15 Years of PlayStation: The PS3

The conclusion of an ongoing series looking back over the life of the PlayStation brand during the 15th Anniversary Celebration in North America (Part One – The PS1) (Part Two – The PS2) (Part Three – The PSP)

Just five short years ago, Sony introduced the PlayStation 3 to the world at E3 2005. Months of rumors and speculation had come to an end. During that initial showing, Sony promises a system that will use a new technology called Blu-ray to deliver high definition gaming and movies into the living rooms of the world. The PS3 will be available in white, sliver or black finishes and the Spider-Man font for the logo? They show off a new style controller, quickly dubbed that batarang around the web for its unorthodox shape.

We’re told that the new system will output games in 1080p at a time when very few televisions on the market could even achieve that resolution. The system will also have two HDMI outputs allowing games to be stretched across two displays and a built in Gigabit Ethernet port. PlayStation 1 and 2 backwards compatibility is confirmed. PSP and PS3 connectivity is promised with interesting new ways of playing games, potentially as a controller for some PS3 games. Sony is promising us the machine of the future, a beast that will be relevant for a long time to come. We were dizzy with all the possibilities already shown, then came the trailers.

Warhawk Early Concept Art

Warhawk will be making its triumphant return with massive battles showcasing hundreds of planes filling the skies and huge groups of foot soldiers. Killzone 2 makes its first appearance showing off a spectacular trailer with lighting and detail that blows everyone away. Largely forgotten is the brief trailer Rockstar shows off for an old west style game that they’re working on for the next generation of systems. That game was Red Dead Redemption.

Almost immediately the backlash began, and Sony didn’t really help. When asked about the Killzone 2 trailer in an interview with G4, Jack Tretton said we were seeing real gameplay. I’m going to assume that he was the recipient of bad information and that this wasn’t a concerted effort on Sony’s part to misrepresent the facts because two days later, Phil Harrison said that all the E3 2005 footage was running off video and done to PS3 spec. Unfortunately for Sony, gamers on the net smelled blood and things would only get uglier over the next couple of years.

While there was a growing anger towards Sony on the internet where they were being called arrogant and out of touch, they continued to work quietly behind the scenes laying the groundwork for the future of the PlayStation brand. In Fall 2005, global development for Sony is consolidated into Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios. This will allow Sony to group all of their development in a way that will pay big dividends down the line with first party studios sharing resources and knowledge.

Fast forward to E3 2006 and Sony gets into more details about the PS3. Kaz Hirai mentions the Gigabit Ethernet port again while talking about the variety of downloadable content that will be available. We’re told that Blu-ray will be critical to bring more of everything to games. Interestingly, when talking about hard drives, Kaz mentions that every PS3 will have a hard drive for things like game saves and caching to improve load times on games. Online and networking is heavily touted as being essential to the PS3 and all the basic online functionality will be available for free to all users. Ridge Racer from the PS1 is shown on the PSP as another example of integration of the systems. The PlayStation Store is shown off for the first time and PlayStation Cards are mentioned. Store integration into games is shown in SingStar. Sony spends most of E3 2006 differentiating themselves from the competition without actually mentioning them. Things seem to be going well during the Press Event… then Genji 2 is shown off and things quickly go south. We’re told the game is based on Japanese history and famous battles in ancient Japan. About halfway through the demo, the developer shows off a boss battle with a giant enemy crab and an internet meme is born.

Other games shown off at the time included F1 with the somewhat infamous PSP integration as a wing mirror. A neat use of the technology that never materializes. It’s probably for the best however because really, how were we planning on propping the PSP up in front of us to make this useful? A specially designed stand? Heavenly Sword, Lair, The Getaway, Afrika, Hot Shots Golf, Folklore (then called Monster Kingdom) are all seen along with two brand new titles, Eight Days and Uncharted. Both look pretty amazing and show off potentially wonderful things to come when the system launches. Ted Price takes the stage to show off game play of their new shooter, Resistance and it looks impressive.

