David A. Wheeler's Blog

Mon, 05 Jun 2006

Sony Playstation 3: Train wreck in process

I try to keep up with the general gaming business. Many of the best new computer hardware technologies first show up in the gaming world, for one thing. And for another, I once in the business; in the mid-1980s I was lead software developer/maintainer for the first commercial multiplayer role-playing game in the U.S., Scepter of Goth. (Full disclosure: I didn’t write the original, I maintained it after it had been initially developed. Scepter may have been the first commercial multiplayer RPG in the world, but I have never gotten good-enough data to show conclusively if MUD or Scepter were first. Bartle’s MUD was clearly first in the UK, and Scepter was clearly the first in the US, and neither knew of the other for a long time.) I also wrote some videogames for the Apple ][, which I sold. (I still play occasionally, but my hand/eye coordination is awful; my brother had to playtest them, since I couldn’t get far in my own games.) I generally hope for good competition, since that is what keeps the the innovation flowing and the prices down. My hopes are getting dashed, because Sony seems to have had a full lobotomy recently.

If Sony is trying to go (mostly) out of business, it’s got a great process going. Recently about half of Sony’s income has depended on the Playstation 2, so you’d think that they would avoid bone-headed decisions that would doom them in the market as they release their next-generation console.

But the Sony Playstation 3 will come with an outrageous pricetag: starting at $599 (or $499 for a stripped-down version). Home video-game consoles have sold for $199 to $299 traditionally, and the X-Box 360 (its primary competitor) costs much less than this announced price too.

Why so much? One significant reason is because Sony is including a Blu-ray reader, a proprietary video format that they hope will replace DVDs; this is both raising the price substantially and appears to be delaying shipment. Didn’t Sony learn its lesson from Betamax, their earlier costly blunder in the videotape format war? No, it appears that Sony must go out of business to learn. Betamax was supposed to be better technically (and it was in some ways), but it cost much more. In part, the higher cost was due to the lack of competing suppliers; the competing VHS market was full of competing suppliers who quickly marched past the proprietary format. Sony has even lost big money on other proprietary formats, too. Blu-Ray has all the same earmarks of a failure, in exactly the same way. The Playstation 3 will have a hopelessly high price tag because of Blu-ray, and it looks like the Playstation 3 will go down with it. Since both Blu-Ray and its competitor HD-DVD have really more egregious digital restrictions management (DRM) mechanisms built in, I hope both fail - their improvements frankly don’t justify abandoning DVDs in my eyes.

Ah, but the higher price tag implies better performance, right? Wrong. The Inquirer reports that there are some serious technical flaws in the Playstation 3, The Playstation 3 will have half the triangle setup capability compared to Xbox 360. What’s worse, its local cell memory read speed is about 1/1000th of the speed it should be getting. In fact, one slide describing the Playstation 3 performance had to say “no that isn’t a typo”, because the performance figures on this fundamental subsystem are so horrifically bad. So people will have the option of spending a lot more money for a less capable machine that is saddled with yet another failed proprietary format. And in addition, Sony is already really late with its next-gen console; if you’re not first, you need to be better or cheaper, not obviously worse and more expensive. Yes, it’ll run Linux, but I can run Linux very well on a general-purpose computer system, for less money and without the hampering I expect from Sony.

Has greed disabled Sony’s ability to think clearly? The Sony-BMG DRM music CD scandal, where Sony subverted a massive number of computers through a rootkit on its music CDs, just led to a big settlement. Granted, it could have been worse for Sony; under the laws of most countries, many Sony executives should probably be in jail. In the Sony-BMG case, Sony tried to force a digital restrictions management (DRM) system on users by breaking into their customers’ operating systems. The point of DRM systems is to prevent you from using copyrighted products in ways the company doesn’t approve of — even if they are legal (!). Hrmpf. The All Party Parliamentary Internet Group (APIG) in the UK recommended the publication of “guidance to make it clear that companies distributing Technical Protection Measures systems in the UK would, if they have features such as those in Sony-BMG’s MediaMax and XCP systems, run a significant risk of being prosecuted for criminal actions.” It’s fine to want money, but it’s wise to make money by making a good product — one that is cheaper or better in some way. “Get rich quick” schemes, like rootkitting your customers to keep them from doing stuff you don’t like, or trying to establish proprietary format locks so everyone has to go to you, often backfire.

What’s weird is that this was all unnecessary; it would have been relatively easy for Sony to create a platform with modern electronics that had much better performance, worth paying for, without all this. It would have been much less risk to Sony if they’d taken a simpler route. What’s more, their market share is so large that it was theirs to keep; they just had to be smart about making a good follow-on product.

Maybe Sony will pull things through in spite of its problems. I hope they don’t just collapse, because competition is a critical force in keeping innovation going and prices low. Their product’s ability to play Playstation 2 games, for example, is an advantage… but I doubt that will be enough, because the old games won’t exploit any of the advantages of a next-generation platform. If Sony can get a massive number of amazingly-good platform-unique games — ones so good that people will choose the Playstation 3 specifically for them — then maybe they can survive. But I doubt they can get that strong a corner on good games; many independents will not want to risk their companies by making single-platform games, especially one as risky as this one, and Sony is unlikely to have the finances to buy them all up or back them enough to eliminate the risks. What is more likely to happen is that there will be a few platform-unique games for Playstation 3, a few platform-unique games for its competitors (particularly XBox 360), and a few multiple-platform games… which means no lock for Sony. In short, things do not look very good right now for Sony; Sony seems to have hoisted themselves on their own petard. I don’t even see what they can do now to recover.

I think Jonathan V. Last of the Philadelphia Inquirer has it right: “Obsessed with owning proprietary formats, Sony keeps picking fights. [And] It keeps losing. And yet it keeps coming back for more, convinced that all it needs to do is push a bigger stack of chips to the center of the table. If Blu-ray fails, it will be the biggest home-electronics failure since Betamax. If it drags PlayStation 3 down with it, it will be one of the biggest corporate blunders of our time.”

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