[Originally posted on February 19, 2015]
By Michael Mendis
This is the second in a series of three articles examining how the successes and failures of the 7th generation consoles (Xbox 360, PS3, Wii) impacted their respective 8th generation successors (Xbox One, PS4, Wii U). This article takes a look at the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4. The first article dealt with the Xbox 360 and Xbox One, and the final article will discuss the Wii and Wii U. This series is written by guest Author of Gospel & Gaming Michael Mendis.
When Sony entered the console gaming space in the mid-1990s, they found instant success. The original PlayStation was a much more developer-friendly console than Nintendo’s N64, and a flood of exciting exclusive titles like Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid helped the new console surpass its competitors. The PlayStation 2 (PS2), with its strong developer support and its ability to play DVDs, saw even greater success than its predecessor, becoming the best-selling home console of all time (and selling over three times as many units as its two closest competitors, the Nintendo Gamecube and Microsoft’s original Xbox, combined). Naturally, then, Sony had all the reason in the world to be confident heading into the 7th console generation with the PlayStation 3. Unfortunately for them, they proved themselves to be a bit too confident, making some critical errors with the PS3 that gave competitors Microsoft and Nintendo a chance to re-assert themselves in the market. Let’s take a look now at some of those errors, as well as the ways that Sony learned from their mistakes in creating the PlayStation 4.
One of the biggest changes that Sony made going from the PS3 to the PS4 was the type of processor used in each machine. The PS3 featured a new kind of processor made by Sony (and a group of other tech companies like IBM and Toshiba) called the Cell. While this new CPU had more raw potential than that of the Xbox 360, it proved to be much more complex and very difficult for developers to work with. As a result, many games looked or ran noticeably better on 360 in the first few years of the 7th console generation, and some developers simply didn't bother working on the PS3 at all. Over time, Sony taught developers how best to use their hardware, and by the end of the generation, many third-party games were just as good, if not better, on PS3 than on 360. But those early difficulties were something that Sony wanted to avoid with their next console.
For its first three consoles Sony’s own Japanese teams, led by Ken Kutaragi (a longtime Sony Computer Entertainment executive and often referred to as “The Father of PlayStation”), handled the duties of defining PlayStation hardware, and Kutaragi had led the charge in developing the Cell processor used in the PS3. Shortly after the launch of the PS3, however, Kutaragi stepped down from his position at Sony to pursue other opportunities, and when it came time to start creating their next console, Sony hired a westerner, games industry consultant Mark Cerny, to be their lead architect.
In crafting the PS4, Cerny moved away from the Cell technology that the PS3 had been built around, instead opting to use a much simpler X86 processor, the same kind of technology used in most PCs (and incidentally the same kind Microsoft chose for the Xbox One). Cerny stressed the importance of a simple architecture during the PS4 reveal conference on February 20, 2013: “I’m proud of what we accomplished with Cell on PlayStation 3. But at the same time, the need to radically customize technology can interfere with the design innovation that’s so central to game creation…our goal was to create an architecture that would facilitate the expression of their [developers’] ideas.”
Difficult game development wasn't the only problem introduced by the Cell; price was another key factor. The Cell was very expensive to produce, and altogether Sony had to charge $599 for the PS3 at launch, which was $100 more than the Xbox 360 (and Sony was still losing a couple hundred dollars on each console sold). Prior to the console’s 2006 launch, Ken Kutaragi infamously declared that he wanted consumers to “think to themselves ‘I will work more hours to buy one.’ We want people to feel that they want it, irrespective of anything else.” The public was not pleased; Microsoft and Nintendo were both offering interesting consoles for less money, and the PS3’s heavily marketed Blu-ray player couldn't tip the scales in Sony’s favor the way that the PS2’s DVD functionality had in years past. Sony learned the hard way that console loyalty can be lost quite quickly, and early PS3 sales lagged behind both the Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii.
Eager to avoid the same mistakes with the PS4, Sony adopted a much more humble tone when announcing their new console. Their reveal conference placed an emphasis not only on developers but on core gamers as well, stressing the importance of the gaming community and announcing several games that would be available at the platform’s launch or shortly thereafter. They then watched carefully in the following months as gamers revolted against Microsoft’s plans to bundle Kinect with every Xbox One and to require regular online verification for all Xbox One games. At their E3 conference in June, Sony announced that the PS4 would feature none of the unpopular policies proposed by Microsoft, that the PlayStation Camera (Sony’s closest equivalent to Microsoft’s Kinect) would be sold separately from the main console, and that the PS4 would release at $399, which was $100 less than Xbox One. These simple statements, more than any games or other features announced for the new platform, won Sony a lot of early support and has played a large part in helping the PS4 gain an early lead in sales over the Xbox One at launch and throughout 2014.
While the design and marketing of the main console has been the biggest factor in the PS4’s success, it’s worth taking a few moments to note the improvements Sony has made in controller design between the 7th and 8th console generations. The PlayStation 3’s controller, called the Dualshock 3, faced a fair amount of criticism when compared to that of the Xbox 360. With the exception of the Dualshock’s D-pad, everything else was considered inferior by most gamers: the analog sticks were convex, making it easy for the player’s thumbs to slide off; the hand grips were not as comfortable; the gummy, convex R2 and L2 buttons were poor substitutes for the proper triggers on the 360 controller (in fact, some games from Sony’s own studios opted to program the R1 and L1 buttons for weapon fire instead); the overall construction felt cheaper and easier to break.
In constructing the Dualshock 4 for their new platform, Sony made sure that this controller would not be an obstacle to gamers. Every major complaint with the Dualshock 3 was fixed in the new pad. The analog sticks became concave, as did the R2 and L2 buttons, which now functioned properly as triggers. The grips were shaped more comfortably than those on the Dualshock 3 as well. Sony also added a brand new element to their controller: a touchpad similar to the one found on the back of Sony’s most recent portable gaming console, the PlayStation Vita (also designed by Mark Cerny). The Dualshock 4’s touchpad can be pushed down to act as another button, and additional inputs can be registered via swipes of one’s finger across the pad in different directions.
While Sony worked hard to improve the PS3 over the course of its life, they clearly made a number of mistakes that hampered the console for several years after its launch:
- The complex, expensive Cell processor.
- The arrogant, overconfident tone of Sony’s executives at the time.
- The inferior controller.
…all put the PS3 at a disadvantage to the Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii, forcing the former market leader work that much harder to make their 7th generation platform a success. But working hard is exactly what Sony proceeded to do in the following years, and when it came time to release the PS4, they were prepared to give gamers and developers what they were looking for:
+ A simple processor inside a relatively cheap console.
+ A gaming-centric message and the ability to avoid the mistakes that Microsoft was making at the time.
+ An innovative and much improved controller that could work just as well for shooters as an Xbox controller.
These wise decisions have laid a solid foundation for the PlayStation 4 and have re-established Sony as the market leader in console gaming. Even in the face of a now resurgent Microsoft, the goodwill that Sony has earned among gamers will likely help keep them in a position of strength throughout this generation.