Gut Reactions: PS3 International Hardware
The PS3 in Europe, the Middle East, and Australasia will have different hardware and weaker PS2 backward compatibility. GameSpot's global staff responds.
It's official: Sony Computer Entertainment Europe has announced that the already-delayed PlayStation 3 console will launch with different hardware that will support "a broad range of original PlayStation titles and a limited range of PlayStation 2 titles." Once the PS3 is finally released in those territories, customers there will have been waiting longer to pay a higher sticker price for what is essentially less-powerful, less-flexible hardware. Then again, is backward compatibility really all that important to begin with? What does this mean for Sony, for prospective PS3 buyers, and for the future in general? GameSpot editors from around the globe sound off. Hear what we have to say, and leave us a comment, below, with your thoughts.
2005. The year of the next-gen console, with the launch of the Xbox 360 in Europe at the beginning of December. Sharp, high-definition images, smooth frame rates, and great online play in a reasonably priced package. End of story.
Originally, the world was only due to wait a few more months for the PlayStation 3, but it slipped from March to the end of 2006. Still, we were promised that it would definitely be a near-simultaneous launch globally, meaning that no territory would have to sit around waiting for the supermachine.
So the announcement that meant Europe would face months of disappointment and envy came as no major surprise, because we're actually used to it. After all, over the years, Europe's been an embarrassment for console manufacturers. We don't buy them, we don't play them, we don't...
Oh, wait. Actually we do, in greater and greater numbers. So what gives?
Looking back two years, Sony was unrivaled in the console market. The PlayStation 2 had outsold the Xbox massively, and the GameCube wasn't even on the same chart. Now, analysts are falling over themselves to point out how well the Wii is selling, especially in Japan, and the Xbox 360 has delivered a steady stream of must-have games for the past year.
Compare those games already out on the rival consoles with the PS3's launch lineup, and there's not really much to get worked up about now, with the possible exception of MotorStorm.
The real question is this: What will we be saying in two years' time? After all, we forgave Sony over the PlayStation Portable quickly enough, once it was finally out. Maybe the same will be true of the PS3. That is, if anybody has the heart to actually save up the crazy amount of money to buy one, especially when an Xbox 360 is so much cheaper and has so many great games available.
But what's that you say? Blu-ray? Well, I don't even have an HDTV at home yet, so I couldn't care less.
Sony gets a lot of bad press, and I think that it's fair to say there's a clash of ideas when it comes to business practices in the East and West. I'm sure Sony will ride this one out like it always does, because at the end of the day, we all want Sony products.
But this time around, I fear Sony may have underestimated the effect that kick after kick will have on sales in Europe. Wait an extra three months. Pay more for the privilege. Receive less backward compatibility to boot.
What I really, really hope for, though, is that Europe won't always end up bearing the brunt of disappointments. One day we'll rise up, mark my words, and build a next-gen edition of the BBC Model B. And we'll make everybody outside Europe wait 10 years to sample its marvels. And then you'll be sorry. Oh my.
Sony's run of PlayStation 3-related blunders must certainly be giving its public relations department one of the toughest jobs in the industry. Sony's not just shot itself in the foot now--it's removed both feet with a guillotine, doused the resulting wounds in salt, and then sent Microsoft and Nintendo the severed limbs to keep as trophies.
The latest in a long line of bad news for European gamers is that our PlayStation 3 will not feature the Emotion Engine chipset that powered the PlayStation 2 and now also resides in Japanese and North American PS3s. Instead, PS2 games will be emulated using a cheaper software solution on the PS3, meaning that only a "limited" number of previous-generation games will be playable at launch. While the exact number of compatible games will be revealed on March 23, the meticulously worded press release suggests that "limited" means less than 50 percent (otherwise the word "majority" would most likely have been used).
It's just the latest kick to the face for a continent that's already received a broken jaw from the Japanese giant. While the news that the 60GB console would cost £117 ($230) more than the US equivalent seemed inevitable, the four-month delay for Europe made it look like Sony carried some serious grudge against the continent's citizens. It's gotten to the point that if Sony said it was replacing the PS3's cell processor with bits of string and biscuits, European residents wouldn't be all that shocked.
This weekend, retailers such as Asda and Currys slashed the price of the PlayStation 2 to £49 ($95). It was no doubt a stock-clearing measure in light of the imminent release of its successor, but it's still an indication of the low production cost of the PS2 at this stage in its life. If Sony wasn't hemorrhaging money, then such penny-picking measures might not be necessary. What hurts is that everyone else in the world is paying less for a more technically advanced console.
At least there's some light at the end of the tunnel. It was announced this week that first-party PS3 games will carry a recommended retail price of £39.99, £5 less than Microsoft's Xbox 360 games. And at the time of writing, it's still easy to guarantee yourself a PlayStation 3 for launch day with any number of high-street and online retailers. Could this be a subtle indication of the low demand for the console itself? Either way, it may well actually be easier to get a PS3 in Europe on March 23 than in much of America and Japan.
