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When the Wheels Fell Off: A Sony Story
Feature Column by Erich Becker
October 25, 2001


[Editor’s Note: This column was originally written in November 2000, and new comments have been added August 8, 2001. Please note that the views expressed in this column are that of the author and don’t represent the views of ESCmag as a whole.]

March of 1999 was a month that will go down in video-game history because it will now mark the downfall of the top video-game company on the block, Sony Computer Entertainment. The reign of supremacy by the hardware giant is over, and with the recent fiasco of the Playstation 2, Nintendo, Sega and Microsoft now have what it takes to turn the tables. It is now time for one of them to step up and take command.

I’m sure I will get flamed for writing this column, but when you look at what I point out, it is all true. Sony has sunk to the level of a corporate giant who just doesn’t care anymore. They are in this for the money now. Sure the other three companies I mentioned all want to make money, but Sony doesn’t care about games anymore. Let us start from the beginning.

March 1999: Sony announced the specifications for the Playstation 2, a next-generation console that was poised to beat the living snot out of the competition. But, how can you beat the competition when you only show tech demos? I don’t give a flying fruit about a rubber ducky in a tub. For two months, Sony lived on a high horse of being the only other company, besides the yet unreleased Sega Dreamcast, with a next generation console on the horizon. Nintendo didn’t think that was right. At a pre-E3 press event, Nintendo announced the Project Dolphin. Dolphin’s specs were not concretely released, but it was suppose to be able to beat the, already impressive, Playstation 2. It’s biggest competitor stole Sony’s thunder. To add further insult to injury, the Sega Dreamcast launched on 9.9.99 to a near 100 million dollar launch.

Fast forward to the year 2000. Sony’s hype machine was in full swing as third parties were signing on by the day. Over 200 games where in development with planned release dates up to one year after the console launched, and many more entering development to further the life of the system. The only competition that Sony would face would be the little-system-that-could Dreamcast, until…

…Microsoft didn’t necessarily stun the world with it’s worst kept secret, but it did make it official. The Microsoft Corporation (what some call evil-incarnate) would be entering the home entertainment market with it’s entry the Xbox. We all knew it was coming, but what Microsoft released were some rather unimpressive tech demos and some technical stats that showed two sides forming.

The first side of this battle would be the companies trying to take over your living room. Sony and Microsoft are going for the gold when they predict they will be the set-top-box of choice among gamers. The other side now only houses Sega with the Dreamcast. Still a few months away from SegaNet, and a few months away from Nintendo announcing solid specs on Dolphin, the lines were being drawn.

In August of 2000, Nintendo announced the Gamecube. A dedicated video gaming machine, with actual games showed at the Space World conference. Sure, Nintendo’s official line was that they were merely tech demos but we know from inside sources that more than half of the demos shown will appear as games on the Gamecube system. Now, Sony’s biggest competitor was in the game on all four legs. With a dedicated gaming machine, a developer friendly environment, and the Nintendo name tagged onto the system, Sony must have had a nervous break down.

Sony’s blunders of the past could be forgiven with their immense part of the market share. Horrible game after horrible game could be released and it wouldn’t affect the system too much because you could easily wait for a new good one to come out with so many different third parties working for the system.

Sony’s launch blunders for the Playstation 2 cannot be forgiven as easily. First, the 500,000 systems at launch kept many gamers, who had worked hard to pre-order and completely pay off their system, without one. Sony, itself, didn’t release any launch titles except for the questionable Fantavision. Coupled with mediocre, at best, launch titles from third parties, the system’s future didn’t look so bright. Now reports are streaming in that no more systems will be available till January, at the earliest. One of my friends at school put it in the best of terms: "I will put my PS2 away and wait for the games that Sony promised us at launch." What happen to the "most powerful system" that we have ever seen, countless PS2 games experience massive slowdown? What happened to the online broadband network, nothing has been spoken about it in months? Where is my hard-drive, it doesn’t look too promising?

