Looking back on the current console generation – Part 1: The Fall and Rise of Sony

Ps3 fat console

With Sony having announced the PS4, it might be a good time to look back on the current generation of gaming hardware that’s now drawing to a close. In many ways, you can’t avoid the feeling that the generation that’s now drawing to a close has been slightly underwhelming, despite many brilliant new IPs and watershed changes in the gaming landscape. It was supposed to herald the dawn of the HD age, yet very few games actually managed 1080p at 60fps, and a depressing number couldn’t even hit 720p at 30fps. Online play became (almost) a standard across all consoles, yet Microsoft’s insistence on making it a paid service and publishers’ increasing prioritization of multiplayer left many gamers disgruntled and uncomfortable. As development costs for high definition games increased exponentially, developing content became a do-or-die affair, forcing too many developers out of business and squeezing the mid-tier games out of the market. All three platform holders suffered major problems, some painfully early, others sowing seeds of future troubles despite years of apparent success.

The chief reason for that slight pang of non-fulfillment is probably the failure of Sony to follow on from the all-conquering success of PS2. The disastrous launch of PS3 – Five hundred and ninety-nine dollars, second jobs, giant crabs and weak points, Riiiidge Racer, etc – has been well-documented, and was followed by a list of launch titles that was wince-inducing in its poverty. The bigger problem at that time for Sony wasn’t just that they didn’t have enough good games at the start, but also that the expectation of great titles that PlayStation gamers had for PS2’s successor was not fulfilled until too long into its lifecycle. Fans who decided to buy PS3 in 2006 expected, not unreasonably, that the great games they enjoyed with PS2 would be followed by sharp and shiny new installments on the new console. Square Enix unveiled a tech demo for Final Fantasy XIII at the same E3 that year, yet the game took almost 4 more years to be released, and was no longer an exclusive; Kojima Productions showed off Metal Gear Solid 4 in this great trailer back in 2005 – again, a long gap of 3 years before release. Killzone 2 was introduced with a controversial trailer at E3 2005 – gap of three and a half years; Heavy Rain: unveiled with a startling ‘Casting’ demo in 2006, game released in 2010. The worst was Gran Turismo 5, introduced at E3 2005, released in Nov 2010. In a way, we were all waiting for PS3 to get going, but by the time all these big guns, along with other compelling exclusives like Uncharted, LittleBigPlanet and Infamous, hit the stores, the generation had already began to mature, and the competition to be the console with the biggest install-base was already decided in the Wii’s favour. With the PS2, launched in mid–2000, system-defining titles like Grand Theft Auto 3, Metal Gear Solid 2, Final Fantasy X, Devil May Cry, Silent Hill 2, and Gran Turismo 3 – A Spec were all released in the calendar year 2011. More than the backwards compatibility (BC) with PS1 games and the DVD playback, these games were exactly why people bought PS2: they loved Gran Turismo, Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid on PS1, and expected to be able to play their bigger, better sequels on PS2 when they bought the console. This expectation was duly fulfilled more or less within a year of their purchase, and put PS2 over the top as the console of choice. Even at the initial price of $599 with limited BC and loss of exclusivity, PS3 could still have been that console for the public, but the complexity of coding for it, coupled with the rising costs and development time for HD games, doomed the release of its banner titles to be much later than Sony desperately needed.

GT5 boxart final EU

Another of Sony’s mortal problems was that of infrastructure. This was the generation where huge inroads were made in online play. Microsoft charged ahead in these areas from the outset, shipping every Xbox 360 with a headset and allowing developers of all sizes to publish on XBLIG (to their varying degrees of success and happiness). Xbox Live was already in place with the first Xbox, and Microsoft built on it to unleash far and away the most accomplished online gaming environment. It was a crown that they held on to the whole generation, and allowed Xbox 360 to become the de facto home of the most popular genre of recent times, competitive FPS. This was one of the more notable industry developments in the past few years, and was the result of a serendipitous synergy between technology, culture and real-world developments. Infinity Ward’s decision to move the setting of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare from the traditional WW2 theatres to today’s Middle East and Russia chimed with the on-going conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, while the convenience offered by Xbox Live opened up a hitherto PC-only gaming thrills to the rest of the market. The topicality of Modern Warfare and the ubiquity of the internet were fused together by the developer’s judicious use of the newly available horsepower that focused on 60fps immediacy over more ambitious artistry and backed by the relentless commercial drive of Activision. It created a billion-dollar sub-industry, whose biggest beneficiaries were the publisher and Microsoft. While multi-platform, the Modern Warfare series as well as the Call of Duty franchise a whole consistently sold millions more on Xbox 360, and provided an incentive for uncommitted gamers – particularly in the English-speaking world – to opt for Microsoft rather than Sony. It was a case of ‘playable on both, better on Xbox’; this, together with the Halo and Gears of War games, ensured Xbox’s dominance in one of the fastest-growing and most lucrative corners of the market. In contrast, despite repeated attempts first with the disastrous Haze and then with Resistance sequels, Killzone and later the ambitious MAG, PS3 could never catch up. Much like with the follow-ups to PS2 system-sellers, PS3 FPSs came too late in the day to turn the tide: CoD4: MW, Halo 3 and Gears of War were all released before the end of 2007, whereas Sony had spent the first couple of years of the PS3’s lifecycle feverishly implementing firmware updates to bring the console up to scratch on online play. By the time Killzone 2, the first exclusive FPS on PS3 that was received with anything more than disinterest, came, Microsoft was in an unassailable position.