When the announcement came from Sony that the PlayStation 3 would be delayed in Europe (as well as Australasia and other regions) until March, people were not happy. Those hoping to get themselves an import console from the Japanese or American launches in November were likely out of luck, too, as Sony stomped its big, corporate foot down on import companies like Lik Sang. Sony's lawyers delivered the unmistakable message that we should all stand patiently in line and wait our turn.
So perhaps we could hope for something extra for our patience? Sure, how's about a price tag of £425? Aw, thanks Uncle Sony. Hey, tell you what, remember when Ken Kutaragi made such a big song and dance about backward compatibility and said, "The PS3 will offer the same compatibility [as the PS2 did for the original PlayStation] for PS2 software, and the format will continue forever"? Well, I'm afraid forever came and went in Europe, but it's just because we think you're so special that you deserve only the best and newest games. Oh! No, wait a minute--I think I can smell a rodent in the house.
The news didn't come as a surprise since it has always been Sony's plan to ditch the expensive Emotion Engine from the innards of the PS3 once the software emulation could take care of the PS2 games, so my initial reaction was, so what? But if it has reached a point where the software can happily take over, then Sony has gone about announcing it in a funny way by making a statement that contradicts what it previously said about the importance of backward compatibility and giving the impression that it's no longer interested in working on it.
Stores are being upbeat about the preorders, which remain conspicuously open some two weeks after they were first announced. The Nintendo Wii sold out in minutes when preorders opened back in November here, and there were similar situations with the 360 and the PS2. Without knowing exactly how many consoles have been made available for preorder, it's difficult to say whether the fact that they're still being taken is a sign that Sony has done a fantastic job of making supply meet demand, or whether they're still open because, well, nobody wants one.
It's true that backward compatibility bothers people less and less as the years go on, but then we've never had a console as popular as the PS2 (approximately 120 million sold worldwide and counting), and developers are still busy-beavering away on new PS2 games, so the console's sunset isn't likely to be for a while yet. The PS2 also has an absolutely enormous back catalog of games, which, at nearly 10,000, is more than that of any other console in history. This means there's going to be many games that you'll either need a PS2 for, or you can kiss good-bye to ever playing them.
So, considering all that, personally I do think that the lack of backward compatibility (if it isn't resolved through updates) will be something of an issue for sales in the first few months of the console launch, but frankly, the bigger problem is still the price. The console needs to drop by about £100 before the majority of households will want to "Play Beyond."
European and Australasian gamers are used to getting their hands on hardware months after their Japanese and American counterparts, and they're certainly no strangers to paying more for the privilege. Sony Computer Entertainment Europe appeared to add insult to injury last week, though, when it announced that the PlayStation 3 hardware launching there next month will support only a "limited range" of PlayStation 2 games. The list of PS2 games supported on the PS3 isn't expected to be released until the new system launches, and while additional backward-compatibility support will purportedly be made available through regular firmware updates, I think it's safe to assume that the vast majority of them won't be running on the new hardware anytime soon. Does anybody really care, though?
If you're willing to spend the kind of money that a PS3 commands right now, it's (hopefully) because you're excited about at least one of the games that's exclusive to the console, and maybe because you're wondering how your favorite movie will look on Blu-ray--assuming it ever gets released. Even in this day and age, the PS3 is an expensive toy, and regardless of how few good games are available for it right now, using one to play last-generation games that in no way take advantage of its power seems like a waste.
I don't have a PS3 yet, but when I bought my Xbox 360 at launch there were still a handful of original Xbox games that I wanted to play, and so, given the physical size of both consoles relative to the diminutive space that I live in, I was hoping that I'd be able to pack the old one away. My then still-sealed copy of Psychonauts ruined that plan, but after playing that game, I put the Xbox into storage with the two that had died on me previously, and I haven't felt inclined to even look at another Xbox game since.
The PS3 situation is a little different than the Xbox 360's, in that its predecessor has a much larger library of games that's still growing, but a year from now, you'll be able to count the number of new PS2 games that a PS3 owner would even think about playing on one hand with fingers to spare. Hopefully, those two or three games will be prioritized for backward compatibility when subsequent firmware updates are released. If you're planning to buy a PS3 at launch, you've almost certainly got a PS2 already anyway, and if you haven't, perhaps you'd do better to save yourself some money and invest in a console that already has hundreds of great games in its library.
Limited backward compatibility for the PS3 for Australia and Europe stinks. Badly. The seamless interoperability between the latest PS3 and the thousands of games in the PS2's and PS's history was one of the key pluses for Sony's next-gen console and set it well apart from the Xbox 360 and its occasionally updated list. This news just gives Aussie and European gamers one less reason to buy a PS3--and for a console that carries an A$1,000 price tag Down Under, that's not exactly a good thing.
