Winning the Battle but Throwing the War: Is Sony’s Downfall Imminent?

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Often I’ll see people on internet message boards scoff at the idea of the so called “console wars”, calling the entire concept nothing more than a childish delusion, but don’t be fooled, there is a war being waged. The gaming industry is a booming business, and companies like Microsoft and Sony are battling tooth and nail for every customer they can reel in. Contracts are signed, plans are carefully laid out, and millions of dollars are spent all in the hope of creating a console to rule the market. As consumers we reap the rewards of this ever-competitive landscape, but as a long-time gamer I’ve come to notice a disturbing trend: whenever a company firmly establishes themselves as the top-dog, their downfall is never that far off.

The video game industry suffered a massive setback in the early-to-mid 1980’s  known as the great video game crash, and as a result the North American gaming scene nearly came to an abrupt end. Thankfully Nintendo stepped up the plate and released the Nintendo Entertainment System, which pretty much single-handedly brought the industry back from the brink. The success of the NES put Nintendo in a great spot to solidify themselves as the undisputed kings of the home console market, and they did just that in 1990 with the release of the Super Nintendo. Still heralded today as one of, if not the greatest console ever made, the SNES era is now often referred to as Nintendo’s pinnacle. You’d be hard-pressed to find any gamer in the early 90s (aside from some rabid Sega fans) that could predict Nintendo’s fall from grace. How could the company that saved the entire video game industry in North America eventually find themselves being relegated to an afterthought? Yet here we are in 2016 with Nintendo themselves claiming to not even be in competition with Sony are Microsoft. How did this happen?

To put it bluntly, Nintendo’s success made them arrogant. In 1996, despite CD based technology setting new industry standards, Nintendo opted to release a cartridge-based system. CDs were far from perfect, and Nintendo would gladly point out things like how easy CD based games were to pirate, but the fact remains that sticking with cartridges not only meant fans would have to pay more for Nintendo games (as cartridges cost much more to manufacture than CDs), but Nintendo also essentially gave a big middle finger to every third party developer who had supported them in the past. When compared to CDs, cartridges were full of limitations that developers weren’t willing to work around. Nintendo may have believed that their prior success made them immune to failure, but a bridge they had burned several years prior would come back to haunt them. In the early 90s Nintendo had a partnership with Sony in place, and there was an agreement between the two to make a CD-based console, but some questionable choices from Nintendo’s brass led to a nasty breakup between the two companies. Sony set out on their own path and created the PlayStation, which hit the market a year and a half prior to the N64. Despite the N64 coming out later, the PS1 made it seem like a relic from the past. The end result? The PS1 has a library of over 3000 titles, whereas the N64 has around 500, and while Nintendo sold just over 30 million N64 units, Sony made history by selling over 100 million PS1s worldwide. Nintendo may still thrive in the handheld market, but as far as home consoles are concerned, they’ve never recovered from the blunders they made in the 90s.

matt_ps2_Much like Nintendo’s transition from the NES to the SNES, Sony had a smooth and ultimately successful transition from the PS1 to the PS2. To this day the PlayStation 2 holds the record for most units of a game console sold, at over 157 million. Sony absolutely crushed the sixth generation of consoles, not only in terms of hardware sales, but more importantly in terms of software. Nintendo’s fall from grace continued, as their GameCube was out sold by Microsoft’s first gaming machine, the Xbox, but neither was in earshot of the PS2. Sony now sat comfortably upon the throne that Nintendo occupied during the early 90s, seemingly untouchable. Enter the PS3.

With the PS2 giving Sony a near monopoly over the gaming industry they decided they could do whatever the hell they wanted with their next console. They gave the PlayStation 3 its own custom architecture, which made it a nightmare for third parties to develop for, and because of its highly touted cell processor, Sony felt justified in slapping a $599 USD price tag on the machine. All of the good graces earned by the PS2 couldn’t save Sony from the backlash of their now infamous E3 2006 press conference. With Sony busy shooting themselves in the foot, Microsoft pounced on the opportunity that was graciously thrown into their lap.

