Blinking Lights of Death Herald The Next Gen
Two big console launches in a week - and we're all so old and cynical that all we care about is overheating hardware. Has the RROD fiasco scarred us so badly?
So, here we go again. By the time you read this, the latest skirmish of the never-ending console war will be fully underway, with Microsoft and Sony launching their third- and fourth-generation hardware respectively - at least in some parts of the world. PS4 and Xbox One are hypothetical products in test labs or prototypes carefully tucked away under glass at trade shows no longer. They're in the wild now, stuffed under TVs, downloading enormous day-one software updates, attracting sticky fingerprints, playing slightly underwhelming launch games and - oh - occasionally, blinking infuriating lights at their owners after hardware failures. This thing just got real.
"Middle-aged men are failing to recognise the problem isn't a "bad" console launch, the problem is that, upsettingly, we're not teenagers anymore"
It's all quite exciting, actually, although for me personally the excitement is rather tempered by the fact that neither console will actually launch in my region until spring next year. Judging from the commentary of many others, that's not the only factor tempering excitement. There's a lot of cynicism floating around about the new consoles, and while I share the sense that uptake of these machines may be a bit slower than previous generations for the simple reason that many gamers are still quite content with PS3 and Xbox 360, I can't help but feel that a great deal of the "meh, I just can't get excited" stuff floating around has a lot more to do with a lot of now-middle-aged men failing to recognise that the problem isn't a "bad" console launch, the problem is that, upsettingly, we're not teenagers anymore. Nothing reminds us more of the grindingly relentless march of time than watching people get incredibly excited about the Xbox One launch and realising that when we got excited about the PS1 and tingled with glee at magazine screenshots of WipEout, Tekken and Final Fantasy VII, those people hadn't actually been born yet.
Still, even if the ageing gamer contingent seems bemused at our inability to get as dizzyingly excited as our spotty 16-year-old selves once did, you can count on the specialist media to work itself into a froth about every important detail of a new console launch. Actually, you can also count on the media to work itself into a froth about all the unimportant details too, with further froth being generated over details that are completely irrelevant and the most froth of all coming from details that aren't even true, much of the specialist press being effectively the journalistic equivalent of a malfunctioning industrial-grade milk steamer. Amidst all the reporting of this week's new hardware - some of it very good and level-headed, much of it daft and verging on self-parody - the single shrillest voice has been reserved for reports of hardware failures. At the time of writing, this is confined to Sony's system, but it'll probably spread to the Xbox One by the time you read this, or soon afterwards. Anyway, right now the reports are all about the PS4's propensity to stop working and flash a blue light at you in an understated display of high-tech distress. It's the Blue Flashing Light of Death! No, we couldn't come up with a better name! Move over Red Ring of Death, there's a new sheriff in town, and he's either slightly overheating or plugged into a faulty HDMI cable!
That's the comparison we've all reached for. Some of Sony's consoles are dead on arrival, presumably due to an intermittent manufacturing defect. They have a blue flashing light to tell you the system is toasted (or that you need to wiggle the HDMI cable around). Microsoft's last console also had a problem with toasted systems, and it had a light pattern to announce its toastiness, so this is obviously exactly the same thing. Blue Flashing Light of Death! Red Ring of Death! Death and drama, all around.
"No consumer product, be it a fridge, an oven, a washing machine, a phone, a computer or a games console, is exempt from failure"
Only, no. Let's consider for a moment what exactly Microsoft's "RROD" actually was. This was a systematic flaw with the manufacturing of an absolutely huge number of Xbox 360 consoles - by most conservative estimates, around 40% of the first year or so's worth of systems suffered from catastrophic failure, perhaps rising to as much as 80% by the generation's end, and subsequent generations also suffered from similar problems at lower (but still significant) failure rates until such time as a complete hardware overhaul sorted things out for good. In total, Microsoft's hardware failures affected millions of Xbox 360 units - a final estimate has never been forthcoming, but we're looking at several million dead consoles and, lest we forget, a billion dollar charge on the bottom line for the company.
Moreover, the problem was compounded - vastly so - by an approach to customer support from Microsoft which was, at the outset, nothing short of insulting in its inadequacy. For months, customers were asked to pay for repairs; when the firm finally admitted to the scale of the problem and started repairing consoles for free, the delay between having your Xbox collected and receiving a replacement unit could be several weeks. To add insult to injury, many customers (myself included) received refurbished Xbox 360s as replacement units for dead consoles, only to find that the refurbished units also died within a matter of weeks or months. The Xbox 360 I now own is my fourth; I know a lot of people who can match that number and a handful who have exceeded it. The Red Ring of Death, affecting millions of customers and costing Microsoft a billion dollars and an absolutely enormous amount of consumer goodwill, was easily, hands-down, the single worst hardware screw-up a console maker has ever made. It's a testament to the quality of the 360's software and services that it still emerged as such a hugely successful console over its lifespan; just about any other console in history would have been sunk in the marketplace by such an extraordinarily damaging disaster.