From a business point of view, it probably makes complete sense for Sony to skimp in this area. After all, if it's cheaper to provide compatibility through software emulation rather than including the Emotion Engine in each PS3, then Sony would be silly not to do it. But it's the way Sony has approached this that raises its stink factor exponentially. After offering US and Japanese gamers a PS3 model that can play the majority of PS2 and PS games for several months now, Sony turns around and decides not to offer the exact same level of functionality to us PAL countries. Huh? If we are getting a lesser system, shouldn't we also be getting a lesser price tag to match? We realize we're not exactly the biggest game market in the world down here, but it's news like this that adds fuel to the conspiracy theory that Sony just doesn't like us Aussies as much as the gamers up North.
I know that, realistically, playing old games on a brand-spanking-new console may not be on the top of everyone's priorities when purchasing a PS3. But it'd still be nice to know whether I'll be able to play my copy of Shadow of the Colossus, Metal Gear Solid 3, or Final Fantasy XII (which just landed in Australia, thank you very much) on Sony's new console. Here's hoping that backward-compatibility list Sony is promising to unveil on March 23 is a long one. A very long one.
So this is a pretty raw deal for the other territories and not the best of news to come out of Sony. Considering the fuss that got raised over the Xbox 360's backward compatibility, and that the PS2had it, you just know the company is going to get raked over the coals for this one, and for a while.
If I was in the UK or other territories that had to wait for the PS3, I'd be irked. The launch delay, though disappointing, was to be expected--but limited backward compatibility, when Japan and the US already have it, is asking folks to swallow a mammoth and bitter pill.
I'll play devil's advocate and say that, practically speaking, the loss of total backward compatibility may not be as bad as it sounds. Ironically, if we look at how Microsoft has handled things with the 360, odds are there will be enough support for the popular games to ensure that this isn't going to be the end of the world for Sony. The downside is that it's not exactly making them look awesome in the eyes of its fans. Though Sony's never been strong at launch with its hardware, as evidenced by the original PlayStation and PlayStation 2 launches, this definitely adds a few more obstacles on its way toward being the leader in this generation and moving the amount of units the company has said it will. To make matters worse, there's been no real substantive talk of exclusive software, outside of the games we know, to get people on board the PS3 train and soften the backward-compatibility blow.
If Sony can offer enough support for the right legacy games and toss the other territories some meaningful bones--a free game or two, or something--to make folks feel good about picking up a unit, things may not be as dire for them. The big X factor is the amount of ill will that's been festering over how just about everything PS3 has been handled. There's never a good time to share news like this, but a month before launch isn't going to make you any friends. Hopefully, this is the last of the unpleasant surprises from Sony, because the company needs to focus on ironing out the many postlaunch kinks still left in the US and Japan and make sure the other territories have a smoother time.
So the PlayStation 3 that people purchase in Europe is going to be different than the ones that have already shipped in North America and Japan, and the big difference appears to be squarely in the backward-compatibility department. Rather than stating that the system works with just about everything, the wording is that the system will be "compatible with a broad range of original PlayStation titles and a limited range of PlayStation 2 titles." Why? Well, there could be a couple of different reasons.
PAL versions of games might not run properly on the PS3, and the extra work it would take to make them work might not be worth it. I'm not a technical guy, but hey, this is a possibility, or...
Removing the hardware it takes to properly emulate PS2 games probably reduces the overall cost to manufacture a PlayStation 3, helping Sony take in a bit more money on each console sold. This would, eventually, set Sony up to be able to make a price drop more quickly, if needed.
The press release from Sony goes on to discuss how the company will focus on making PlayStation 3 games. That's probably a good idea. But this gets back to the same things I wondered about back when the Xbox 360's backward compatibility was detailed. How many people actually care about playing the older games on their new systems? I think I've put three or four Xbox games, tops, into my Xbox 360, and that was mostly because I was curious about how it all worked. Same deal with the PlayStation 3. I played the original Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, and I just ordered a US version of Rez because I want to know if the Trance Vibrator works on the PS3. But if I was still way into playing PlayStation 2 games, I'd probably be fine with hooking up a PS2. And I have a PSOne with the screen attachment, so I'm already set for that old stuff. So me, personally, I don't care. Whether or not you feel like Europe is getting a raw deal comes down to how much room you have to keep your old hardware around. But right now, if you have games for those older systems, chances are you still have a system that can run those games.
Now, I'm just curious to know if these new and "improved" PS3s will eventually be released into Japan and North America. If it's cheaper to make them, then you know Sony's going to want to put them out all over. There's no sense in having special units for one region. My guess is that as soon as store shelves are cleared of the existing PS3s, we'll start seeing these new units around the world.
