Sunday, April 16, 2006

Why the PS3 launch will disappoint gamers

Sony's "anti-hype" has been deafening. If one is to believe everything one reads and hears, the PS3 will play the highest definition movies available, play games in "true HD," provide the best online gaming experience (for free!), all by Fall 2006. It also seems likely to be unavoidably expensive. Ken Kutaragi, President of Sony Computer Entertainment (SCE) has actually said:
PS3 is “for 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.”
More funny and strange quotes by Kutaragi are available here.

Enough with the "leaks," "slips" or "mistranslations" of information -- here are my predictions for why the PS3 launch will be disappointing for gamers:

1) PS3 will not play games in 1080p;

At least not at launch. It's true. Practical limitations of hardware and bandwidth make this impossible with any current equipment that exists. At the current time there are no broadcast sources of 1080p material, and consequently there are very few consumer-level TVs that can even accept 1080p input despite the fact the TV may theoretically be capable of displaying it.

Bandwidth is related to framerate, and with fast-moving action like sports and videogames, more is better. More to the point more frames faster is better. 60 frames per second (fps) with a progressive scan display is what you need for a smooth and flicker-free image. When it comes to HDTV at 1080 lines of progressive scan resolution, a source capable of 60 fps output simply doesn't exist yet. There isn't even an agreed-upon broadcast standard for 1080p60. If you can believe it, Ken Kutaragi has actually stated that the PS3 will be capable of running games at 120 fps. This is absolutely ludicrous. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt that the Cell processor and its associated 8 "synergistic processing engines" may be capable of processing that amount of data, but the PS3 will not be the machine to have the end-to-end architecture capable of delivering that much data that quickly.

2) PS3 will not be a gaming machine;

Sony is positioning the PS3 to be a universal media box at the center of home entertainment. It is merely a vehicle to bring Blu-Ray and the Cell processor into the maximum number of households. At launch the focus will be on high definition movies using the Blu-Ray disc format, and, oh yeah, did you see these games over here?

3) PS3 will cost at least $499;

Consider the realities of the hardware: a brand-new Blu-Ray drive, a brand-new Cell processor, separate graphics chip, 60 GB hard drive, built-in wifi and Bluetooth plus everything else to tie it all together to make it work as a single console. Give me a frigging break. I think $600 would be the max Sony would try to charge, as that's been established as the "3DO-launch-disaster-break-point," but given all of these components I don't see how PS3 could retail below $499. New Blu-Ray DVD players alone are estimated to start at around $1,000.

4) PS3 will offer a poor online gaming interface;

Notice I said interface. Sony can probably pull off a good gaming experience once a player has connected to a game, but actually finding a game and finding a reliable server is another story. Microsoft has established its Xbox Live service as the gold standard of online gaming interfaces. Even before the Xbox 360, Microsoft showed how it could and should be done. And it's not just the interface -- MS put a lot of time, effort and money to make its Live servers and player-matching work really smoothly. Hopefully Sony has taken notes, but until I see proof I'll be skeptical.

5) There will be few games available at launch;

PS3 develpment kits will go out this summer. Time is the critical factor. High quality development and high-definition output require time, effort and a budget that most developers simply won't have in order to make Sony's scheduled holiday launch window. There may be a few in-house and first-party titles at launch but I'd be surprised if there's much more.

6) PS3 games will cost at least $60;

High development costs + proprietary Blu-Ray media = expensive games.

7) Three words: proprietary media support.

Proprietary media support in and of itself isn't new to gamers -- Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft, Sega and others gaming hardware manufacturers often use this technique to try to prevent piracy of game software. What will be frustrating for gamers is how PS3 will be restricted as a machine outside of gaming.