While the PS2 destroyed the Xbox in almost all areas, there was still a couple of bright spots from Microsoft’s first attempt at a console, with the most notable being Xbox Live. Even during its infancy, Microsoft’s online infrastructure was miles ahead of the competition, and they used that as a focal point on the Xbox 360. A revamped Xbox Live, in combination with the 360 launching a year prior to the PS3, plus Sony infuriating their own fanbase with the initial price of the PS3, all led to the 360 jumping out to a massive lead. While the PS3 did eventually recover (after years of backpedaling, price restructuring, and copious amount of apologies), Microsoft still achieved something that no one thought possible after the previous generation: they had successfully dethroned Sony as the undisputed king of console manufacturers.

matt_360_Unlike Sony and Nintendo who had at least two successful consoles before stumbling, Microsoft slipped up immediately after the 360. The seventh generation of consoles lasted 8 long years, and during that time Microsoft earned the trust and respect of gamers the world over; unfortunately, all good will was burnt to the ground with the announcements that the Xbox One would require the Kinect in order to function, it would not allow for the re-sale of used games, and it had a DRM feature which would require players to always be connected to the internet to play any game in any capacity.

What is it with these console manufacturers finding success, and then turning their back on the consumers who bought their product? How many times does this need to happen in order for them to learn to not bite the hand that feeds? From Nintendo sticking to cartridges which limited developers and burned holes in the pockets of their customers, to Sony pricing the PS3 at a ludicrous $200 over the Xbox 360, all the way to Microsoft attempting to implement features which they had to know would cause gamers to stand in revolt. Why is it that once one of these companies rises to the top, they feel the need to steer head-on into an iceberg, instead of just staying the course?

As I’m sure you all know, after a massive fan outcry Microsoft was quick to change their policies regarding the Xbox One, but the damage had already been done. Sony took a “gamer first” approach with the PS4, and it worked. They successfully reclaimed the throne they had lost after the announcement of the PS3, and now they once again sit alone atop the hill as the reigning king. And this brings us to today, the PS4 Pro, and Sony’s mounting list of questionable decisions.

matt_ps4pro_Remember when playing multiplayer games over PSN was free? Those were great days. After the PS3’s initial stumble Sony was in the mindset of pleasing their customers, and as a means of regaining our loyalty they provided good services. PS Plus was an option, but not needed. Then the PS4 was announced, and PS Plus was made a requirement for online gaming. While disappointing, considering Xbox fans had been paying for XBL for a very long time, it was a somewhat understandable change. Now we have the recent announcement of a price hike for the service, and per Sony’s own words, this money will “enable [them] to continue providing exceptional value to [their] members”. We don’t get any extra services, we only get to keep the “exceptional” ones we already have? Funnily enough, since this announcement PSN has had multiple outages. So what exactly is this money for? Why are we being gouged with nearly no explanation as to why? Sure, it’s only 10 more dollars a year, and sure PS Plus is the same price as Xbox Live now, but this move seems like nothing more than a cash grab with no benefit to the player. This is something Sony circa 2006 would have done, and not something the Sony of 2013 would have tried.

When’s the last time you saw a big third party developer stand up and blatantly call out a console manufacturer for questionable conduct? It’s not something that occurs very often, in fact, I can’t think of the last time it happened, aside from Bethesda’s recent comments regarding Sony’s stance on the use of mods for the PS4 version of Fallout 4. Per Bethesda’s post, Sony does not want players using mods however they please. Why is this? What could be the reason for Sony to deny PS4 users the same right that Xbox One and PC players already have? Akin to their choices to block cross-platform play, this is yet another anti-gamer move that the Sony brain trust has made recently that just doesn’t make any sense, and whether you play Fallout 4 or not, you just have to wonder why?

And then we have the PS4 Pro. Firstly, let me just say, what a horrible name for this console. Calling it the PS4K or PS4.5 would have made perfect sense, but attaching the word “Pro” to it surrounds it with a certain stigma of elitism, which is exactly what Sony should have been avoiding. What exactly is the point of the PS4 Pro? Well, it’s a beefier PS4. It’ll be able to upscale games to a 4K resolution, if you have a screen that can support it. Unfortunately for Sony, the overwhelming majority of gamers don’t have 4K televisions. But at least it has HDR, right? Well, HDR tech is even newer than 4K, so even if you are one of the few people out there who already owns a 4K display, there’s a good chance it doesn’t support HDR.