Ken Kutaragi then takes the stage and announces Sixaxis controls with no external sensor needed, another subtle dig at the competition and Warhawk is shown using Sixaxis controls for flight. The Sixaxis inclusion will come to be seen as a desperation move on the part of Sony, trying to one up Nintendo but not going all the way. More on that later because Kaz is about to give us the price. We’re told that the PS3 will be available in November with two models, a 20Gb hard drive model for $499 and a 60Gb model for $599. Time for the internet to explode again and Sony to help fan the flames. While it isn’t the highest launch price for a console it looks bad compared the the Xbox 360 and the Wii. It also didn’t help that Ken Kutaragi said in a 2005 interview that in the PS3 Sony wanted “for consumers to think to themselves ‘I will work more hours to buy one’. We want people to feel that they want it, irrespective of anything else.” Seen from one point of view, that quote can mean people will see this as very valuable and will do whatever they can to get one. Seen across the internet, the quote meant Sony is arrogant and they want you to get off your lazy asses and get a second job to buy their perfect machine.

Taking A Gamble
The inclusion of Blu-ray was a huge gamble for Sony and had a big impact on the price of the machine at launch. At the time, major media companies were gearing up for another major format war with the latest combatants being Blu-ray and HD-DVD. While Sony was only a part of the group trying to bring Blu-ray to market, they were squarely in the cross hairs by including it in the PS3. Many articles, rants and forum posts included the sentiment that “Sony is once again trying to ram their proprietary formats down your throat much like all their other failed formats, Beta, Mini-Disc, UMD, Memory Sticks, etc.” Fear ran rampant as people worried that HD-DVD would win the war and they’d be stuck with a machine that, gasp, only plays games.

While it was a huge gamble, Sony made it a corporate wide push with Sony Blu-ray players being made along with PS3’s and Sony HDTVs being bundled with either. They had also been through this once before with DVD vs. Divx during the launch of the PS2. Even if their format of choice didn’t win out, games would still come on Blu-ray offering a major advantage over DVD’s in terms of compression. The PS3 was also a trojan horse of sorts as the cheapest Blu-ray player on the market at the time. Even if people didn’t buy them for games initially, they were buying them along with the movies, helping get more and more players in people’s homes and tipping the scales in their favor.

While Microsoft was aligned with the HD-DVD Consortium, they didn’t have as much to gain as Sony did and only halfheartedly took a stab at Blu-ray with the HD-DVD add-on for the 360. It was simply a movie player attached to your 360 and nothing else. Microsoft said that no games would ever be released in the format as they were aware that it could easily fragment the market and create all kinds of consumer confusion and sink the 360. In the end, just a year and four months after the launch of the PS3, the HD-DVD Consortium decided to pull the plug and effectively declared Blu-ray the winner.

The Launch
Caught up in a legal battle, the force feedback that gave the DualShock controller its name had to be dropped. Sony put up a front in saying force feedback was a thing of the past and unnecessary but they were most likely just posturing for their upcoming court cases. They also revised the specs on the 20Gb model, removing the WiFi and built in card readers. The systems would only be available in black with silver and white left open as future possibilities. The gigabit ethernet was also replaced with a 100 megabit connection and the second HDMI port was dropped.

About two months before the worldwide launch, Sony announced they would only be launching in Japan and North America in November and that the rest of the world would see the PS3 “at a later date”. This was due to a manufacturing shortage in parts for the Blu-ray drives as Sony couldn’t keep up with the demand for consoles and stand alone players. These shortages would affect the North American launch of the PS3 as well when many stores received as few as ten units and some (including where I placed my pre-order in late 2005) received none at all.

The launch got rockier as reports of violence broke across the media including a shooting, several robberies and an attack with BB guns. Many people waiting in line however felt there would be huge profits to be had on eBay much like other console launches. Strangely, this wasn’t the case. While initial systems went for well over $1000, within a few days they were selling for cost or less as the auction site had been flooded by people looking to make a quick buck. By January, Sony announced that launch for Europe and other territories would begin in March and proceed throughout the year.

The systems were still hard to find in most stores throughout the holidays and the launch titles were pretty slim in terms of quality and quantity, the two standouts being Resistance: Fall of Man and Ridge Racer 7.

The Other Guys
It seemed that Sony was completely unprepared to launch the PS3 when they did and that’s likely the case. A pretty good argument could be made that Microsoft dictated the launch of the PS3. Coming off their first foray into gaming, Microsoft had launched a year after the PS2 with what was on paper a superior machine. Unfortunately, they had to contend with a massive consumer crossover from the PS1 to the PS2 and the fact that they were new to the game and a year late to the party. They weren’t going to make that mistake again. Not knowing exactly when Sony or Nintendo would launch their next systems, Microsoft went all out in putting a system on the market by the end of 2005. It was a gamble that has paid off for them in brand recognition and sales but it also cost them just over one billion dollars as they had to pay for a fault known about since the initial production run that would come to be known as the “Red Ring of Death”. Even with the missteps, Microsoft is now solidly entrenched as a major player in the gaming industry. The effect can be seen across pop culture. Ten years ago TV shows, entertainers, politicians, musicians, magazines and such always mentioned either PlayStation or Nintendo when generically referring to video games, now it’s almost always Xbox.

