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Comment: Kutaragi isn't mad, he's just walking a tightrope

There's one simple question a lot of people in the industry would quite like an answer to at the moment - namely, what on Earth is Ken Kutaragi playing at?

Kutaragi has never exactly been your typical company executive. Outspoken and effusive, the Sony Computer Entertainment boss - often described in the media as the "Father of PlayStation" is given the sweeping statements and bold claims. Few have forgotten his pre-launch claim that using a PlayStation 2 would be like "jacking into the Matrix", although all but the most ardent of fanboys have forgiven this exaggeration in light of the enormous success of the console.

However, events over the past weeks have raised eyebrows even among those who are used to Kutaragi's antics - and left many wondering if perhaps he's taking a few too many leaves out of the book of Hiroshi Yamauchi, Nintendo's former president who was renowned for hugely entertaining if borderline insane statements about his rivals and even business partners.

Kutaragi's broadsides at Xbox 360 in the wake of E3 - openly telling the press that the system is more like Xbox 1.5 and isn't a next-generation console at all - were one thing. Such fighting talk is to be expected, and while senior Microsoft executives privately expressed surprise at just how outspoken Kutaragi was being, most of them greeted the pronouncements with a wry smile, saying that it showed how seriously Sony is taking Microsoft's challenge this time around.

More recently, though, Kutaragi's tone has changed. He isn't talking about Xbox 360 so much - instead, he seems to want to tell everyone at every opportunity how fantastically expensive and unaffordable PlayStation 3 is going to be. His message is simple - PlayStation 3 is going to be amazing, but you're going to have to work overtime to be able to afford it. His motivations, however, are utterly perplexing.

Why would a senior executive say this kind of thing, and why would he repeat it so often in such a short space of time? Analysts, industry types and consumers alike are reeling from the statements, hastily adjusting their projections which had assumed that PS3 would come in at around $300 - much like Xbox 360 is expected to - and wondering what exactly Kutaragi means by expensive. $400? $500? More? And even if the system is to be this price, why would SCE's president think it's a good idea to essentially warn people that it may be priced out of their range?

The answers aren't immediately apparent - but the father of PlayStation is no fool, whatever else he may be. Kutaragi's statements come with an ulterior motive, which could be as simple as leading people to believe the console will be very expensive only to reveal a "surprisingly affordable" price down the line, or could be as complex as a carefully orchestrated push to position PS3 as a premium product in the minds of consumers.

One thing is certain; Sony's launch plans for PS3 are far more complex than Microsoft's planning for Xbox 360, which boils down largely to pulling Xbox off shelves and shoving Xbox 360 into its place. Sony has a delicate balancing act to pull off, with millions if not billions of dollars of business still left in the PlayStation 2, a burgeoning handheld business in the PlayStation Portable, and now a high-end console and media centre to bring in at the top of the market.

One misstep could crush valuable existing businesses, and that's a factor which will inform PS3's launch price; after all, Sony has more to gain by heading off any lead Xbox 360 could build on it with PS3 while continuing to milk the installed base of PS2 for a further year than it does by ramping up PS3 at breakneck speed. However, the company has launched three successful consoles before, and it knows full well that the market for a hugely expensive multi-function console is limited, if it exists at all. PS3 will be priced to compete with Xbox 360 on some level, regardless of Kutaragi's comments - but the company has already begun the groundwork of making sure that it doesn't compete its own cash cow, the PS2, out of the market in the process.

Rob Fahey is the editor of GamesIndustry.biz, and can be reached at [rob@gamesindustry.biz].

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Rob Fahey avatar

Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of GamesIndustry.biz who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.