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Sony's Agonising Decision

PS IconWhen the partial specs for Sony's new PS4 devkits leaked last week my first thought was 'yes, but what controller is it going to ship with?' As I've mentioned before, this decision could be the toughest Sony has ever faced.

My friends and associates in and around Sony Computer Entertainment - in the US, UK and Japan - have been astonishingly tight-lipped about Sony's next move in the games market. Fortunately for me, their silence means I am free to speculate publically - if anyone had told me anything, I'd be bound by my non-disclosure agreements with Sony to say nothing! At least one source has indicated that Sony have an ace up their sleeve - but for once I'm at a loss to establish what it could be. My best bet - an incredibly ambitious cloud-enhancement strategy - is clearly wrong on the basis of the technical specifications leaked for the new devkit, which only tells us what we already knew: it has to fit into the standard graphics/hardware curve in a way that could span ten years of use. The thing I most want to know is the controller the new unit ships with - since that tells us what market Sony are gunning for, and whether they believe Microsoft or Nintendo won the last round.

The question of who 'won' this bout - potentially the penultimate round - of the home console wars is critical to understanding Sony's difficult decision. If we judge by return on investment, it's surely Nintendo who came out on top - about 100 million console units sold, all at profit, versus 70 million each for their rivals. But if we look at revenue, Microsoft's brilliantly bold move of charging a 10% surcharge per year for the fully functional game service netted them effectively double value at the cost of heavy infrastructure investment. If anyone doubted that Xbox Live was Microsoft's key success with the 360, just look at Sony's embarrassingly late attempt to copy it with Playstation+. Whomever you judge to come out on top (and personal bias is the principal tie breaker in this matter), Sony were the only company to do substantially worse this time around, falling from king of the hill to joint second (by units) or last place (by revenue).

Imagine the problem facing the Sony bigwigs in some of the tensest strategy meetings in the history of games...

Option one: continue to pursue the strategy that lost you your crown this time around by pretending the most important market for games is still the male 15-25 gamers that Microsoft wooed with superior online provisions (and then quietly betrayed with their half-baked Kinnect semi-platform). This means ignoring Nintendo and escalating the battle with Microsoft. But this is a war Sony can't hope to win, since Microsoft will certainly want to turn their current Live subscribers into '720' Live subscribers as seamlessly as they can, and can't possibly be foolish enough to think Kinect alone is the horse to bet on. This route leads to Sony failure, since there's nothing they can stump that Microsoft can't trump. Remember that GDC when Sony and Microsoft were measuring their penises live on stage within days of each other? Technical specs for both the PS3 and the 360 changed that week as a result of leaks, announcement and general fear of a loss of face.

Option two: continue with Sony's longest-running strategy, namely copy Nintendo and make it better. In their entire history, the only original hardware gamble to come from inside Sony was the disappointing EyeToy, made doubly unsuccessful by the (comparative) 'success' of Microsoft's Kinect. But which Nintendo do you copy? The Wii Nintendo whose bold new interface device divides gamer opinion and doesn't quite have the legs it was hoped it could show, or the Wii U Nintendo who are clearly taking their lead from Apple? Sony logic would say 'make me a controller that does all thes things at once!' but there is no object, even in imagination, which is simultaneously a familiar twin stick controller, a laser pointer, a motion controller and a decent touchscreen. Something has to give! But which baby goes out with which bath water? The fact that Move is a really well-designed unit, and the fact Sony dislike making new controllers for launch, speak for Wii-ness, but knowing the limits Nintendo hit with their strategy last time won't make this look like a good move (if you'll excuse the pun!). Especially since Sony Computer Entertainment's marketing executives still treat female players as a kind of imaginary pixie that (they seem to believe) doesn't spend money on games.

Option three: hedge your bets, supporting a classic twin stick controller for the gamer hobbyists (because converting them to the equivalent Move variant is too hard to achieve) plus a mass market friendly Move, plus a souped up EyeToy to match Kinect. But then, your effective installed base would always be less than the number of consoles sold because you have two incompatible control schemes. Plus, developers are already unhappy at being forced to bear the costs of supporting multiple parallel control schemes, so you don't encourage loyalty by building that into the core setup of your console. As if that wasn't enough, Sony have to know that 'the console with a bit of everything' isn't enough of a Unique Selling Point. They need a killer soundbite or concept - something that can put them back in the public eye. 'Sony makes another console with better graphics' is a long way from newsworthy, and to take back the momentum Microsoft stole from them they desperately need a game-changer.

For once I'm at a total loss to understand what Sony's next step could be - they don't seem to have a clear winning move from their current position unless they are sat on some brilliantly innovative tech that it would take Microsoft time to research. This seems doubtful. Anything Sony can do, Microsoft can do better - well, at least the same. My best bet is that Sony will try to suture the split in the market opened up by the Wii - which means either an incredibly inventive controller, or the undesirable option three described above. Can they do it? It's certainly going to be interesting to see them try.


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