII and LA Noire, while they ship on three discs on Xbox 360, can come bundled on just one Blu-Ray. This also provided Sony with unique opportunities in delivering games to the masses and allows them to make gaming experiences larger and richer than ever before. Blu-Rays are also now at an affordable rate, as is home cinema technology, so more and more people are jumping on the bandwagon. In many respects, Sony seemed to be only hitting their stride with PS3 in the last twelve months, getting all the attention back that Microsoft have taken from them and offering things that no other console on the market can.

They’ve had to scratch and claw to get here, though. Whether it is to introduce new and exciting brands such as Motorstorm, Resistance, Infamous and Uncharted to their line-up, being the only home console to offer full 3D support on its games or fully implementing Playstation Move into its high-profile releases. They’ve even re-designed PSN and devised a premium service to create more opportunities and benefits for their audience or introduced Home as a way to interact with your friends. Yet, despite their best efforts, Sony have had a terrible string of luck this gen. Unfortunately for them, this escapade with PSN may just be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Unlike GLaDOS, PSN still isn't alive!

For almost a month now, PSN has been down all over the World and been made inaccessible for online play or downloads. To this day, Sony are still working around the clock to make sure their network services are back up and running in all territories. At the time of writing, most territories are now able to experience online play and everything seems to be back to normal. However, Sony haven’t listed any specifics on the situation, detailing what has happened to credit card details and personal information and have simply told us that services have now been improved and security tightened. To say there has been outrage would be an understatement and to try to calm people, Sony have officially stated that all users of PSN will receive a full month of PSN +, Sony’s new paid for online network, but will also be able to claim two free Playstation 3 games and a handful of PSP games. However, nobody is aware of the full details on the reimbursement package from Sony and are still awaiting the official word.

Naturally, developers and publishers are already expressing their frustration and disappointment based on the events. Capcom claimed they were losing thousands; possibly millions due to the downtime and Activision have also had some choice words for the company. What does this mean for the relations between Sony and its current support? Are developers going to stay onboard with this network? Can they ever fully trust Sony again? When you look at last years E3, Sony really seemed to make an impact, announcing an exclusivity agreement with EA and signing a contract with Valve. Interestingly enough, the recently released Portal 2, made by Valve, offered PS3 purchasers a code to play the game on Steam, so that they could effectively own two copies of the game. However, Portal 2 launched on April 21st and since that time, PS3 owners have still not been able to redeem their Steam codes. So, essentially, all the hype that surrounded PS3 having the definitive version of Portal 2 at last years E3 has, until recently, all come to nothing.

That’s not the only issue this has created for developers. This has also affected the release dates of games and DLC. For example, Fallout: New Vegas is launching Honest Hearts on May 17th, but no guarantees have been made by Bethesda that it will launch on PSN on the same day due to the uncertainty of the Network as a whole. This has also affected the much hyped Double XP weekend on Black Ops, which occurred last weekend to celebrate the release of the Escalation Map pack. Naturally, these are two large releases that have been affected by the downtime and both are in limbo waiting on Sony to give the all-clear.

One of the richest companies in the World has been forced to its knees by a group of hackers who want to prove a point, and made what seemed to be a solid, working business model with ideals of progression, look like a class project funded by pocket-money. During a time where they have struggled again and again to survive and keep up with the competition, can Sony really afford to be in this position? How will this affect their future business relationships and those that are already established? Perhaps these new security measures could be the best thing to happen to the network. Will it now be the most safe, secure place to experience online gaming?

With the next-gen fast approaching, Nintendo are already getting into the rat race and are set to announce a new console at E3 to launch in 2012, and Microsoft are continuously linked with rumours about a follow-up system, it also makes one wonder; what will happen to Sony’s support coming into the next-gen? They’ve spent most of this generation trying to maintain their exclusives. Games like Tekken, Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy that could have only been played on the Playstation brand last-gen, are now accessible in more homes than ever before. After building everything back to this point after losing so much ground, has their empire crumbled once again? Will they be forced to go back to square one? Can they afford such a setback?

How do you feel about the PSN downtime? Are you going to stop using PSN services? Can you trust them again with your most sensitive details and information? Have your say here…