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Sony needs to stay humble and focused

PS4's success can't change Sony's approach: distractions risk everything it's achieved

With the solitary candle on its first birthday cake still glowing, PlayStation 4 can look back on a hell of a year. It's sold far faster than the company predicted, almost doubling the global installed base of the Xbox One prior to Microsoft's recent price cut; an achievement all the more impressive when you consider that Xbox One itself hasn't slouched off the shelves, in fact ramping up faster than Xbox 360 did. Sony's console is a marriage of excellent hardware design with nigh-on perfect corporate execution; sure, it's been a little light on truly fantastic exclusive software so far, but it's the go-to console for multi-platform games and given the effusive praise the hardware has enjoyed from developers, nobody doubts that the exclusives will find their way to market in time.

A little celebration on Sony's part is to be expected - but only a little. It's worth remembering that one of the core values that made the PS4 so appealing to the core market in the first place was humility. It took humility and self-awareness for Sony to acknowledge the terrible mistakes it had made in the early years of the PS3, to reposition itself as an open, communicative and humble company with the best interests of gamers in mind; an ideal position from which to capitalise on the stumbles of Microsoft, whose executives seemed determined to spend the Xbox One's unveiling period performing cover versions of Sony's own arrogant tunes of yesteryear.

13 or 14 million sales in year one is great, but it shouldn't fool Sony into thinking that it's okay to forget that humility. PS4 has momentum, but momentum isn't unstoppable and those numbers don't even represent a fraction of the core market which Sony must win in order to capture the lion's share of the generation that it's hoping for. Microsoft remains a tougher competitor than any Sony has faced in the core console market thus far; it has deep pockets, the ability to learn and adapt rapidly, and will not allow the Xbox One to lose all the ground it gained so expensively with the Xbox 360 without fighting tooth and nail for every inch.

"Whatever the grand plan was when this became part of Sony's overall messaging, it's not working, and it's risking undoing the months and months of careful, difficult work it took to resuscitate Sony's brand in the first place"

So far, I think it's fair to say that Sony has kept its eyes on the target and hasn't allowed itself to be distracted by its own success. Reactions to the PS4's success have been intelligent and measured - of particular note was Shuhei Yoshida's comments a few months ago about the company's own lack of insight into why the console had sold so fast, and his desire to understand their consumers in more depth, which was about as far from triumphalism as anyone could wish. Occasional fumbles, like the problems which plagued the 2.0 firmware launch, have prompted rapid responses, genuine apologies and promises to do better. The message, up until now, has been on point: "We know we still have to earn this".

That's why it was a little unusual to see a brace of Sony executives talking in the past few weeks about 2015 being the year when PS4 reaches out beyond the core and tries to appeal to the mass-market. This appears to be a new theme for Sony, and since it's coming from the mouths of several executives simultaneously, I assume it's been communicated from the top. North American PlayStation boss Shawn Layden told VentureBeat that "the broadening of the demographic... really begins in year two" and talked about LittleBigPlanet 3 as beginning "lightening the palette of games we'll be exploring". SCE Australia managing director Michael Ephraim told VG247 that "our focus this year is bringing in the mass market as well... we've gotta start appealing to the mass market as well." PlayStation UK managing director Fergal Gara was more blunt, saying precisely what the other two seemed to mean in an interview with Red Bull; "What we want to see in the next year or two is a bigger mass market play... To broaden and perhaps fill the void that's being left latent by the Wii - which is a shadow of its former self."

"What we want to see in the next year or two is a bigger mass market play... To broaden and perhaps fill the void that's being left latent by the Wii"

Fergal Gara

On one level, I'm fine with this being Sony's strategy. They'd be quite mad not to be concocting some kind of strategy to appeal to wider audiences; and as many of us know, even core gamers are perfectly partial to casual experiences on their consoles, especially when they work well as party games. If Sony didn't have a plan to broaden its base in 2015, and software in development to extend the system's appeal and tap into new markets down the line, it would be missing a trick.

I'm not sure, though, why on earth the company thinks this is a good time to start talking about it. I don't know what audience such statements are aimed at, or what good they're supposed to do; but whatever the grand plan was when this became part of Sony's overall messaging, it's not working, and it's risking undoing the months and months of careful, difficult work it took to resuscitate Sony's brand in the first place.

A year on the market, with consoles in the hands of - at best - a third to a quarter of the core market, it seems to be the height of madness to start going on about branching out to appeal to the casual market and grabbing some of the Wii's old market share. With Microsoft making aggressive price moves and, bluntly, entering the Christmas period with more impressive exclusive titles on its system, now is not the time for Sony executives to start making statements which sound like "hey, we've got the core market sewn up, those guys love us, now it's on to the next thing!" Oh, certainly, those statements are couched in proclamations of undying affection for the core market, but it ends up looking like lip-service; a few throwaway comments on the core market can't disguise the hungry glint in executives' eyes as they fix their gaze on the juicy prizes in the casual market (which may or may not actually be juicy, depending on how badly you reckon iOS has impacted that market).

"Now is absolutely not the right moment for Sony to look like it's lost its focus, or begun to take the core market for granted. There's still a long race to be run in the core space"

Now is absolutely not the right moment for Sony to look like it's lost its focus, or begun to take the core market for granted. There's still a long race to be run in the core space - and honestly, the casual market isn't even going to become a major factor until some price drops kick in down the line, so talking about this kind of thing now isn't doing anything but damage. It doesn't help that these comments come off the back of a botched launch for PS4's Singstar, which was the feather in the company's casual cap in previous generations but is nothing short of terrible on PS4 - underfeatured, badly designed, buggy and with a store selection that's downright embarrassing from a company which is a stablemate to one of the world's largest music labels. Thus not only have PlayStation executives started to talk about casual markets at exactly the point when many core gamers are finding Microsoft's offering increasingly appealing; they're also talking about it at exactly the point when Sony's first-party casual software is suggesting a worrying degree of incompetence in this field.

This race is still Sony's to lose. It's way out in front and has, for the first time in a decade, a console with the potential to be a real world-beater on its hands. This race, though, isn't just about hardware; it's not even just about games. Dominant consoles also have to project the right image, to lure consumers with the promise of what's to come and what owning this console means. So far, Sony has done extremely well on that front - but we're still only in the opening stages of a long, long run. The quickest way for Sony to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory right now would be to act as if it's already won.

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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.

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