The Tipping Point: 10 Things to Make the PlayStation 3 Worth Buying
Here are 10 things Sony can do to get us to buy a PlayStation 3.
The PlayStation 3 may not be flying off store shelves right now, but you'd be foolish to dismiss Sony this early in the console generation. The PS3 has all the processor, graphics, and communications power necessary to win this generation. Unfortunately, Sony wasn't able to pull together the right game portfolio in time to justify the console's high price tag. The fact that Sony stumbled at launch, failing to consistently sell out at retail even after cutting supply, shows how competitive this console generation will be. If the Xbox 360 and Gears of War didn't exist, the PlayStation 3 would be sold out everywhere; thus, we would all be happily playing Resistance: Fall of Man and marveling over the sweat in Fight Night Round 3
The major game developers believe that the PlayStation 3 will have a sizable install base and allocated resources to ensure a steady supply of games. Larry Probst, the outgoing Electronic Arts CEO, stated in a recent Web conference that he believes the PS3 will eventually win this console generation in a very close race. Sony may have lost a few exclusives because of the PS3's slow start, but those games will still appear on the PS3, even if they're also going to be on the Xbox 360.
Selling more than 100 million PlayStation 2 units will give you a strong brand and, if treated kindly, a loyal customer base. However, Sony has squandered much of its customer goodwill over the past year with a string of disappointments: product delays, price raises, feature cuts, and lackluster games. Many of us, despite all the letdowns, are still prepared to buy a PlayStation 3 because we know that Sony is very close to transforming the console from a maybe into a must-have. Here are 10 things Sony can do to get us to buy a PlayStation 3.
Improve Developer Support to Secure More Exclusives
Sony has a decent number of exclusive third-party games in its PlayStation 3 stable already, and a few of them carry some of the biggest names in the industry (Final Fantasy and Metal Gear may ring a bell). But the support that third parties provide the platform seems to have been driven by their expectations of the PS3's potentially enormous user base rather than a commitment to faithfully continue making games for Sony. Now that Nintendo and Microsoft are both presenting a serious challenge to the PlayStation's market dominance, we're watching one PS3 exclusive after another go multiplatform, which is not providing many satisfied 360 owners with a compelling incentive to pick up a PS3.
There's a catch-22 at work here. Sony needs to get more systems into homes to make third-party publishers want to invest the resources in great exclusive games. But you need great exclusive games to sell systems. I don't know if management at Sony became complacent after the PlayStation 2's ludicrous popularity, but the company can't get lazy about courting and supporting developers this time around. Based on statements by some well-known developers and scuttlebutt I've heard here and there, it seems that Microsoft's tools and developer support are considerably better than Sony's right now. You can't blame developers for going with the platform that lets them create the same great game but requires fewer resources.
Sony has indeed started increasing developer support. At the Game Developers Conference a few days ago, the company announced a new development suite called PlayStation Edge that will give third parties superior tools for getting the best effects and performance out of the PS3's powerful hardware. Sony needs to keep up such efforts as PlayStation Edge if it wants the PS3 to compete against Microsoft's considerable sales advantage and Nintendo's current cultural cachet.
Fix Online Fundamentals Before Going Home
It's probably going to take more than a microtransaction-filled virtual world to get the PlayStation 3's online functionality where it needs to be. While I'm definitely interested in the concepts put forth by PlayStation Home, what I really want is the ability to read my inbox without having to quit out of a game. How about voicemail messaging so I don't need to reach for my USB keyboard every time I need to tell someone something? The existing community features need to be better integrated into the games before something like PlayStation Home will sound appealing.
Thank you for inviting me into your PlayStation Home. I find your collection of hilarious GIF files to be quite scintillating.
But PlayStation Home will certainly have its applications. I look forward to getting invited to the private spaces of other users so they can show me their vast collection of ripped DVD porn films and mind-blowing animated GIFs. I also look forward to going to the Sponsored By Big Summer Movie Area, where I can watch the trailer for Big Summer Movie and perhaps even acquire a T-shirt with the logo for Big Summer Movie right on it!
