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Sony: Home of the Whopper

10 Years Ago This Month: Kaz Hirai discovers heretofore unexplored levels of spin in promoting the PS3 as the global economic meltdown ripples through the industry

The games industry moves pretty fast, and there's a tendency for all involved to look constantly to what's next without so much worrying about what came before. That said, even an industry so entrenched in the now can learn from its past. So to refresh our collective memory and perhaps offer some perspective on our field's history, runs this monthly feature highlighting happenings in gaming from exactly a decade ago.

The power of imagination

Being a top executive for a platform holder means putting a happy face on things, even when the business isn't going great or the public narrative surrounding your system turns negative. I get that, and I have a certain amount of sympathy for people who are told to go out in public and polish a turd with a smile on their face, particularly when that turd is not of their own making. But during the early years of the PlayStation 3, Sony execs were taking things to another level.

First of all, they didn't have a lot of work with. The PS3 trailed the Xbox 360 to market by a year, cost hundreds of dollars more, and its multiplatform games tended to run worse than their counterparts on Microsoft's machine. By this point in the cycle, Nintendo had sold 45 million Wiis and Microsoft moved 28 million Xbox 360s. Sony wasn't shouting its PS3 installed base from the rooftops, but adding up their quarterly reports to that point nets a total of 19.2 million systems sold. Respectable, but not where people expected it to be given Sony's utter dominance during the PS2 generation. Oh, and PS3 hardware sales were declining.

In short, Sony Computer Entertainment head Kaz Hirai didn't have a lot to work with when it came time to talk to the press about the PS3's position in the marketplace. But he wasn't about to throw in the towel. Even though Sony wouldn't adopt "make.believe" as its corporate slogan until a bit later in 2009, Hirai had already embraced the new mindset. He wasn't going to let little things like social norms or respect for himself and the people he was talking to get in the way of his job. Instead, Hirai was going to insist that PlayStation was still the "official" industry leader in an interview with the no-quotation-marks-needed Official PlayStation Magazine.

"This is not meant in terms of numbers, or who's got the biggest install base, or who's selling most in any particular week or month, but I'd like to think that we continue official leadership in this industry," Hirai said.

So how was Sony the leader? Well by Hirai's reckoning, Nintendo operates in "a different world" and its video game console was not a competitor with Sony's. The Wii catered to a different audience than the PS3, so let's be gracious and give him that one. Now about the Xbox 360?

"And with the Xbox - again, I can't come up with one word to fit," Hirai explained. "You need a word that describes something that lacks longevity."

"We don't provide the 'easy to program for' console that [developers] want, because 'easy to program for' means that anybody will be able to take advantage of pretty much what the hardware can do"

Kaz Hirai, describing a nightmarish hell world nobody could want

Putting aside that there are plenty of words that do just that, Hirai said he wanted customers to know that a PlayStation system wouldn't "fall by the wayside in five years." It was a genius bit of spin that simultaneously brought up Sony's highly touted goal of having a 10-year lifespan for PlayStation systems, pointedly referenced the fact that the original Xbox disappeared from shelves four years after launch to make way for the Xbox 360, and ironically foreshadowed the PlayStation Vita and Sony's decision to essentially abandon the handheld less than three years into its lifespan.

But Hirai wasn't done, saying, "And unless things go really bad, there's no way that at the end of a life cycle our competition is going have a higher install base." (Microsoft's last official count on the Xbox 360 was 84 million units sold; Sony's been less forthcoming but its official figures add up to 83.4 million.)

The cherry on top was Hirai suggesting that developer-unfriendliness was not only something that would work in Sony's favor, but a virtue the company deliberately sought out.

"We don't provide the 'easy to program for' console that [developers] want, because 'easy to program for' means that anybody will be able to take advantage of pretty much what the hardware can do," Hirai said. "So then the question is what do you do for the rest of the nine-and-a-half years?"

Because as we all know, developers don't make games for creative or commercial reasons, but simply to max out the technical capabilities of the platform on which they work. (It's worth noting that Sony took a more developer-friendly approach with the PlayStation 4, and that system topped the PS3's lifetime sales total in just five years. It's also worth noting that developers somehow have continued to make games for it despite the system not being designed explicitly to stymie them at every turn.)

I've seen disingenuous spin before, but Hirai's performance with the Official PlayStation Magazine was something special. Sony's board of directors no doubt saw the same thing. Once Hirai had turned the PS3 around--and really, it was an impressive turn-around given the system's early stumbles--the PlayStation division head was chosen to be Sony's next CEO and president.

Bad news abounds

Believe it or not, that last section was my attempt to keep things positive. Last month's column was pretty depressing. And honestly, this one could have been just as bad. The worldwide economic crisis was not contained to a single month, and in January of 2009 we were still trying to assess just how bad things actually were. On the one hand, there was some pretty good news out there for the industry. 2008 had been another record year, sales-wise. Microsoft boasted about Xbox having its best holiday season ever. Retailers like GameStop and HMV had similarly glowing reports.

So it was a little disconcerting that in the middle of all this, Microsoft closed its Flight Sim developer Aces Game Studio as part of a wave of 5,000 layoffs. Those laid off workers would have plenty of company as a host of tech companies followed suit with cuts of their own, including IBM, AMD, Intel, Sega, Eidos (Crystal Dynamics), Eidos again (Manchester studio closed), Nexon (Humanature studio closed), Kuju, Disney, Zavvi, Zavvi again, Circuit City (which began shutting down entirely), Gusto Games, and companies like Electronic Arts, Sony, and Ziff Davis followed through on reports of staff cuts that made headlines the month before.

In the middle of all this carnage, the NPD Group made an early bid for Understatement of the Year by suggesting that the games industry was already feeling the impact of the global economic downturn.

Some things age better than others

● Rockstar co-founder Dan Houser doesn't mind that games aren't respected because it means there are no standards for how things need to be done and "that gives us enormous pleasure because we can make it up as we go along." He was talking about being a writer in video games, but you don't have to squint too hard to imagine that as the head of a studio notorious for crunch, he gets enormous pleasure from the lack of standards in other aspects of games as well.

● With James Cameron's Avatar dominating the box office and Sony demonstrating its 3D tech with PS3 games at the Consumer Electronics Show, we were at the beginning of a rebirth in 3D gaming (which of course would be followed by a re-death in 3D gaming).

● Neversoft's Joel Jewett utters perhaps the least true statement of the month when he says that the studio moving off the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater franchise is "probably best for the franchise."

● Microsoft announced that the Xbox Live service hit its highest ever concurrent user level over the holidays with 1.5 million users across the entire platform, and that was actually impressive for the time. For comparison's sake, one year ago this week, PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds hit 3 million concurrent users. In November, Fortnite managed 8.3 million.

● Among the console platform holders, Microsoft was quickest to the realization of how going online would re-shape the industry. In January of 2009, it was calling digital content the fastest-growing part of its business. Keep in mind it wouldn't even announce the sale of full retail games through Xbox Live until E3 2009, and even then it would be limited to 30 titles.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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