Any way you slice it, the recent announcement that the new version of the PlayStation 3 for Europe/Middle East/Australasia will deemphasize backward compatibility with PlayStation 2 games (but will apparently still have strong compatibility with PlayStation games) is bad news all around. It's bad news for Sony, since the already-delayed, already-more-costly hardware is now even less appealing. After all, robust compatibility with PS2 games should have been a given; a built-in value addition that lets customers permanently put their old PS2 consoles in the closet and keep their copies of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and SingStar Rocks! in their "now playing" pile, right next to Resistance: Fall of Man and Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. It's also bad news for customers who were hoping to do just that and will instead have to cram yet another expensive video game console into their living rooms, if they decide to get one at all. Could the development be a setback for the game industry at large? I don't think there's a clear answer to that question just yet, but considering how Sony had previously enjoyed hardware dominance in the last console generation, it probably isn't a good thing for the game business as a whole to have its traditional front-runner make yet another misstep.
With the difference in hardware between these new PS3s and the original Japanese/North American models, it's also possible that even more software differences and delays lie ahead for customers in these territories. If we wanted to keep speculating wildly, this could be another contributing factor to audiences in Europe, the Middle East, and Down Under getting their games even more slowly, or in some cases, not at all. For instance, we'll probably see some PS2 compilation packages that will eventually come out for the PS3--will they even work on the new hardware? But until we get more details, that's all just speculation. Still, there doesn't seem to be much of an upside for anyone in this situation.
Sony has already generated a considerable amount of negative publicity for over promising and under delivering on the PlayStation 3. Much of the criticism aimed at Sony is well deserved. You can't fail to meet ship dates, set unrealistic pricing, and launch with a below-average game library and expect to come out unscathed, but I also think that the PS3 backlash has reached an irrational level. Sony has disappointed consumers to the point where hating the PS3 has become public sport.
It feels like the majority of PlayStation 3 stories that appear on the front page of sites like Digg and even this publication have been negative, while most Wii stories have been overwhelmingly positive. I bet you could make Digg's front page by editing together a photo of a crying baby holding a Sixaxis controller and placing it next to a picture of a giddy baby with a Wii Remote in hand. All this negative attention makes me feel like that PlayStation 3 sentiment is nearing or has already rebounded off a bottom. This recent announcement is more fuel for PS3 bashers, but it's also a sign that Sony is committed to righting the console's trajectory.
Seriously, does anyone care about console backward compatibility? I have never played any of my old PlayStation games on my PlayStation 2. As a consumer and an editor, the only reason why I pay attention to console backward-compatibility support is to see how well Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony deliver on their promises. If manufacturers want to list backward compatibility as a feature on the box, we're obligated to find out if it works, even if most people will never use it.
If this reduced-feature-set launch doesn't go over too horribly in the European and Australasian markets, don't be surprised if we see Sony bringing it to North America. I haven't bought a PS3 yet, but I'm willing to give up PS2 backward-compatibility support if it can clear the way for a price cut and let Sony allocate more resources to shoring up online applications and helping new game development. I want Sony to focus on the features that I'll actually use.
Even though nothing should surprise me when it comes to the PlayStation 3, this little announcement caught me off guard. Sony has been taking hits on all fronts when it comes to the PS3, and it has done little, if anything, to turn this negative press around. To me, it's not as much an issue of releasing a gimped product as it is Sony doing nothing to reestablish consumers' faith in a brand name that grows weaker by the day.
I'm not even sure that many people care about backward compatibility. Sure, some people will use the feature for a few months or occasionally go back and play some old favorites in a few years, but personally, I can count the number of PlayStation games I've played on my PlayStation 2 on one hand. I'm not sure if you noticed or not, but most PlayStation games haven't aged all that well, and most of the good ones have gotten sequels. The same thing is going to happen with the PS3. You're not going to want to play Gran Turismo 4 because Gran Turismo 5 is going to blow it out of the water when it's (eventually) released. OK, that's a bad example. In reality, this announcement is going to impact a very small number of consumers.
But that's not really the point. Sony not only went out of its way to tout 100 percent backward compatibility, but it also made sure to point out Microsoft's inability to emulate its console's entire back catalog of games. Now, the PS3 is in the same boat as the Xbox 360, and the poor folks that make up Sony's public-relations staff have to try to spin this into something not horrible. Good luck with that. Can you imagine a worse job in the gaming industry than having to clean up the mess that is the PlayStation 3's European launch? Those folks probably look back on the Gizmondo's launch with envy.
Even with all the negativity surrounding the PS3 launch, all signs point to the system selling just fine when it finally does come out. And who knows? Maybe the software-based emulation will yield some surprising results, like games with higher resolutions and better frame rates. Given how everything else has gone to this point, it's unlikely, but I'm trying to give our friends at GameSpot UK something to look forward to.
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