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Launch Time

How much is the delay to the European launch of PS3 really going to cost Sony?

The announcement that PlayStation 3 would not be launching globally this month and would not, in fact, be launching until March 2007 in Europe has, so far, been largely greeted with hostility and outright contempt in Europe. Phil Harrisonâs recent refusal to guarantee that even that date would be met hasnât exactly helped matters.

However, the situation is far from being a complete disaster, and the end result may eventually be a favourable response to PS3 in Europe.

Back of the queue

The negative reaction to the delay is in many ways entirely understandable - in the past European gamers have frequently been left to feel like third-class citizens after their American and Japanese counterparts, receiving hardware and software months later than gamers in the US and Japan, with some titles never emerging at all.

For consumers with memories of one too many lacklustre PAL conversions, Sonyâs climb-down from a simultaneous international launch to a staggered release of their new system smacks of the bad old days.

If anything, speed of communication makes the sense of frustration even rawer: the Internet is now flooding with experiences of PS3 from Japanese consumers, soon to be joined by American early adopters. European gamers can do nothing more than press their noses to the warm glass, staring at the gaming experiences they have to wait months to touch themselves. For impatient fans, it will be a very cold November.

Even the routes to early adoption taken by the dedicated in the past are increasingly closed off. While the courts have so far backed Sony in their battle against grey market importers, with PS3 imminent such moves feel like a finger wagging retort to the European hardcore: This is not for you, itâs for the people we really care about. Get to the back of the queue, and wait your turn like good little children.

No such thing as bad publicity

Considering the earlier promises of a simultaneous launch, itâs no wonder that media response to the delayed European release of PS3 has largely interpreted the decision as a major error on Sonyâs part, an embarrassing misstep from a company that has dominated the previous two generations of hardware.

The giant-brought-low has always been a persuasive narrative for the media, and Sonyâs success has left them in a position where commentators are gagging for the ironic twist.

Disgruntled gamers, reneged commitments and a haphazard launch strategy can, with a certain emphasis, be spun as the beginnings of a wider failure, the inevitable decline of Sonyâs arrogant console empire.

There are some facts that can be used to support such a story. To promise a worldwide release and to back down from it is, of course, a bit embarrassing. The delay does further extend Microsoftâs advantage as first-mover in this generation, and also allows Wii a free run as new console in the Christmas market in Europe.

Thatâs the downside, and it makes for a good story. However, it is far from the whole story.

Problems in store

While European consumers and retailers were never going to seize upon the delay of a major hardware launch as a source of unalloyed joy, it has to be remembered that this is a games console launch, and that by detaching Europe from the initial rollout Sony may be avoiding a certain degree of misery as well as excluding Europeans from the initial fun.

Console launches are, lest we forget, frequently beleaguered affairs characterised by endless queues, rushed launch titles, and chronic stock shortages. In the case of the PS3 launch, even with Europe out of the loop it looks increasingly likely that the well publicised teething problems with Blu Ray will lead to hardware shortages at least in the short term.

Ramping up from the 500,000 units Sony predict for launch in Japan and the USA to the 6 million they plan to shift by next March sounds ambitious, and it will be a hard enough struggle as it is to have enough for another launch in Europe.

There is a kudos that comes from rarity, from a product being so sought after that queues form and stock disappears, and PS3 is on course to develop a certain initial hardcore status as a console initially only available to the truly persistent. Rarity is likely to fuel the desirability of PS3, and the fever of the launch period will translate into a lot of publicity for Sony in the short term.

However, should the sell out prove to be more persistent than a brief shortage, anticipation is likely to turn to frustration and boredom.

The waiting game

One would hope that, with the extra few months provided by a launch window in March 2007, or, if necessary, a little later, the European launch of PS3 will avoid some of the problems that seem destined to hit the Japanese and American debut of the hardware.

If Europe had a simultaneous November release with those other territories, European outlets would have competed for valuable hardware with two other voracious markets, and likely come a distant third in priority for those 500,000 units. The delay should allow for a more focussed allocation of stock by spring next year.

There may be other advantages in waiting. The more advanced the hardware, the more likely manufacturing errors and initial system bugs will occur - any such problems will hopefully have been ironed out of PS3 by European launch.

One other aspect that can disappoint is that the first titles to market in a new machine are not necessarily the most polished products, and consumers can find themselves grabbing purchases at launch that they come to regret.

Not only will the vital wheat/chaff distinctions between launch titles have been made by consumers elsewhere months before European gamers have to choose their initial software, but hopefully the launch line-up will be bolstered with more nuanced games that missed the November deadline but learned from the mistakes of their predecessors.

While PS3 has a stronger launch line-up than most, key third party titles such as the new Sonic and Elder Scrolls: Oblivion have already slipped. Spring should see the stragglers not only reaching Japanese and US stores, but also available for the European launch.

Proceed with caution

Of course, the potential for a smoother launch in 2007 will only be fulfilled if Sony capitalises on the extra time they have created for themselves in Europe. Learning some quick lessons from the Japanese and American launches, fixing mistakes and eliminating problems could lead to a far improved launch in Europe than in other territories.

The failure to confirm the March launch as definite may be either a good sign or a bad one, either proof that Sony is willing to take its time, or evidence that the company is waving rather than drowning in its attempts to roll PS3 out across the world and satisfy demand.

The proof will arrive next year. If the European launch of PS3 is characterised by chaos and stock shortages, then the last word will go to those who hailed the delay as a major disaster.

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