Worlds like Second Life and There exist on the fringe and, if I may recklessly dismiss and generalize something that I deliberately choose not to understand, are only used by lunatics and shut-ins. Is that because not enough people have been exposed to these sorts of virtual worlds? Or is it because most people simply aren't interested in some creepy emote-based chat room where 30 guys are doing the robot while trying to hit on the one female avatar in the area and 30 more guys are trying to tell you that you aren't cool if you don't go buy some more virtual bucket hats and headphones for your already-far-too-metrosexual-looking avatars? As long as the PlayStation 3 keeps selling, PS Home is going to be the big mainstream experiment that finally gives us the answer. But all I want to do is accept a game invite from a friend without first having to fumble through a bunch of game-specific menus and obsolete lobbies.
You might think I'm down on PlayStation Home, but to be honest, I can't wait to try it. It all looks so creepy and marketing-driven that getting in there and messing with people is almost certain to be a good time. But considering that Sony doesn't quite have the basics of online functionality down yet, it's hard to get excited about anything that isn't directly focused on filling those basic needs first.
Standardize Online Features for Multiplayer Games
In this day and age it seems inexcusable for a multiplayer game to ship without at least a modest suite of options for online play. It's especially frustrating on the PlayStation 3 because the idea of a free online multiplayer is one of the few features that Sony's system has over the Xbox 360. Unfortunately, thus far Sony has shown us that you get what you pay for.
PlayStation 3 games don't have a standard set of online features, so it's a bit of a crapshoot when you're buying a game as to whether or not it will have decent (or any) online multiplayer support. Resistance: Fall of Man and MotorStorm are shining examples of how online games can be done right on the PlayStation 3. And if Sony could guarantee that type of quality online gameplay for every multiplayer game, the system might be worth the investment.
Unfortunately, for every Resistance there are games like Tekken and Virtua Fighter 5, which have no online play whatsoever. Even the games that do have online play are often missing features that are taken for granted on the Xbox 360. Sony needs to take a more active role in setting guidelines for PlayStation 3 games to include such features as online matchmaking, voice chat, in-game messaging, and leaderboards. Basically, Sony needs to rip off Xbox Live. If Sony can do that, then it will at least make the decision to purchase an Xbox 360 game versus a PlayStation 3 game a little less one-sided.
Reconsider the Price
There's one major reason why I'm not going to buy a PlayStation 3 in the short term--it's just too much money.
Gaming has never been a cheap hobby. Even with trade-ins, pre-owned games and consoles, and rental, to keep up with what's new involves significant costs. The development costs of next-generation games and consoles are reaching movielike levels, and gaming companies are under pressure to maintain their bottom line. But even with the price levels we've become used to, Sony's ?25 ($825 US) has caused some shock waves.
The problem is that ?25 is a lot of money. If you throw in a couple of games, you're looking at more than ?00, which psychologically at least seems a barrier to purchase. While it has the benefits of Blu-ray (if it takes hold) and, later, the PlayStation Home environment, are those really enough to persuade gamers to part with stacks of cash?
Imagine for a second that Sony decided to take a bigger loss and cut ?00 off the UK launch price. Looking at a ?25 price tag would be a significantly different proposition. There's no denying that the PlayStation 3 is an attractive, technologically sophisticated console, and although the games lineup isn't earth-shattering at the moment, it's bound to improve (Metal Gear Solid 4 anyone?). With the Xbox 360 still retailing at about ?79, narrowing the price gap would present the consumer with a genuine choice. PlayStation 3 for ?25? I'd have my preorder in already.
[Editor's note: The PlayStation 3 is set to launch in the UK on March 23.]
Fix Web Browsing and Media Management
Sony billed the PlayStation 3 as a gaming console that can do everything: "Music, Photos, Internet, Videos, and Movies." It's supposed to be the living-room media center. That might become a reality if Sony iterates more on its Internet and media applications. How is it that a machine as powerful as the PlayStation 3 can't manage to browse more than a few Web sites without crashing? I'll forgive the PSP's horrendous browsing capabilities, but the PlayStation 3 doesn't have any memory storage or processing horsepower excuses. At the very minimum, you have 20GB of storage, plenty of RAM, and an array of processors. What gives?
