by Tadhg Kelly
So then. February 20th. New York City. Big news. This, it seems, is what the content of a viral video aired this week by Sony (SNE) promises. Slowly we saw the signature four shapes of the PS controller slide into view while spark trails coursed over their frames. The intended message (presumably) was cometh the hour, cometh the PlayStation 4.
Sony has struggled in the PS3 years. The company has sold 77m machines at last count, but over a very long period (Apple (AAPL) has sold over 500m iOS devices in a shorter timeframe). It suffered a humiliating debacle with last year's PlayStation Network hack. It has attempted (and largely failed) to get into the Wii/Kinect space with the Move controller, and also updated the PSP line with a new handheld - the already-a-dud PS Vita. Layoffs, losses and difficulty have been its watchword.
Yet the company also marshaled considerable effort behind key franchises like the Uncharted series and Journey. In many ways Sony has been trying to rebuild innovation credibility after a period of perceived arrogance at the height of the PS2 era. The Move, for example, is a great gestural controller and is useful beyond the screen, such as in the indie game Johann Sebastian Joust. There have also been initiatives to deliver more App-Store-like distribution for games and to support unusual titles like Book of Spells.
Despite all of that, the PlayStation still has a perception problem. What I'm wondering is whether the PlayStation brand is one that Sony can ever fully rehabilitate, or whether the company would be better off in the long run by ditching it.
Video game journalists have always interpreted the industry in the grand narratives of generations, console wars, legacies and heritage. To them the industry has a touch of the saga, and its cycles become vaguely mythic. Fans support their favourite platforms with the fervour of religions. There are stories of rises and falls, of felled heroes and platforms that should have been. Journalists and fans generally consider, for example, that this is the seventh age of gaming. (And yes, it does all sound a little bit Tolkienesque on occasion.)
As a part of that view, the sense that no power on Earth can sustain an idea whose time has gone is pervasive. While some systems have managed to successfully sequel a predecessor (the SNES, Xbox 360, the PS2), once a platform brand is judged over then it's over. And often that means that the company behind that platform goes to Hades. Sega never really got over the Genesis years. Nor Commodore with the Amiga.
The only platform holder that regularly manages to buck that trend is Nintendo. Primarily it's because Nintendo often focuses a new brand on a new control innovation. The Nintendo DS is defined by it's dual screens, and the Nintendo 64 similarly by its analog stick controller. So, in the epochal view, Nintendo thrives because it moves with the ages where Sega did not. The question for Sony is whether dumping PlayStation would let them be like Nintendo and reinvent, or go the way of Sega into hardware oblivion.
Too Much Heritage?
Privately, the PS4 is seen by many in the industry as something of a last-chance saloon. While Sony was once the king under the mountain of the console industry, various dragons have stolen its throne. Chief among them is Microsoft, and the press narrative has it that the signature moment of implosion for Sony was the so-called "Giant Enemy Crab" conference at E3 2006. That's the moment when Sony went from first to last in their eyes.
Since then PlayStation has struggled to seem relevant because of its legacy. PlayStation carries a weight of other games with it, from Wipeout and Tekken to Gran Turismo, Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy series. As each iteration of the platform appears, each game is brought along for the ride and so the catalog looks immediately stale. It's difficult to get journalists excited by yet another iteration of a game that they have already played to death, on a platform that they view as undying rather than living.
Those factors automatically sour any announcement that Sony could make. The biggest challenge facing Kaz Hirai (CEO of Sony) is how to take a broken-down brand with all of its trappings and make it new again. He only has to look at how Microsoft (MSFT) is mishandling Windows 8 to see that sometimes holding onto the past too much is a recipe for innovating half way. Rejuvenation can be done, but to do it implies making a definitive break and being willing to consign the past to the past.
Steve Jobs revived a brand when re-founding Mac OS as OS X. Part of the advantage of working in a media landscape that thinks epochally is that that instinct can be played up to, and a marketing storyteller like Jobs knew this. He realised early that half the battle is about capturing and distorting reality into a myth, which turned journalists from inquisitors to evangelists. Sony used to be good at this, too, but lost their aura. There is always the chance to get it back by leaping forward, though.
If Sony rocks up on stage in three weeks' time and announces a PS4 (or "PlayStation Next," "PlayStation X" etc.) with much the same stylings as PS3, it will be greeted with a sense of fatigue. All interested eyes will turn to see what Microsoft is doing with Xbox, and then probably back to the much more interesting story of Ouya, Steamboxes, Gamestick and the emerging microconsole story. On the other hand, if Hirai appears and announces something new? If he shows off a new way to control games, a new platform brand and tells a new story? That could be the real turning point for which Sony has searched.
A digital-only console would be an interesting start, as would a console whose every unit can be turned into a development kit. An app store that everyone can submit games to would send the signal that all bets are off. To be the company that finally brings the console out of the 20th century mould and changes what we think when we think "console" into something other than "expensive dumb game box with pretension of being a media centre"? Who knows. Or maybe he'll just do what we expect and announce a PS4.
Here's hoping not.