What are we comparing that with now? A handful of consoles (less than 1%, Sony insists) from the very first production run which are showing a variety of manufacturing defects, and which are, by and large, being dealt with promptly by Sony's replacement service. Exactly the same situation will arise for Microsoft over the coming fortnight. I'm sure that whatever son-et-lumiere display the Xbox One puts on to announce its passing from this vale of tears will be quickly immortalised in nerd parlance (I'm personally hoping for the "Unexpected 70s Disco Lightshow of Death", but not holding out much hope), and every justifiably miffed consumer who posts on the internet to complain that his new console is broken - which sucks, don't get me wrong - will get his 15 seconds of fame from news writers hungry to amplify any whiff of console launch scandal.
The reason I'm so sure that the same thing will happen to Xbox One is simple - because it's the same thing that happens to every piece of consumer hardware. Consumer devices have a failure rate. Manufacturing isn't perfect; various little bits and pieces are fiddly and don't work first time. Completely dead-on-arrival hardware is rare, because the manufacturing process generally includes a test at the end to make sure things power on, but hardware that dies in the first few hours or days of usage is common. By "common", I actually mean "very uncommon, but not uncommon enough to be surprising" - the oft-cited industry average is somewhere around 2% failure rate within the first year of a product's life, the vast, vast majority of which will happen in the first week as the new hardware settles in. No consumer product, be it a fridge, an oven, a washing machine, a phone, a computer or a games console, is exempt from this - even the famously fastidious Apple has a rate of product failure (personally, I had to return an iPad that died after a week's usage a few years ago). At least when your console dies, it doesn't spit soapy water all over the floor and flood the apartment below you.
In fact, every console launched up to this point also had a failure rate. They were generally reported, albeit not very breathlessly or excitedly, in the weeks after launch, as common reasons for failure emerged. I seem to recall the PS2's DVD drive causing hassles for a small number of users around launch, for example, and the PS3 did have overheating problems in a small number of cases. Both of those things are dimly remembered (the PS3 perhaps less so, since a few people tried unconvincingly to claim that this meant Sony's hardware was equally flawed as the Xbox 360). So why is the failure rate such a big deal this time around?
"The RROD directly impacted on a huge percentage of console users. So we're paranoid; we're on the lookout for the same thing happening again, being twice shy after being once bitten"
There are two reasons. Firstly, having sold a million consoles at launch, a 1% failure rate means that there are 10,000 broken PS4s out there. That's a big number even if it's a small percentage - and it's also a number largely made up of the kind of vocal, social-network-using people who pre-order consoles at launch. A vast number of those who experienced problems will have taken to the internet to air their woes, creating an illusion of a widespread problem. This is a persistent effect of the internet age; since we are more likely to post saying "my new toy is broken!" than "hey, my new toy works fine!", negativity can snowball until something that causes a problem only for a minority of users starts to look like it's the norm. Look at Amazon reviews for products you know to be perfectly good, or TripAdvisor reviews for perfectly decent hotels, and you can easily see this at work; now imagine that negative bias multiplied and amplified by a news media desperate for any new angle on the console launches, and you can see how this all gets out of hand.
The second reason for this focus, of course, is the RROD itself. As I mentioned above, the RROD incident was genuinely a milestone for the console business - it was a phenomenal mess-up by a major company on a scale which we will hopefully never witness again. Unlike other hardware failures, where most users either simply read about them on the internet or knew-a-guy-who-knew-a-guy whose console died, the RROD directly impacted on a huge percentage of console users. So we're paranoid; we're on the lookout for the same thing happening again, being twice shy after being once bitten, and leaping at shadows that we barely understand. I've spoken to half a dozen people this week who have brought up the issue of the PS4's reliability, and explained to each of them that 1% failure is actually pretty good given the 2% industry average, only to be met with sucking of teeth and "yeah, but, I bet that's what they said about the Xbox 360 when RRODs started turning up..." Don't discount the degree to which the RROD issue still influences consumer thinking. (And for the record, when RRODs first turned up, they were within that 2% margin - they only became a problem when the number swelled, and dismissing them as a normal manufacturing defect rate was absolutely the rational response within the early weeks.)
Of course, none of this is to say that Sony (and soon, Microsoft) should not be scrambling to ensure that their manufacturing processes lock out any obvious defects, while tripping over themselves in a herculean effort to make sure that consumers with defective hardware are given VIP service. A slightly personal touch and a small expenditure can turn "ugh, my PS4 is broken, this console sucks" into "wow, they're overnighting me a new console, Sony is such a great company" - a complete turnaround in the word of mouth being generated by these issues. But as yet, there is simply no evidence whatsoever of systematic hardware problems. There's a lot of froth, a bit of paranoia, and then a whole lot more froth - but by and large, the launch hardware from both companies seems to be perfectly within expectations. The launch software, of course, is another story entirely - but then again, if we weren't all old and incapable of suspending our cynicism, we'd probably even be able to get a thrill out of Knack and Ryse. Well, maybe...