Blu-Ray is again the culprit here. Anyone see a pattern? And it's not really Blu-Ray, it's what will be on those discs -- burdensome Digital Rights Management (DRM) encryption. Deciding on a standard for the use of DRM with Blu-Ray to enforce intellectual property (IP) rights is one of the reasons Sony has had to delay the PS3. The use of such DRM is one of the reasons Sony has the backing of the majority of film studios for the Blu-Ray standard. Sony itself owns Sony Pictures, a huge media and production company, and Sony BMG Music Entertainment, an enormous record label conglomerate. They have tons of IP to protect as well as a reputation to maintain after pushing so hard to have studios commit to using Blu-Ray for future media distribution. As a media company, Sony's reputation will ride on its ability to deliver high-definition content in a secure format.

Unfortunately for consumers, "security" for media companies means "restrictions on use" for consumers. This doesn't just mean restrictions on copying DVDs, it means restrictions on what types of devices a particular piece of media can be played on, how many devices that media can be played on, how many times that media can be played and possibly the quality of playback of that media. Don't think that these companies wouldn't just love to charge you for every single and different type of use you want to make of their property. They would and they will because new DRM technology allows it. This will be frustrating and confusing for consumers. It will be interesting to see how Sony attempts to balance making the PS3 a universal media box with protecting IP rights.

An alternate outcome

It's possible that Sony will surprise everyone and deliver on its claims, but here is what you will need to make that happen: Sony PS3; Sony HD video cables; Sony 1080p television; and games, music and movies on Sony Blu-Ray media.

Oh, and a wheelbarrow full of money because all of it will be brand-new. I think this outcome is unlikely. I look forward to this year's E3 where hopefully Sony will reveal more about its plans for world domination.


Tangeman said...

The Blue-Ray is why I went Xbox 360 and will buy Revolution but avoid Sony. Sony tried and failed with Betamax. They again tried and recently failed with their little PSP movie format (discs out of Walmart = dead). Now they want to shove blue-ray down our throats. I'll let blue-ray and hd-dvd fight it out and buy a player when the format is known and prices come down. I don't buy a video game box to play movies on anyway. I won't pay a premium price to be an early adopter of a technology that might fail in the market.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to comment upon your predictions:

1) Not at launch, you're right. Kind of a limited point. Consoles often have less than 60fps and get by just fine, by the way. How much below 60fps is acceptable to achieve 1080p? Nice to have the option, though.

Not all SNES games looked like Donkey Kong Country. Donkey Kong Country still looked great.

2) Interesting, naysayers are fond of saying that the PSP is 'just' a gaming machine, though it can do other things too. Same with PS3. Mostly a gaming machine. Next-gen HD media drive, content download network, and all the rest? Bonuses, to most people whose kids really want the gaming machine.

3) You're probably right. And at $499 it is competitive with the 360 premium bundle at $399. Bigger hard drive, and everything else, considered.

4) You might be right and I hope you are wrong. They seem committed to beating Live feature for feature. It can definitely be done; I hope they take it seriously and we see some real competition and innovation.

Sony will allow companies to run their own servers if they want; so Blizzard and other protective companies might be more willing to do a PS3 game than a 360 game where MS exclusively controls the servers.

5) Lots and lots of games are underway, including Japanese game company support that blows away what is one the 360. Will there be at least 18 games at launch? I'd bet yes. Within a year of its launch, PS3 will have more games out than 360.

Your points about development apply also to 360 games. Except 360 games won't sell as many copies, on average, as PS3 games.

6) I'd say $40-$70, with very few being above $60 or below $50.

7) PS3 supports more kinds of media than 360.

HOPEFULLY, thieves will not crack Blu-Ray anytime soon, and studios and game companies will have to get PAID if someone wants to watch their movie or play their game.

Sony has confirmed that any PS3 games can be played in any PS3 system. There is no number or limit attached.

Alternate Outcome: you won't need Sony cables or TVs, but yes they'll make them. Good business move, the confluence of Blu-Ray and PS3. And M$ is ONLY supporting HD-DVD, an inferior format, to minimize the benefit that Blu-Ray gives to the PS3.