Sony has made some fatal errors in the past six months, and if things don’t start to look better, Nintendo will reign, Sega will be on cloud nine — online, and Microsoft will be buying up third parties and developers to create an indestructible army of talent. And then there is Sony on the sidelines that didn’t secure exclusive games, much like Nintendo. Sony, whose in-house development studios don’t even compare to that of Sega and Nintendo, and whose market influence is nowhere as great as the giant Microsoft? The Playstation 2 will be successful, but it remains to be seen if it will be the MOST successful of the next-generation consoles. I mean the Nintendo 64 outsells the PS2 in Japan now, and that is a story in itself…

We flash forward once again to August 2001 and we have see a lot in the past nine months since this article was first written. Sega has dropped out of the hardware race, and will now be supporting the other consoles with third party games. Microsoft has begun the long road to destruction, or so it seems by recent reports, and Nintendo has shown everyone up, and their GameCube is poised to take first place this Christmas.

Nintendo’s showing at E3 surprises even the most jaded critics, as the GameCube’s game line up was the best, and several of the systems games took top honors from numerous websites as the best of the show.

Microsoft and their dinner-plate controller seem to be having some rather hard times getting people to believe that they are actually making a video game system here that won’t fill up your entire room. Retailers are complaining about the size of the Xbox due to the limited space they have on hand to carry the four big systems this Christmas (the fourth being Game Boy Advance). People have commented on how badly done the Xbox controller is, and Microsoft is rumored to be changing it, to be released NEXT Christmas. So you go under your tree on December 25th and get yourself a small system capable of doing the same thing your computer can with a flipping dinner-plate to steer your copy cat character around the screen, sounds like the best Christmas of your life there buddy.

If people want to call me biased, do so, I don’t really car, I’m a journalist, and there is no such thing as a totally impartial writer. But look at the beginning of this article? Everything I said about the PS2 nearly a year ago is still holding true to today. The only decent game out for the system is Gran Turismo 3, and while I can’t find a way to bash this game, because it is the only series of racing games I like, I find it sad that almost a year after launch and the system has one game that is worth purchasing? Sony is still riding on the feeling that nothing can go wrong, and they are becoming sore over the fact that they could lose. When Nintendo claimed that they had the fastest selling system ever, Sony charged back with the argument that if they had "anticipated" demand the PS2 could have easily outsold the GBA. Well duh? But they didn’t "anticipate" demand, they tried to pull the same maneuver that Nintendo did when they launched the Nintendo 64. Super hype + possibility of shortage = everyone wants one. It is a very simple equation, but something has got to give.

Nintendo and Microsoft will be storming out of the games on November 5th and November 8th respectively, and current PS2 owners and prospective buyers this Christmas could end up wondering why they bought the "monolith-o-fun." The GameCube will have the best franchises and the most recognizable names, as well as the easier building environment in which to design games. The Xbox will be coming out of the game with one of the biggest companies in the world behind it, and a half-a-million dollar marketing campaign (which reminds me, you are launching three months from today, where are the ads Bill?). Sony is riding on a few sure fire hits, but once the other two systems get out of the gate, the exclusive games will be gone. Only Nintendo has a stationary mascot at the moment. Sony never adopted one, and the closest one they did have was Crash and he will be on GameCube to. Nintendo may even pick up another mascot in the vein of Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog, which is rumored to be only on GameCube.

As we look upon the biggest holiday season ever for gaming, it makes me wonder why we do what we do. Why do we spend a better part of our free time creating websites like this one and playing video games well into our 30s, 40s, or even 50s, because it is what we love to do. Video games are a way of life for some people. There are those who design the games, those who market them, those who publish them, and then there are those who play them, the big players in the industry.

As I stated before, flame me all you want for being biased, or commend me on my honest journalism, I really don’t mind. We will revisit this situation after the launch of the Xbox and GameCube. Stay tuned...

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