Nintendo had nothing to lose being dead last with the Gamecube in terms of sales so they took a bold gamble of their own. The Wii was designed to be cheap to produce and completely different from previous consoles in terms of control and family friendliness. The gamble paid off for Nintendo in a much bigger way vaulting them to the top in sales and forcing Sony and Microsoft to rethink their audiences. Whether fueled by the upcoming Wii and its motion controls or not, the inclusion of Sixaxis functionality was seen as a cheap gimmick by many outlets across the internet and wasn’t really pushed by Sony beyond a number of first party games. When it worked, it felt right but when it didn’t it just felt tacked on, wonky or flat out unnecessary.

Without that push from Microsoft, it’s entirely likely that Sony would have waited at least another year for Blu-ray costs to come down and launched in 2007. It would have at least given them more time with the new operating system since, at launch, it really didn’t feel finished yet. The interface was built off of the XMB the PSP had been using since launch but added a few PS3 specific areas including a Friends List and a Store. The PlayStation Store also felt rushed as it was a slow loading web based interface. When something was purchased, you had to wait for each item to completely download and install. There wasn’t a whole lot available for the first six months or so as Sony was still trying to get their bearings with the launch and a list of bugs and improvements needed for the system.

A Connected World
Thankfully for Sony and gamers alike, the new hardware with a built in internet connection meant firmware updates could be pushed to every connected machine. This made a big difference in terms of functionality as over the first few years Sony was able to add things like Remote Play for the PSP, Bluetooth keyboard and mouse support, DLNA support for Media Center functionality, wallpapers and themes, video and voice chat, Remote Start, support for DivX, XviD and WMV files, a new Store interface in its own application, background downloading, playlists in the Music and Photo sections of the XMB, access to the XMB while in a game, Trophies Yo!, Bluetooth headsets, PlayStation Home, a Video Store, 3D support for movies and games, MLB.tv, the NHL Network, Netflix, Vudu, Hulu Plus and hundreds more improvements.

For the first time in console gaming history, months down the line we don’t have the same machine we initially bought. Game developers have also been able to take advantage of this new found connectivity with patches and updates after launch. We’re no longer stuck with game breaking bugs that can never be fixed. Patches and updates come along a little too often for some people but given the alternative, I’m all for it.

Burnout Paradise is a stellar example of what a developer can do with a game post-release given the time and resources. The game has had a total makeover in terms of the front end and gameplay all for the better. Full day/night cycles, motorcycles and more were added for free after the launch and they were able to support the game for well over a year with patches, updates and eventually paid content.

Officially announced by then President of SCE Worldwide Studios Phil Harrison at the Game Developers Conference in March 2007, PlayStation Home was the next big initiative by Sony designed to differentiate them from the competition. Initially derided as either a Second Life knock-off or a stab at the Nintendo Wii’s “Mii” Avatars, the idea had actually been around since the PlayStation 2. Initially called the Hub, it was designed to be an online lobby for The Getaway: Black Monday. It was never completed and eventually ported to the PS3 where it became the Home project.

Harrison was a major supporter of the new initiative and very interested in the prospect of a virtual online 3D community for the PS3. Unfortunately, Sony appeared to be a bit too ambitious in their plans as the launch was delayed by more than a year and much of what was initially shown during that time never made it into the final version. Gone was the Trophy Hall where users could see 3D representations of their in game trophies. Also missing was the personalized web page for every user with the ability to update your status, upload pictures from your phone, play music and video from your hard drive in your virtual space and more. A number of features initially missing have slowly made their way back in such as voice chat in public spaces, the ability to display pictures from your hard drive and game launching.

Home has had a rough time of it with slow downloads and constant updates being the norm at the launch of the full public Beta in December 2008. It was enough for many blogs and gaming sites to pan the new service and simply walk away. Sony has shown their commitment to Home however and continues to update it regularly, partnering with game publishers and developers to create game specific spaces and adding new features and games within the service itself. Despite not being big users ourselves, PS Nation was approached by Sony to help launch the Community Theater in Home in mid 2010. The space is now used by several bloggers and gaming outlets to show videos to a whole new audience.