The Cross Media Bar could also use an update. A media hub needs more than simple vertical scrolling to make it useful for listening to audio or viewing video clips. If we all had five songs to our name, the current system would work; but many of us have a lot more songs in the real world where 30GB MP3 players are the norm. You don't vertically scroll your way through 5,000 songs.
Filling out media-feature check boxes may make for great box art and marketing brochures, but Sony needs to focus on usability to make sure PS3 owners can actually take advantage of what the system has to offer. The PlayStation 3 has all the hardware to function as a fantastic media center--now make it easy for me to use.
What do you think Sony should do to make the PlayStation 3 worth buying? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Make Accomplishments Matter
Trophy rooms are nothing new in sports games. Nearly every serious sports sim these days has a place where you can show off the different championships you've won and the unlockable goodies you've achieved during your time with the game. With the PlayStation 3's Home service, Sony is bringing the idea of a trophy room to every game in your PS3 collection. The video clips during Phil Harrison's introduction of the concept showed a futuristic-looking trophy room where a user could access every in-game triumph he or she has earned and show them off to friends.
Obviously, this is Sony's response to Microsoft's incredibly popular achievements system. Here's the thing though: Apart from being good bragging fodder, points, achievements, and the PS3's trophies serve no purpose. To make matters worse--and at the risk of sounding like an egotist here--I'm probably not going to care much about your trophy case, just as I suspect you won't give a sweet Christmas about mine. Instead, we're all simply concerned about our own collections.
So the key here is to make Sony's achievements matter; to have them mean something more than a mild virtual ego stroke. The question is: How? Unlockable content is a good start. For example, if you win the world championship in Formula One Championship Edition on the hardest difficulty, you could earn a new wing for your apartment. Or how about access to a special "champions only" locale in the public Home space showing you "insider" coverage on the development of the next Formula One game or special access to the development team?
The bottom line is that trophies need to be more than little graphics you can walk by and admire. If the PS3 can find a way to trump the mere numerical status of Xbox Live achievements and reward Home users with something to do and show off--essentially improving the status of the player--then I suspect we'll all become big game trophy hunters.
Change the Way We Play Games
The Game Developers Conference was Sony's chance to sell me on something brand new and prove that I can't live without my PlayStation 3. Offering a new experience is how Nintendo sold me on the Wii controller and what Microsoft has done with points on the Xbox 360. Give me that one thing--a service, a feature, a gadget, anything--that convinces me the PlayStation 3 gives me a new way of playing games and changes what I expect from consoles in the future. The thing is, Home isn't it. It all sounds cool and interesting, but when I really consider how useful and user-friendly Sony's upcoming online service will be, apathy sets in. The socializing aspect reminds me too much of Second Life and The Sims Online, neither of which makes interacting with others any more fun than sending an instant message or chatting on the phone. And it all strikes me as too cluttered to matter all that much. Aside from adding a few minigames, how much will Home really add to the core gaming experience? I'm interested in playing games, not in inhabiting a 3D interactive MySpace.
On the other hand, the announcement of player trophies appeals to me, but it looks like Sony is capitulating to the need to counter Xbox Live gamerpoints. It's good that Sony is listening to what people want to some extent, months after release, mind you, but I'm still waiting for the announcement of something both significant and inventive. Home is original, but until I see how it increases the ease with which I can play games with others (and I don't mean billiards), it's not something I really need or want in a game console.
Because I run tournaments at GameSpot, I am always looking at new ways to spectate games in progress. How about an option that doesn't just let me see what a buddy's playing but also lets me view the game in progress, even if it's single player? What about built-in game guides, so that if I am stuck, I can bring up a walk-through without resorting to Internet guides? I don't know if these ideas could fundamentally change the way we look at games, but they're based on a single notion: How could playing games be even better? All the bright ideas in the world won't make playing games on the PS3 better than on any other gaming machine until the people at Sony ask themselves the same question--and deliver a real answer.