To tangeman: God, why do you say that Sony want to shove Blu-Ray down your throats, and not that Toshiba and M$ want to shove HD-DVD? WTF. PSP will be getting an adapter to output UMD movies to TVs, which should have been available from the beginning. Not having such an adapter/output device from the beginning was the only mistake Sony made in the PSP movie plan. I love watching UMDs on my PSP.

I agree with you about buying a next-gen player....except that you get one included in a PS3. That's the major exception, and will be a huge boost to adoption of Blu-Ray.

McWilliams said...

All good points...

I outline a few other thoughts here.

Kevin said...

Tangeman: I agree with you on waiting to see which DVD standard wins before investing in a player. Sony is stacking the deck in its favor, though, by including Blu-Ray in the PS3.

Anonymous: thanks for your feedback.

I'm not saying 1080p60 is necessary or even desirable at this point, just that Sony's claims are ridiculous. My GC, PS2 and Xbox deliver great games on my standard-def TV.

I agree about the online gaming experience. Live is great, but for there to be some serious competition will be even better. I'm hoping Sony will do a good job. Game servers hosted by the software development companies can work, but for console gaming there needs to be one consistent interface across all games that gives a player access to his or her friends, stats and content.

My point about proprietary media support went more to other-than-gaming usage. I'm not worried about restrictions on being able to play games only on one PS3 or only a limited number of times. Most early adopters aren't just gamers, especially these days when the average age of most gamers has risen to the late 20's if not early 30's. I want to be able to pull and play media from any source, and I want it to be convenient.

Believe me, I'm a supporter of artists and authors being paid for their work. Enforcement of IP rights is essential to reward creativity and continue the incentive to create more, but enforcement can't be a draconian screw-tightening against the consumer.

Eric said...

I think allowing the game companies to run their own servers is actually a bad thing. It takes the quality control away from one accountable company, namely Microsoft, and delegates it to gaming companies who seem quick to retire game servers before the entire user base is done with them (see: Motor City Online) or may not be able to scale their equipment up fast enough for demand.

It's going to be tough to beat Microsoft's Live environment. The way it ties into the passport / MSN messenger system means I was up and running in about 5 minutes with no problem. Sony does not have an existing social network in place.

It will be interesting to see, but I've been very happy with my 360, and I've been a Sony guy for a long time (PS1 and PS2). I never owned an original XBOX and was very happy with the Live system, especially in contrast to the HORRIBLE online play with the PS2.

C-had said...

Nice post man, here is my take! I have been a long time PS2 die-hard and was particularly proud of never owning an original XBOX. Before I turn this into an XBOX 360 fan boy rant let me tell you what I don't care about...

I don't care what kind of movies any given machine can play, ok? Consumer DVD players and component pieces are always a cheaper and safer bet than having a "one machine that does it all" approach. For instance, neither my PS2 nor my XBOX 360 can play my ripped DVD's, but my $80 Sony DVD player can, as well as playing SACD's and DIVX. So why should I pay $500 for a PS3 when I can just wait for the next standard consumer DVD player to come down to $99? Maybe others really want this, but I am a guy that owns maybe 10-20 movies, I could really care less. I am interested in games and home media like streaming music while I am doing dishes which the 360 does better than pretty much anything, especially if you are running windows media center pc's in your home.

Hasn't history already shown that the greater tech doesn't always win? I mean, like another poster said, look at BETA vs. VHS. And in the modern console wars, it is who is first to market and who is friendlier to developers. Well this time around it is the 360 that hit the ground first, supply problems not withstanding. By the time the PS3 comes out I will be ass deep in 360 games with a boat load of online contacts and great games, for me the race is already over.

