Sony's balancing act is becoming more and more interesting to watch by the day. Forced into revealing its next-generation hand far earlier than it would have liked by Microsoft's rush to get the Xbox 360 out while the Xbox is dumped unceremoniously into an early grave, much like a protesting elderly relative being dragged in the night from a nursing home and off to his fate, Sony now finds itself in the awkward position of trying to showcase the power of PlayStation 3, while making sure nobody loses interest in PSP or PS2.
The Tokyo Games Show was a good example of this delicate tightrope walking, with the PS3 being showcased in the form of video reels in a large open cinema, while the PS2 and PSP took pride of place on Sony's enormous demo pod area. However, an even more astonishing example comes from statements made by Sony exec Masatsuka Saeki speaking to Famitsu in the wake of the show.
Saeki-san apparently felt the need to explain why Sony had broken Ken Kutaragi's promise to have playable PS3 titles on the show floor - saying that the reason was that while the firm could have put playable code out there if it wanted to, PS3 was being shown in Japan for the first time at TGS, so the company wanted consumers to feel the same impact that people who saw the trailer reel at E3 did.
This is one of those circumstances where Sony might have been better off saying nothing, because any idiot can sniff that statement and tell that it doesn't smell of roses. "This is the first time we've shown PS3 in Japan" is not a reason to show off only the E3 videos and a few new ones, as any fool can tell. Statements like this sound defensive, and will immediately raise suspicions that the company is having trouble with PS3 development, that titles haven't progressed as far as Kutaragi-san might have wished or that the firm simply isn't happy with the quality of the titles as they stand, compared to the far closer to completion Xbox 360 games on the other side of the hall.
In fact, the reality is far more mundane. Sony almost certainly does have playable code ready on PS3, and plenty of real-time PS3 demonstrations took place in private meeting rooms around the TGS venue in Makuhari - it's just that the company is absolutely desperate not to detract attention from the PS2 and PSP line-up for Christmas and beyond. Certainly, it would be tough for Saeki-san to say this in public, but Sony doesn't want the current generation to end right now. PS2 is a cash cow, and PSP is still getting established; focusing on next generation too quickly will destroy what the firm has built with those platforms, and we don't doubt that Microsoft's name is cursed daily in Sony's offices for trying to force the console giant's hand in this manner.
There's a lesson here for the industry as a whole too, though; shortening the console cycle is a very dangerous business. Microsoft is keen to move to the next-gen faster than its rival, simply because it doesn't have so much to lose by dropping its existing platform and may have much to gain from moving first in the next platform battle - but ironically, if the company is too successful, the whole industry will suffer. Whether Microsoft likes it or not, the industry's publishers and developers need the PlayStation 2 to continue to be successful for their businesses to thrive - and launching the next generation into the consumer mindspace, at the same time forcing Sony into this tricky PR balancing act, threatens that entire hugely valuable ecosystem. If consumers lose interest in the current generation, it's not just Sony who'll lose out - every company in the industry will take the hit.
Thankfully, though, Sony seems quite good at the balancing act - even if sometimes it can be a little too cautious. Saeki-san also dropped the bombshell that originally, Sony was considering just showing the E3 demo reel, and that the Metal Gear Solid 4 trailer was only added at the last minute - a lucky eleventh hour addition, since without it, PS3 might as well not have bothered showing its face at TGS. We're glad we're not in the position of the Sony exec who has to make the calls that prevent PS3 from eclipsing the existing, profitable business, while still standing up to Microsoft's Xbox 360 PR machine, but we're also amazed at how close the company apparently came to effectively ceding round two of the next-gen battle before it even began.
Rob Fahey is editor of GamesIndustry.biz