Wednesday, October 28, 2009

In A Moment of Kindness, Sony Remembers the Consumer. It Matters.

I had a strange thought while watching a commercial for Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. It went like this.

That looks really sweet. Too bad it’s a PS3 exclusive. Hmph.

…Maybe I should buy a Playstation 3.

Bolt from a blue sky. I’m not a devotee of any console of this current generation, but let it be said I own an Xbox 360. Despite an astonishing rate of failure upon launch, it still managed to outstrip its main rival, the PS3 (we’re not talking about the Wii, here; economically, it exists in a no-zone of soccer moms, physical therapists and ‘casual’ gamers). While the Xbox 360 became a runway for blockbuster AAA titles, Sony tried to justify an unprecedented $599 price tag and an underwhelming stable of games.

Nearly three years after releasing the PS3, Sony is trying to reverse its prize pony’s seemingly grim fate. And how? They dropped the price. They’re filling the calendar with promising games. And they’re making gamers like me consider their bank accounts.

Let’s be clear: The PS3’s failure had little to do with the system itself. It remains the most powerful console on the market, and unlike Microsoft’s system, it has a remarkably low rate of failure (it doesn’t have an acronym to describe its tendency to go tits-up). Out of the box, it was a console to smoke the competition.

But all the shiny parts under the hood came at a cost. Sony must have been confident that the (still) unprecedented success of the PS2 had won them an unshakable share of the market – that’s the only way I can imagine them justifying a $599 price tag. At launch, the PS3 was $200 more expensive than the Xbox 360, which was available in a stripped-down $299 configuration.

Call it hubris, call it a leap of faith – it didn’t work. Even as 360s caught on fire and red-ringed their way across the years, the PS3 failed to compete. Exclusive titles like Metal Gear 4: Guns of the Patriots couldn’t even come close to justifying the price tag. Perhaps most damningly, screen-by-screen comparisons with the Xbox 360 failed to reveal much of a difference in quality – if anything, the PS3 suffered in comparison. Valve Software officials publicly shunned the console. Sony grew more clustered and hyperbolic in tone, trumpeting their success from the ramparts as they retreated deeper into their own delirious Xanadu.

Then, finally, someone wised up – or surrendered. In September 2009, Sony released the PS3 Slim. It was smaller, quieter. It played Blu-Ray. With a 120GB hard drive, it had twice the space as the launch product. At $299, it was half the price.

The gambit worked. September sales figures show Sony smashed it out of the park, shifting 492,000 slims in America (it broke a million worldwide in its first three weeks). Sony of America President Jack Tretton said PS3 sales were up 112 percent from last year. The slim edged out its competitors for top-selling non-handheld console by a considerable margin, Nintendo’s Wii trailing behind by 30,000 units.

Is Sony resurgent? Yes. But success is fickle, and the view outside of September is far less sunny. Not only that not only is Sony lagging in year-to-date sales, it’s lagging behind its own 2008 performance. A killer app like Uncharted 2, married to a radical price reduction, could greatly boost holiday sales; but the killerest apps like Modern Warfare 2 and Assassin’s Creed II are pan-system. Left 4 Dead 2, a Valve title, is exclusive to the 360.

Tellingly, Sony has returned to the ramparts to shout more delirious nonsense. The price cut, Tretton said, was not due to shit-poor sales. And as PS3 Slims flew off the shelves, Tretton eased into his king-of-the-world mentality as if it had never left, claiming that the PS3’s (hypothetical) dominance is good for the industry. Sony had only just begun, he later said, with an “onslaught” of great titles hitting soon.

Onslaught. What is this, a Zerg Rush?

Be they arrogant, hubristic or just plain insane, September could mark a turning point for Sony. Sure, they sell every Slim at a loss, but for the first time since launch, the PS3 is competing with its peers and making itself accessible to the full spectrum of buyers. Sony has rightly recognized that the success of their product depends not on what’s under the hood, but what’s in our wallet. They realized that a reversal in fortune must start consumer-side, and we rewarded them in kind with a 112 percent sale spike.

Tomorrow, I will not rush to Gamestop and put down $359.98 for a PS3 Slim and Uncharted 2. But I thought about it more than once. Even if my hand stops before it reaches my wallet, it was heading there, and that’s the most Sony ever got out of me.