I should feel something, surely. Some twinge of excitement, some reminder of the love I once shared for this brand, this mainstay of gaming culture. But as the last of the sycophantic, insincere applause on the video stream dies away, I feel like a lot of journalists at Sony’s See The Future event did – numb. Worse. Apathetic, even. Sony have just announced the coming of a new PlayStation and I just couldn’t give a damn. If this sounds cynical, it shouldn’t. I’m heartbroken. For the first time in almost 20 years Sony have announced a console that I have no interest in whatsoever. Even five years ago that would have been unthinkable to me, but it’s been a long, hard road for Sony fans as of late and frankly they’ve brought this on themselves.
I was born in 1980. Like a lot of children of my generation I grew up with Nintendo consoles underneath my television. To be a Nintendo fan was to be in love with gaming: from the NES, with its gorgeous, angular control pad, the practically space-age Zapper and the promise of your very own Robotic Operating Buddy (well, okay, maybe not the latter*) to the sheer portable magnificence of the Game Boy we had a delightful, welcoming digital playground at our fingertips. The problem is that playgrounds are for children and, regrettably, we all had to grow up sooner or later. Nintendo’s reaction to this was much like Drop Dead Fred’s: sorry kid. You don’t need us anymore. You’re all grown up now and have grown up things to do. But hey, tell your younger sibling we said ‘Hi!’. We’ve got this thing called an Ultra 64 in development and the youngsters will love it!** And this left our generation in a bit of a pickle; we wanted to keep on gaming but nobody was making games for us.
And then in 1994 Sony – then most famous for pretty much every type of consumer electronic except games consoles – stuck their head above the parapet and launched the PlayStation. Speaking personally it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Games on CD, which meant Full Motion Video (FMV)*** and outstanding audio. Bigger, brighter, bolder games, Brand new, adult-targeted franchises like Tomb Raider, Wipeout and Resident Evil. A console that was designed to be displayed proudly in the middle of the living room, not hidden away in the bedroom. It was expensive. It was sexy. It was desirable. And it delivered everything that it promised. From the moment it hit the street in Japan we wanted it, and as soon as I could afford one – thank you, part-time job at Blockbuster! – I bought one. So many of us did, discovering new experiences, new franchises and new gaming horizons. Characters like Kain, Lara Croft and Crash Bandicoot became every bit as dear to our hearts as Mario, Seamus and Link still were. Franchises that we first discovered on our old Nintendo consoles, like Final Fantasy or Metal Gear Solid, found themselves upgraded and more immersive. Time Crisis, Point Blank and the Tekken series received flawless home conversions, genuinely bringing the arcade home. Gaming felt exciting and new once again. And most importantly through the DualShock controller, first released in 1997, Sony gave us arguably the most important gaming innovation of the last twenty years: twin analogue sticks.
But as impressed as we were with the PlayStation the little grey box had nothing on its successor. Released in 2000, the PlayStation 2 did everything that the PS1 did but bigger and better. Sony picked up the multiplayer gauntlet that Nintendo had dropped after GoldenEye 007’s enviable success and gave us the likes of SingStar and TimeSplitters. Even games that would ordinarily have only found a home on the PC, like Half Life and Star Wars: Battlefront, were suddenly at our fingertips in the living room. Franchises like Devil May Cry, Kingdom Hearts, God of War and Ratchet & Clank gave us something new to think about whilst the likes of Metal Gear Solid, Silent Hill and Soul Reaver received arguably their best entries. And video games started bordering on art with Okami, Ico and the heart-rending Shadow of the Colossus. PlayStation 2 may not have broken much new ground in the way of hardware but dear God, the software was beautiful – and better still the console was 100% backward compatible with your old PS1 library. It genuinely felt that, as a market, we were respected and that Sony understood what we wanted. We felt the warm glow of brand loyalty; like Nintendo when we were kids, Sony had never let us down.