Despite the general perceptions, Home does have a dedicated user base as evidenced by the sheer number of posts on the official PlayStation Message Boards and the number of users within the service at any given time. It also appears to be pulling in enough money each month through micro transactions for Sony to keep putting more development time in. The real key to Home will be in the next PlayStation. Will Sony integrate the service directly into the interface (as they’ve hinted in the past), use the same interface as the PS3, or will they drop it altogether?

Linux and Piracy
The PS3 launched with the ability to install another Operating System on a separate partition of the hard drive. While not a unique feature to the PlayStation family, (the PS2 had a Linux kit available for the add-on hard drive) it was an interesting experiment nonetheless. Many different operating systems could be successfully installed but Linux became the de facto choice for many people taking advantage of the feature.

While limited in terms of access to the full power of the PS3, the ability to use the OtherOS feature was worthwhile for a number of people including the US Air Force which bought 1700 PS3’s to run a 500 TeraFLOPS Linux cluster.

The launch of the redesigned “Slim” PS3 in September 2009 saw the removal of the OtherOS feature. Sony officially said that this was done to focus resources elsewhere but speculation abounded about a possible vulnerability for hackers to exploit. That exploit was soon found and in April 2010 Sony released a mandatory firmware update for all PS3’s which removed the OtherOS functionality. A number of people filed class action lawsuits which, at the time of this writing, are still pending.

In August 2010 another exploit was found potentially allowing users to run pirated games. Sony quickly released another mandatory firmware update and filed an injunction against groups selling the USB devices used to take advantage of the breach. More recently a group has come forward claiming the ability to run signed code on all PS3s right through the current firmware (3.55). This would give hackers full access to the PS3 with the ability to create custom firmware much like the PSP. Whether or not this all pans out remains to be seen.

The Push For 3D
3D in general has come and gone in media over the years starting with stereoscopic images in the early days of photography. It made another comeback in the 1950’s and then again in the 80’s when Hollywood released a number of 3D films. There have been a few 3D broadcasts over the years on TV that were treated as special events but none ever lived up to the promise of true 3D. Gaming has also seen its share of 3D gimmicks over the years all of which are detailed in Paul’s article, 3D Gaming In The Past here at PSNation.org.

Technology finally seems to be catching up and 3D is back in vogue. More and more movies are being released each year with 3D versions available and the public seems to be showing a high interest. Since tickets to 3D versions of a film cost 50% more, the studios will definitely keep riding it until sales drop off. The use of Active Shutter glasses for 3D television sets may help it finally make the leap to the living room. The technology tends to be better than the passive glasses found in theaters allowing longer viewing with less eye fatigue and nausea as reported by some theater goers.

As the HD format war ended with Blu-ray the victor, Sony began a huge corporate push into 3D. Make no mistake here, Sony’s going all in when it comes to 3D. Sony branded TVs, PS3s, laptops, Blu-ray players, video cameras and digital cameras will all have 3D capabilities. Many are available now with more on the way. On the media side, the game divisions are already cranking out 3D games and the Sony owned movie studios are releasing 3D Blu-ray discs. All of this is nicely detailed in an article from the April 2010 issue of Wired Magazine.

Like most media shifts however, content is the key. The fact that Sony has a media arm producing film and television along with the game division producing an ever growing library of titles for Blu-ray players and the PS3 specifically speaks volumes. Much like early PS3 titles, the 3D effect can be hit or miss on some titles but when it’s done right it’s mind blowing. The change brought about by the ability to see the track in 3D on Gran Turismo can’t be overstated. Being able to see the turns in 3D makes cornering much easier and the realism much more effective. It’s also something that will only get better over time as developers become more comfortable with the tools used to create it.

The nice thing about all of this is the fact that Sony seemed much more forward thinking on the 3D front. With two simple firmware updates, the PS3 was made 3D ready for movies and games and with the inclusion of Blu-ray, games can include both the standard 2D version and the new 3D version all on one disc. You can buy the game today and play it in 2D knowing that when you’re ready to upgrade, the 3D version is there waiting for you.

For another take on Sony and 3D take a look at Rey’s article 3D Or Not 3D here at PSNation.org

Which came first, the Wii or Sony’s motion control experiments? It’s a silly question that’s been banging around the Net since Sony introduced the Move at E3 2009. Nintendo has been working on early prototypes of the Wii remote since 2001 and we’ve all seen the videos of Dr. Richard Marks from the same time period working on early prototypes for the PS2 EyeToy and a motion controller using colors. It’s something that has been kicking around the Sony R&D labs for almost a decade, that’s absolutely true. It also doesn’t mean a damn thing. Nintendo released the Wii in late 2006 with their own version of a motion controller and the public ate it up. The Wii has dominated the 360 and PS3 in sales over the last four years and left Microsoft and Sony scrambling to catch up.