The XBOX 360 online implementation is everything that was lacking from the PC and PS2 approach to online gaming. Centralized friend management, ladders, updated content, even patches post release if there are bugs! Downloading of Demos without having to fart around with places like file planet are also a plus. This brings me to my last fanboy point... ONE LOGON!!! If Sony allows each gaming house to run their servers, you will be managing accounts with Gamespy, EA and a million others that may or may not limit your "Free" access and try and push you into subscription services or bombard you with spam.

Should be interesting...

Eric said...

Speaking of...

K-How: When are you going to sport the new 360? I'm seeing them everywhere now.

Maharet said...

I didn't understand half of what you said, but I loved it and posted a link on my site back to the one I originally read it on.

That was really great. Loads of info...probably more than I'd ever need! I'm sure I'm way in over my head in here. Everyone had a lot of interesting things to say on the subject.

Personally I became an Xbox fan because of Halo. I wasn't into FPS type games. As a very "girly gamer" i was more into RPG type games or Action Adventures (you know cause you actually have to read a story?). So when I came across Halo and Xbox Live came out I made the switch from my PS2.

The xbox opened up a whole new world to me and I've made loads of friends because of it. BUT if the PS2 is going to be free I may buy it too. It's a really hard decision for me because I'm very dedicated to my X-Live friends and my gamertag, but I mean how long can I continue to pay just to keep my name?

That being said the only thing of real concern to me is Live gameplay. The quality has to equal or be superior to Xbox's right? So if it's free can we deduce that it's still not even going to compare?

PLUS, and prepare yourself for one of the most intelligent suggestions ever, they really should make one with VHS capabilities too! MINE JUST TOOK A DUMP ON ME and I'm still viciously clinging to my tapes! waahhh!!! *ahem* Sorry. LOL

Kevin said...

maharet: thanks for your input, the link, and for browsing my site. I like seeing comments on multiple stories!

You may be waiting awhile for a VHS-capable PS3, but maybe that's what Sony will do with all of those old Betamax players. :-P

Kevin said...

eric: on 360 goodness, I don't know yet when the acquisition will take place. Maybe soon after E3 when all of the pricing has settled down and stocks are replenished. There's still not really the "killer app" that I have to have though. The real draw for me at this point is all of my Live friends. I'd love to wait for the CPU refinement with the change to a 65nm manufacturing process, but that won't be until next year and that's just too long.

Eric said...

My 360 has run great since day one. I know some people have had some issues, but I'm happy I was an early adopter.

In fact, I'm really starting to get into game genres I never liked before. I am playing a lot of Oblivion, even though I hadn't played a real D&D style RPG since Ultima on the Commodore 64. I am digging Battlefield 2: Modern Combat, even though, at first, I found first-person shooters difficult without a keyboard and mouse. It's been a blast.

Also, sorry for bugging you the other night. C-Had and I were getting a pint at Fox and Goose and thought we'd try you.

Kevin said...

Eric: hey, you didn't bug me at all the other night. I picked up your vm and text messages on my dinner break. I'm glad you called as I'm always up for a pint with friends.

I'm glad to hear you've had a good experience with your 360. I'm sure the press coverage and forum activity makes the alleged hardware problems seem bigger than they are. Plus, it seems the crashing is associated with particular software titles, so the problem may be with MS rushing software through certification for quick release. A friend of mine has had particularly frustrating crashing problems with Top Spin 2.

Dammit, now you've got me talking myself into buying a 360. It's hard not to be excited about it. It's cool that you're expanding the types of games you like to play. After the E3 hype and excitement I will probably cave in and do it.

C-had said...

Hey Kevin,

I have a newer 360 than Edoo and mine does seem to crash every once in a while, and I also get the random "disc unreadable" error which goes away with a reset. I hear ya on the killer app thing but like Edoo said, even genres you don't think you would like really shine on the 360. Oblivion is one of the best games I have ever played. Project Gotham 3 would be better if more of my friends had 360's. They just released some more cars and stuff for it the other day. That is what is so cool about the 360, they can keep games alive long after they would get stale on other platforms.