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Maybe Sony does get digital: the case for the defence

By on March 24, 2011

Last week, I wrote a post on why recent pronouncements from Nintendo and Sony show they don’t even understand the threat they face.

Having read The Black Swan, I am a great believer in searching for disconfirmation. Once you have identified your thesis, stop trying to prove it; start trying to disprove it. It is so easy to keep seeing evidence that supports your beliefs; anyone who wants to think critically should adopt the opposing position as a way of challenging their biases and preconceptions.

In that spirit, I present the case for the defence: why Sony does get digital

1. PlayStation Home

PlayStation Home logo

Sony offers a free virtual world to all PlayStation 3 users, and has done since the early days of the platform. Originally conceived as a place where brands can showcase their products, it has evolved into a platform in their own right. Companies such as nDreams (Disclosure: I own equity in and sit on the board of nDreams) and Outso have launched virtual spaces and games such as Aurora and Sodium with high production values and huge appeal to their committed fans.

Aurora screenshot

Now Sony is investing further into the platform. They have 17 million users (perhaps more accurately, 17 million PS3 users have visited the platform). They are investing in making PlayStation Home more indie-friendly and I’ve been told to expect more announcements in 2011.

PlayStation Home is a free-to-play virtual world in which users can chat to their friends and which has an in-built microtransaction business model. While I don’t believe it can ever be a 3D rival to Facebook (the barriers to entry that come from being required to own a PS3 are too high), it is an exciting and potentially highly lucrative platform.

2. Free-to-play MMO on PS3

freerealmsscreen

On March 29th, Sony is launching Free Realms as a PSN download. This is a huge step for Sony, bringing a free-to-play game, funded by microtransactions, to a platform that has been dominated by games where you have to pay upfront to play the titles.

Of course, Free Realms comes from SCE sister company Sony Online Entertainment. It is highly polished 3D world with at least 10 million registered users. It is a proven piece of high-quality entertainment from within the Sony stable. This is miles away from Facebook’s strategy of throwing the doors wide open to all and sundry.

But it’s a great step in the right direction, and a sign of experimentation.

3. PSN, the Pub Fund and PSP Minis

Sony has been very vocal about championing independent developers. It has supported them on the PSN (unlike Microsoft, who insists that you need to have a retail distribution strategy for some of the games in your portfolio before you can publish a game on XBLA), it has created the PubFund to help finance independent development and it offers PSP Minis. (A bit of a damp squib, I think, but it shows that they care).

I think that Sony still thinks much more about curation than about filtering, which is a challenge in the world of unlimited shelf space that the Internet has created. It still thinks that the “stamp of quality” is a better approach than “allow lots of content to flourish, and help users to filter out the content that is not for them.”

On the other hand, they have been very helpful to indies who are the creative lifeblood of the games industry.

4. PlayStation Suite

Sony knows and acknowledges that smartphones pose a threat to its handheld business (unlike Nintendo). Its response? The PlayStation Suite, “delivering the PlayStation experience to Android based portable devices.”

The initial launch brings a range of PS1 games to Android devices, and Sony believes that it will be great for partners, helping them stand out from the morass of poor quality content available on smartphones.

I think that the first pass of Suite will be pretty disappointing. Users who are used to getting long-term experiences for free, with a few users paying a lot of money, are likely to be underwhelmed by PS1 titles for which they have to pay a premium before they’ve really experienced the game.

On the other hand, this is a bold step outside Sony’s traditional comfort zone. It is as clear an experiment in whether consumers prefer curation over filtering as I can conceive.

I’m glad to see Sony taking the initiative.

Conclusion

When I started writing this piece, I was looking for evidence that Sony really did get the threats that they face from the changing market. From virtual worlds to mobile phones, the company is clearly experimenting with different technologies, different business models and different consumer offerings.

It’s become clear to me that Sony has a different world view to the one that I hold:

  • They believe that curation is better than filtering
  • They believe that consumers want to find high quality content, and that they will pay for it
  • They are unclear about the value of free: sometimes equating it with poor quality, sometimes assuming that the only way to make it work is via advertising, sometimes believing in it (as in PlayStation Home)
  • They are experimenting, but they aren’t opening up their platforms (PlayStation Home still has only day a week a when it releases content, for example, anathema to a world where web businesses update their offerings multiple times a day.)

In short, I think Sony is more aware of the threat that it faces than Nintendo is. It is trying a number of experiments.

In my mind, the jury is still out on whether these steps are enough, but I hope they keep experimenting.

That will be good for us all.

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: thecurveonline.com
  • http://profiles.google.com/lucas.hardi Lucas Hardi

    Sony does have some interesting experiments out there, nice summary. The partnerships with Google on Android and GoogleTV could lead to even greater partnerships in the future. The marriage of Sony’s hardware platform expertise and Google’s software platform expertise could bear wonderful fruit, even if it hasn’t yet.

    Yet, most of these experiments appear to be sneaking out of some side door in the Sony behemoth, they are not part of a central shift in strategy.

    I see their biggest challenge being that Sony software UX is always inferior (see: PSN, eReader, they are non-existent on PC/Web unlike their competitors). This has two major negative impacts. First, UX is a massive component of success in the new age. In the same way that Myspace was instantly behind Facebook in UX, Sony is behind Microsoft, Apple and arguably Google. No matter how you try and categorize Sony’s market, they are inferior in UX to at least one competitor and show no signs of being able to catch up. Sexy hardware just isn’t much of a competitive advantage anymore, and I don’t think they realize the importance of having good services. These strategic experiments need good platform execution.

    Second, if any of these experiments fail due to UX it may falsely attributed to the market not being there, pushing Sony further into the belief system you outline (curation, only premium content at a premium price). For example, if Free Realms doesn’t succeed because the controls aren’t console friendly, or because their virtual currency system on the console turns players off, Sony might incorrectly say “Well, free-to-play on PS3 was a bad idea to begin with, forget that.”

    On the other hand, any major shift like this is bound to be full of fits and starts, especially for a massive beast like Sony.

  • http://twitter.com/UnSubject UnknownSubject

    One big concern I’ve got around Free Realms launching on the PS3 is that I’m completely unaware if they’ve done public beta testing on that platform, or will before launch.

    SOE may be doing so, but their DCUO PS3 beta was rife with issues (and post-launch the limited public testing it did receive left a number of bugs that helped keep players from subscribing).

  • http://www.gamesbrief.com Nicholas Lovell

    I think we’re moving into the era where “beta tests” means “launch”. Online games will be permanently in beta, because new updates can introduce new bugs.

  • http://www.gamesbrief.com Nicholas Lovell

    I agree both that UX is much more important than Sony gives it credit for, and that the danger of misunderstanding what doesn’t work is very high. Good points.

  • http://profiles.google.com/waltzit Matty Moop

    Also, the PSPGo. An experiment from Sony to find out what does, and doesn’t work when it comes to purely digital-based console. It wasnt a commercial success, but the fact Sony was willing to try it is proof that Sony is also willing to learn.