The Wii uses bluetooth technology and infrared sensors to track the position of the controller. Aimed squarely at a more casual market, the Wii was able to capitalize on the ease of use (perceived or real) of motion controls when stacked against the complicated control schemes for the PS3 and 360. After doing their best to ignore it for the first few years, Sony and Microsoft decided to make a grab for the new found casual market with their own motion controllers.

Microsoft’s answer is the Kinect. A purely camera based system which interprets a persons movements and gestures for gameplay. A series of family friendly games have been released with the device but nothing yet for the more traditional or hard core gamer.

Sony went back to R&D and found those early prototypes and set Dr. Marks and his team to work on a new motion controller, they came back with the Move. Using the PlayStation Eye camera and a controller with a sphere on top illuminated by LEDs, the PS3 is able to track the controller in 3D space with precise 1 to 1 movement, something the the Wii still hasn’t quite achieved even with the Motion Plus add-on. After the introduction at E3 2009 a number of questions came up about character control and movement and how that could be achieved with just one or two Move controllers. Sony came back with a secondary controller to emulate the functionality of the left side of the DualShock 3. Including a thumb stick, d-pad, L1 and L2 buttons along with the Circle and Cross, support for the controller can be incorporated into games as developers see fit. It’s also important to note that this additional controller is completely optional. Everything on it can be duplicated by simply holding a DualShock 3 in your left hand.

Early Move titles have been much like all other launch titles, hit and miss. Support has been added to older games with downloadable patches and newer games are incorporating the controls to varying degrees of success. While Microsoft has gone all out for a family friendly image with the introduction of the Mii-like Avatars and redesigned interface along with Kinect, Sony has taken a more measured approach. Overall at this point, Sony is treating the Move as just another control option for developers to take advantage of. There are certainly family friendly games based on the Move but it has also been integrated as an option into more mature titles like Heavy Rain and Killzone 3.

In the long run, that’s all the Move is, just one more option for developers and gamers. It can certainly help developers who might want to port Wii titles to the PS3 and that’s already happening with games like No More Heroes and Dead Space Extraction. It’s a nice option to have and it’ll be fun to see how developers take advantage of it in the future.

Where Do We Go From Here
The 360 had a year head start and the Wii came out of nowhere to surprise everyone with monster sales so where did that leave Sony, currently third place in sales this generation. A lot has been made of this and it’s fueled the flamewars on message boards for almost five years now. Excuses can be made, continued strong sales of the PS2 for one, too high a price at launch for another. Both Sony and Microsoft have been accused of just trying to copy the success of the Wii with their motion controllers but that’s what companies do to stay competitive, they look at the market leader, analyze their success and try to emulate it.

In the end, none of it really matters. The PlayStation brand has always been family friendly with a broad range of titles to appeal to everyone and as of the end of 2010 the PS3 has sold 41.5 million consoles worldwide. It certainly took Sony longer than anyone expected to get up to speed this generation, but the PlayStation 3 has arrived. The system that came out of the box during the 2010 holiday season looked and performed nothing like the system that came out of the box in November 2006 and that’s the biggest difference with this generation of consoles. Those firmware updates have remade the console dozens of times over and they keep on coming. Strong first and second party developers continue to supply the PS3 with new franchises and exclusive titles helping to attract more and more people to the console every day.

Fifteen years on and the PlayStation brand is as strong as ever as Sony currently supports the PS2, PSP and PS3 all at once. With the eventual retirement of the PS2 (probably by the end of 2011), the introduction of the PSP2 (possibly around the same time) and a revitalized marketing campaign featuring the VP of Everything, it’s a great time to be a Sony fan and a great time to own a PlayStation 3.

Written by Josh Langford

Josh Langford

Josh has been gaming since 1977 starting with the Atari 2600.
He currently owns 26 different consoles and 6 different handhelds (all hooked up and in working condition) including all consoles from the current generation.

Josh is currently the US PR & Marketing Manager for Fountain Digital Labs and has recused himself from any involvement on PS Nation arising from posting or editing any news or reviews stemming from FDL.

Twitter Digg Delicious Stumbleupon Technorati Facebook