Ever since Mr. Stringer took the helm last year at Sony, the struggling if still formidable electronics giant, the world has been hearing about how the coming PlayStation 3 would save the company, or at least revitalize it. Even after Microsoft took the lead in the video-game wars a year ago with its innovative and powerful Xbox 360, Sony blithely insisted that the PS3 would leapfrog all competition to deliver an unsurpassed level of fun.
Put bluntly, Sony has failed to deliver on that promise.
Measured in megaflops, gigabytes and other technical benchmarks, the PlayStation 3 is certainly the world’s most powerful game console. It falls far short, however, of providing the world’s most engaging overall entertainment experience. There is a big difference, and Sony seems to have confused one for the other.
The PS3, which was introduced in North America on Friday with a hefty $599 price tag for the top version, certainly delivers gorgeous graphics. But they are not discernibly prettier than the Xbox 360’s. More important, the whole PlayStation 3 system is surprisingly clunky to use and simply does not provide many basic functions that users have come to expect, especially online.
I have spent more than 30 hours using the PlayStation 3 over the last week or so and may have played more different games on the system — 13 — than probably anyone outside of Sony itself. Sony did not activate the PS3’s online service until just before the Friday debut. Over the weekend a clear sense of disappointment with the PlayStation 3 emerged from many gamers.
“What’s weird is that the PS3 was originally supposed to come out in the spring, and here it came out in the fall, and it still doesn’t feel finished,” Christopher Grant, managing editor of Joystiq, one of the world’s biggest video-game blogs, said on the telephone Saturday night. “It’s really not the all-star showing they should have had at launch. Sony is playing catch-up in a lot of ways now, not just in terms of sales but in terms of the basic functionality and usability of the system.”
Sadly for Sony, the best way to explain how the PlayStation 3 falls short is to explain how different it is to use than its main competition, Xbox 360. When I reviewed the 360 last year, I wrote: “Twelve minutes after opening the box, I had created my nickname, was in a game of Quake 4 and thought, ‘This can’t be this easy.’ ”
I never felt that way using the PlayStation 3. With the PS3, 12 minutes after opening the box I realized that Sony inexplicably does not include cables to connect the machine to a high-definition television. Keep in mind that one of Sony’s main selling points has been that the PS3 plays Blu-Ray high-definition movie discs. But high-definiton cables? Sold separately. The Xbox 360, by contrast, ships with one cable that can connect to either a standard or high-definition set.
Then, before you are even using the PS3, you have to connect the “wireless” controller to the base unit with a USB cable so they can recognize each other. If you bring your PS3 controller to a friend’s house, you’ll have to plug back in again. The 360’s wireless controllers are always just that, wireless.
If there is one thing one would expect Sony to get perfect, though, it would be music. Wrong. Sure, you can plug in your digital music player and the PS3 will play the tunes. But as soon as you go into a game, the music stops. By contrast, one of the things I’ve always enjoyed most on the Xbox 360 is being able to listen to my own music while playing Pebble Beach or driving my virtual Ferrari. Doesn’t seem too complicated, but the PS3 can’t do it.
In that sense it often feels as if the PlayStation 3 can’t walk and chew bubble gum at the same time. In the PS3’s online store (which feels like a slow Web page) you can access movie trailers and trial versions of new games, but when you actually download the 600-megabyte files, you’ll be stuck watching a progress bar crawl across the screen for 20 or 40 minutes. Astonishingly, you can’t download in the background while you go do something that’s more fun (like play a game). On the Xbox 360, not only are files downloaded seamlessly in the background, but you can also shut off the machine, turn it on later, and the download will resume automatically.
The PS3’s whole online experience feels tacked-on and unpolished. On the Xbox 360 each user has a single unified friends list, so you can track your friends and communicate with them easily, no matter what game you are in. On the PlayStation 3 most games have their own separate friends list and some have no friends function at all. There is a master list as well, but in order to communicate with anyone on it, you have to quit the game you are playing.
There are some high points. The multi-player battles in Resistance: Fall of Man are excellent. The arcade-style action in the downloadable Blast Factor is suitably frantic.
But the list of the PS3’s disappointments remains, from its undersupported voice chat to its maddening cellphone-like text messaging system. (In frustration I ended up plugging in a USB keyboard.) Overall, Sony seems to have put a lot of effort into cramming as much silicon horsepower under the hood as possible but to have forgotten that all the transistors in the world can’t make someone smile.
And so it is a bit of a shock to realize that on the video game front Microsoft and Sony are moving in exactly the opposite directions one might expect given their roots. Microsoft, the prototypical PC company, has made the Xbox 360 into a powerful but intuitive, welcoming, people-friendly system. Sony’s PlayStation 3, on the other hand, often feels like a brawny but somewhat recalcitrant specialized computer. (Sony is even telling users to wait for future software patches to fix some of the PS3’s deficiencies.) The thing is, if people want to use a computer, they’ll use a computer.
Through the decades of the Walkman and the Trinitron television, Sony was renowned as the global master of easy-to-use, seamlessly powerful consumer electronics. But recently Sony seems to have lost its way, first in digital music players, in which it ceded the ergonomic high ground to Apple’s iPod, and now in home-game consoles. For now Sony’s technologists seem to have won out over the people who study fun.
As a practical matter, given the limited quantities Sony has been able to manufacture, the PlayStation 3 will surely remain sold out throughout the holiday season. If you can’t find one, don’t fret. Sony still has a lot of work to do. As Mr. Grant of Joystiq put it: “Maybe in six months it’ll be finished. Maybe by next fall I’ll be able to do all the cool stuff. I’m still kind of waiting.”