Back in April of this year we only had a bit of information about the PS4 Pro and the Scorpio was just hearsay, but I wrote an article defending both Sony and Microsoft and the idea of doing mid-cycle upgrades. Now that all the details have been spilled, it’s readily apparent which of these two companies made a better plan, and it’s clear as day why the PS4 Pro wasn’t at E3 back in June. From a hardware standpoint the Scorpio puts the Pro to shame. After seeing Microsoft’s presentation at E3 this year, Sony circa 2013 would have gone back to the drawing board, delayed the Pro, and put out a piece of machinery that would actually match up to the Scorpio. Instead, we’re getting a seemingly rushed product that will be coming out later this year, and Sony has done a very poor job of selling it so far. Showing these supposed 4K games over a stream isn’t going to go too well, because so much of that image quality isn’t going to make it to the user watching the stream on medium settings, and on top of that the overall messaging was just lacking. Many gamers who already own the PS4 but don’t have a 4K display are still wondering what advantages, if any, they’d get from upgrading, especially when you consider that, per Sony’s own words, there will be no Pro exclusive games. But how else could they have marketed this machine? They couldn’t have just shown the raw numbers, because their console is light-years behind the Scorpio. Hell, the Xbox One S is ahead of the PS4 Pro, in some regards, as it has an ultra high definition blu-ray drive and the Pro doesn’t. Hello, Sony? You manufacture these drives, why aren’t you putting them in your premier product? The PS4 Pro won’t be able to play physical 4K media, and that’s laughably sad.

At the end of the day, are a mildly better frame rate, some slightly quicker load times, and upscaled resolutions really worth all the trouble of diluting the console ecosystem with all of these different SKUs? From Microsoft’s perspective it is, because they’re losing. They’re being forced to make drastic changes to stay competitive. The Scorpio is a quantum leap forward in terms of power, and their new initiative of launching all their software on both the Xbox and PC will give a much wider audience a chance to play their games. Because they’re behind the 8-ball Microsoft is making decisions that benefit gamers, and as such they’re likely to reap the rewards. Ever since the PS4 got a sizable lead in the sales charts pundits have been claiming that this generation has been won, but people are so quick to forget what happened just a few short years ago. The PS3 mounted a massive comeback, and eventually surpassed the 360 despite its huge lead. Many misinformed individuals would be quick to tell you that the Xbox One’s sales numbers are simply too poor to even suggest the possibility of a comeback, but that’s just not true. While the PS4 does have a massive lead, at this point in its life the Xbox One is selling better than the 360 sold at the same point in its cycle, and we all know the 360 sold a lot of units. I’m not saying the Xbox One will succeed in pulling a PS3-esque rally, but denying the possibility is just ignorant. Gamers are a fickle bunch, and we as a community have proven time and time again that we aren’t afraid to vote with our wallets. If Sony keeps making these questionable moves, they may be in for another rude awakening.

While there is a very loud group of people who like to spout off about frame rates and resolutions all day, believe it or not, they’re a minority. Those who really want the best of the best in terms of hardware are already getting their needs attended to by the PC market. Console gamers care about the games above all else. The PS2 was the weakest console in terms of raw power back in sixth generation, but that didn’t stop it from dismantling the competition and setting sales records that still stand today. The Sony that took the stage at E3 2013 knew these things.

Sony clearly isn’t trying to compete with the Scorpio in terms of power, so why do this half-measure and release the Pro, which will only serve as a device to confuse and segregate their own audience? If you aren’t going to allow developers to create Pro exclusive games, then why hinder them with the responsibility of having to tailor their games around two different sets of system specifications? Instead of pouring untold millions into the Pro’s development, why not spend that money funding what we as gamers really want: GAMES! The current PS4 still has so much to give in terms of power; just look back at the leap in graphical quality between Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune and The Last of Us, and now just imagine what Naughty Dog’s next PS4 game will look like in comparison to Uncharted 4. With gamers already eating out of their hand, why is Sony so keen on driving a wedge into their own success? The Sony we have now in 2016 is starting to make choices which are eerily similar to ones they made back in 2006, and if history has taught us anything about these companies, it’s that they won’t realize the error of their ways until they’ve bottomed out.

– Matt De Azevedo