Modernwarfare2

And yet, Sony turned it around sufficiently enough that today, PS3 sales are neck-and-neck with Xbox 360 despite a year’s headstart the latter enjoyed. While features like blu-ray playback and the now-discontinued Linux capabilities helped, they were insignificant when considering the HD and blu-ray takeup in general, as well as the niche appeal of the console’s extraneous offerings. The most important reasons for Sony’s rise from the ashes, and the cause for optimism for PS4, are their commitment to quality and variety of 1st party games, and their patronage of interesting new, smaller IPs. While the establishment of the Sony Worldwide Studios (SWS) took place at the tail end of the PS2 era, the consolidation of SWS was accelerated this generation as Sony sought to reclaim the ground lost to Microsoft and Nintendo. Guerrilla Games, Evolution Studios, Media Molecule and Sucker Punch, all previously second-party partners for PlayStation, were acquired and integrated into the family; their output as well as those from existing in-house staff at Polyphony Digital, Naughty Dog and Sony Studios at Santa Monica and San Diego gradually provided PS3 with a quality suite of games that it so desperately needed, and eventually turned the troubled console into a compelling enough proposition for consumers. Unlike their equivalents at Microsoft, where the once-marvellous talents of Lionhead Studios and Rare have been put to increasingly wayward uses, and Nintendo, whose peerless teams at EAD rarely venture outside the established franchises of Mario, Zelda and Animal Crossing¹, SWS has grown in size and quality this generation, and their output has attained the depth and breadth their rivals can no longer match. Sony showed faith, patience and investment in their first-party developers, and were rewarded with games whose artistic as well as commercial values far exceeded their output for PS2². Their games – Uncharted, Infamous, Gran Turismo, God of War, Killzone, Motorstorm and MLB The Show have become or continue to be platform-defining franchises, notable as much for their variety as their quality, and should stand Sony in good stead with PS4. Less profitable but just as important for the symbolic value was Sony’s patience with creative PlayStation Network games and their developers. PSN has many gems – ‘Tokyo Jungle’, the ‘PixelJunk’ series, Wipeout HD and Super Stardust HD to name a few – but then so does Xbox Live Arcade. What has differentiated PS3 in the last 2–3 years are the exclusivity and aspirations of its smaller offerings, chief among them Journey. thatgamecompany’s masterpiece is rightly feted as the poster child for Sony’s appreciation of games that aspire to be more than games. The platform holder’s three-game deal with thatgamecompany has yielded 2 of the very best games of this generation (the other being Flower) and earned an enormous amount of goodwill from the more discerning gamers, keen to argue ‘yes’ in the ‘Are games art’ debate. It also helped that the PlayStation brand is associated with two of the most artful games of all time, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus from Team Ico, and the latest, The Last Guardian, has been teased for much of PS3’s lifecycle.

Flower game screenshot 1

It all meant that in this latter stage of the console cycle, PS3 has seen a steady stream of high-quality exclusives, just when Microsoft has (at least from hardcore perspective) taken its eye off the ball with Kinect and Wii games dried up altogether. A highpoint was seemingly reached with the triumphant Uncharted 2, yet graphically Sony outdid itself with God of War 3. Infamous and its sequel were all well received, while Gran Turismo 5 as expected went onto become the best-selling game on the platform. LittleBigPlanet was rapturously received, its Sackboy becoming a more approachable PlayStation mascot than the scowling Kratos. Heavy Rain was something different, as was Demon’s Soul at the other end of the spectrum, but both were great games and important milestones for Sony’s rehabilitation. PS3 also became the home of specialist genres. It was – and is – the only console to have if you are a baseball sim fan; Hot Shot Golf is still the best golf game; Afrika and Aquanaut’s Holiday allowed you to experience the rare pleasure of exploring nature’s mysteries; Siren: New Translation was arguably the only proper survival horror game on consoles this generation; and Valkyria Chronicles is, with the possible exception of Ni no Kuni, the only console Japanese role playing game (albeit a strategy RPG) that delivered more than it promised. This, all told, is an impressive recovery from the grim days of Lair and Haze, when all hope seemed lost, but more than that PS3 is the only platform that is finishing the generation strongly. As the industry heads into the next chapter this year, as Microsoft suffers from the lack of exclusive releases and Wii U reels from historically terrible sales, Sony still has some aces up its sleeves with God of War: Ascension, The Last of Us and Beyond: Two Souls. This seeming commitment to good games is not lost on gamers, and Sony can now bank on the kind of support and goodwill that looked utterly lost in the early days of PS3.

 

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1. EAD is also responsible for the Wii Play, Wii Sports and Wii Fit games, which by any standards are enormously successful titles. But from traditional standpoint whether EAD’s game development chops are being fully mined with such IPs is an argument for later Parts to come.

2. Naughty Dog made Jak and Daxter, while Sucker Punch developed Sly Cooper.

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