Sony hasn't had a good year. The market leader has spent nearly twelve months watching Microsoft build a six million unit lead in the next-gen marketplace, while the embryonic PlayStation 3 has been dogged at every turn by delays and setbacks. Hostility has grown among both hardcore gamers and among the gaming press, a backlash of epic proportions against the company which has ruled the games industry for a full decade, fuelled by the remarkably high price of the console, the decision to drop rumble from the pad, the adoption of contentious Blu-Ray technology and the subsequent launch shortages, culminating in a hugely embarrassing delay into 2007 for the European launch.
None of this has been helped in the slightest by the arrogance of public statements from the father of PlayStation, Ken Kutaragi, or the head of SCEA, Kaz Hirai - who have turned into a double act whose pronouncements almost seem deliberately calculated to turn consumers against Sony and its products. However, in recent weeks, the tide has been turning for Sony, albeit slowly. Perhaps it's simply fatigue among the company's loudest detractors; more likely, it's the fact that since TGS, Sony has been much more focused on giving people hands-on time with the console and its software. The promise of PS3 is finally being delivered upon, at least to some extent, and it's natural that criticism will die down and the focus will shift from hardware to software as the launch draws near.
That isn't to say, though, that Sony is out of the woods yet - and the company is still entirely capable of dropping the ball in very dramatic ways. Perhaps the single most worrying factor remaining in the firm's plans for PS3 is its online service; this is an area where the company's previous efforts have been weak, to say the very least, and where Microsoft has built up five years of valuable experience and a massive degree of mind-share. Although we've seen the service up and running to some extent - network functionality is a key element of the Cross-Media Bar on the PS3, and the console's operating system has a built in buddy list, messaging system, voice chat and even video chat service, as well as the PlayStation Store e-distribution system - the word from developers so far has been that actually building online functions into games is currently a fraught process.
This week, some of our deepest fears about Sony's online service were confirmed when Insomniac's Ted Price revealed in an interview that one of the biggest launch titles for the console, Resistance: Fall of Man, is set to use its own buddy list, clan registry, in-game messaging and chat services, and so on. While the game sounds like it has a very extensive and comprehensive range of online gaming options, and it runs on Sony's international network of servers to guarantee a high standard of network performance for online play, the simple fact is that the last hurdle Sony needed to jump has been missed, at least for the launch titles. The central buddy list doesn't integrate into the game; you'll need to add all your friends again to play against them in Resistance.
The ball, in other words, has not so much been dropped; it has been hurled at the ground with alarming force. Sony has done the hard work - it has built a console operating system which can be updated over the network, which is always-on and network aware, which can handle multiple user profiles and friend lists, messaging and chat, and so on. It has built an infrastructure which can support multiplayer games running on remote servers with players all over the world taking part. Somehow, however, it has failed to take the final step - actually providing the single sign-in, single-ID, single profile service which lies at the core of a console multiplayer offering.
The reasons developers cite for this problem are simple; the libraries to do this were not available early enough. The speculation they offer for why that happened is intriguing, however; there is a strong suggestion that until relatively recently, Sony had planned on simply offering games a connection to the Internet and letting them get on with whatever buddy lists, profiles, match-making and so on they wanted, completely unaware of any other game on the system. This is how the PlayStation 2 worked online, much to the chagrin of users.
Someone, somewhere within Sony, wanted things to stay that way. It's an illustration of just how out of touch a company can be from what its consumers want or need to enjoy their experience of a console and its software, and thankfully it was overturned. PS3 will, eventually, sport a unified online interface - but the tragic thing is that whatever internal battle resulted in this decision was won far too late. PS3, at launch, will be crippled in an online sense by an admittedly promising service in the operating system which is not utilised by key, big-name online titles such as Resistance. As teething troubles go, it's an absolutely huge one - and Sony will have to work very hard to win back the confidence of gamers who had been drawn in by the promise of single sign-in online gaming on the platform. It may be forgiveable in launch titles - but if the second wave of PS3 games doesn't cement the vision of a unified online gaming service, the price Sony has to pay for this oversight may be one that's difficult for the company to stomach.