Experiment With Content Delivery
Microsoft has shown us that the first generation of microtransaction offerings will be horse armor and episodic content for games and full-length movie features and television shows for videos. It's great for a first try, but the console manufacturers are capable of doing a whole lot more. The digital distribution and microtransaction support in today's consoles give Sony, Microsoft, and, to some extent, Nintendo a huge opportunity to invent new ways to deliver games and other media.
How about subsidizing television shows or movies in the PlayStation Home Theater with paid sponsorships? I'd be willing to sit though a few commercials if it means I can watch Spiderman 3 for free or at a discounted price. For Sony, the best thing about controlling the delivery medium is that, unlike TiVo, viewers won't be able to fast forward while sitting in the theater.
Game companies could also try experimenting with pricing. Maybe launch a massively multiplayer online game at a ridiculously low price and start charging a more reasonable rate after reaching a critical mass of online players. At the moment, it seems like the game companies are primarily concentrating on ways to use microtransactions to extract the most money possible out of each customer with inconsequential add-ons, or worse:
The PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 both have the potential to become revolutionary content delivery platforms. Let's see which one gets there first.
Provide Solid Hardware and Product Support
Even with the intriguing news announced at the Game Developers Conference, it's still hard to look at the PlayStation3 as much more than an extremely expensive novelty, especially considering Sony's spotty history with hardware problems for both the original PlayStation and the PlayStation 2. What Sony needs to do to catch my eye, and the eyes of shrewd consumers, is to make the console a solid long-term investment overall in three primary ways. First, the company should ensure that hardware failures cause its users a minimum of inconvenience. There needs to be a fast, reliable way to get any hardware issue resolved (whether that be through mail-order, service centers, or both) along with a retroactive lifetime guarantee on every unit sold. Given the infamous track record of unreliability that PlayStation hardware has, putting down $600 (and much more in Euros) is a hard commitment to make, but a worry-free guarantee of fast and perpetual support for repairs would help.
Second, stronger game support with a much-wider array of titles to choose from would also help. Because right now, there just aren't that many PS3 games out there, good or bad. Finally, Sony needs to provide stronger support of the hardware with value additions that make the PS3 more than just a game console. PS3 Home is an interesting start, but as a Blu-ray player, for instance, the hardware has stalled. Unlike the original PS2, which was arguably a Trojan Horse for the DVD format back in 2000 and sold extremely well as the first DVD player for many households, the PS3 hasn't been anywhere near as successful with the Blu-ray format.
Obviously, these are not easy, short-term things to pull off, but at the moment, there isn't much of an answer to the question: "When we pay the price for a PS3, what are we getting in exchange for all that money?" There needs to be a bigger, and much more exciting, answer to that question than there is now.
Start Releasing Good News
I already own a PlayStation 3, so obviously Sony didn't need to do much to convince me to drop $600 on one, but it's going to take some work to convince the rest of the game-buying public to climb on board. In spite of all the negative publicity, lots of people are planning on getting a PlayStation 3 at some point; they just need a reason to take the plunge. The recent announcement of the PlayStation Home online service is a great first step in getting people excited about the system again, but Sony needs to keep this momentum going with a series of positive announcements.
This solution may sound absurdly simple, but try to remember the last time before the "Home" announcement that you read anything good about what Sony was doing with the PlayStation 3. It was a long time ago, wasn't it? It doesn't necessarily need to be big news all of the time, but let people know that things are going well. Tell us you've got a big game locked up as an exclusive, brag about a new original downloadable game, continue to release classic PlayStation games on the PS3 for play on the PSP, and while you're at it, make them playable on the PlayStation 3 as well.
When I tell people that I own a PS3, they usually give me a weird look and ask "Why?" If you give me some good news, I may no longer have to shrug and answer, "I don't know."
What do you think Sony should do to make the PlayStation 3 worth buying? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
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