It’s little wonder, then, that we were all gagging for the PlayStation 3 when it finally arrived in 2006. It sold extremely well despite the apparent lack of software support – something later attributed to the proprietary Cell processor employed in the console making it exceptionally difficult to program for – and initially promised, once again, to deliver that which its competitors would not. Online gaming accessible for free, unlike the Xbox 360’s subscription-based Xbox Live. Decent HD movie playback thanks to its built-in Blu Ray drive, unlike the 360’s requirement for owners to purchase the (ultimately doomed) HD-DVD drive as an external add-on and the Gamecube’s lack of playback whatsoever. A built-in hard drive designed to be easily upgradeable, as opposed to the 360’s proprietary clip-on drives. The ability to play downloadable content that you have purchased on a friend’s console simply by entering your password (much like the Steam platform allows on the PC). The ability to purchase that content in actual money, without having to buy points cards as you did with the 360 (and later Nintendo’s Wii). 100% PS1 and 85% PS2 backward compatibility, unlike the 360’s rather selective ability to play older games. Tilt-sensitive controllers. And most mind-blowing of all, the ability to install Linux on to your hard drive and use your PlayStation 3 as an inexpensive home office machine. Did I buy one on release? Of course I did. And I was happy, right?
The PlayStation Network (PSN) suffered from a lack of online titles, and even when that improved the lack of a match-making service (which is essentially the main part of Xbox Live and what all those gamer points and so forth are about) made gaming online with the PlayStation 3 about as much fun as pulling teeth. Except there were initially a limited number of off-the-shelf hard drives that were guaranteed to work with the PS3. Except that sharing of games was limited to a certain number of consoles and did not work with every title (and God help you if you lost touch with anyone you’d given your password to: Sony do not allow you to retract authorisation unless you have direct access to the console in question). Except that Sony’s lax server security meant that PSN got hacked in 2011 and the personal details of over 77 million accounts, including unsecured credit and debit card details, were stolen by criminals forcing everyone involved to cancel their cards and, ironically, start buying untraceable points cards after all.
Except that PS2 compatibility was limited to the initial batch of PS3 consoles and that it was removed from later models for no good reason – even though that emulation was software based and therefore harmed nothing by being left intact. Except those tilt-sensitive controllers, which were an under-used gimmick, omitted a force-feedback rumble function so that Sony – who, along with Microsoft, were sued for copyright infringement on the patent for the technology going back to 1998 – could avoid having to cough up for licencing****. Except that Sony, panicking when they discovered that clever hackers could use Linux to alter the software on the PS3 and thus run copied games, unceremoniously removed the Linux option from consoles in 2010. Except that every time I switch on my PlayStation 3 I have to sit patiently for up to 3 minutes whilst it installs yet more hacker-blocking updates – updates which hackers consistently find their way around just for the damned challenge. Except that the PS3 always has to wait longer than any other platform for game ports or DLC because that Cell chip is such a headache to code for.
Except that being a Sony gamer eventually became so damned joyless that I haven’t switched the damn thing on in over a year and, frankly, don’t miss it one little bit.
I could go on to discuss what I’ve learned about the PlayStation 4. I could go through the information and analyse it for you, or offer commentary, but I wasn’t joking at the top of the column: I genuinely couldn’t care less at this stage. The sad truth is that the oft-replayed Sarcastic Gamer song has, for me at least, turned out to be prophecy: Sony have killed their brand. The leader of the pack, who once drove Sega’s hardware division out of business and would have crushed Nintendo if it hadn’t have been for the late success of the DS, are now the third horse in what is rapidly becoming a two-horse race. Sorry, Sony, but you’ve lost a loyal customer –and I’m willing to bet that I’m not the only one.
*To see how truly bad an idea the Robotic Operating Buddy was, watch this video.
**As it happened I did too but – much like Doctor Who since 2005 – it doesn’t matter how much I loved it, it clearly was not meant for me.
***Look, we didn’t know any better, okay?
****Later, when the lawsuit was resolved, Sony began packaging new PS3 consoles with rumble-enabled controllers despite previously claiming that the haptics interfered with the motion-sensors. Early adopters were not offered trade-in on their old controllers or discount on replacements.