Ten battles the PS3 must fight to win the next-gen console war
It's the games, stupid
So, it's Friday and eager gamers are already out and about trying to pick up a PlayStation 3 - particularly after last night's one-shop only midnight launch.
Here in Europe, at least, Friday is the proper starting gun for the next-generation console war, since PS3, Wii and Xbox 360 will all be available to buy. Can Sony hang onto its top-dog status, given the many criticisms of PS3 so far? Here are the ten key factors that will determine whether Sony's console can win.
Not as simple an issue as whether £425 is too much for a games console, although the fact that you can buy an Xbox 360 and a Wii for less than a PS3 is sure to be raised often in the coming months. Some reports claim Sony will cut the PS3's price in order to boost sales before the end of its next financial year in March 2008, while even Sony boss Sir Howard Stringer has admitted PS3's luxury status could cause it to flop.
But forget that for a minute: even with a price cut, Sony's task is to persuade gamers that PS3 is worth paying more for. In other words, it's a communication problem as much as a numbers game. Compared to standalone Blu-ray disc players, for example, PS3 looks a bargain. The question is, how many gamers would have rather had a cheaper console minus the Blu-ray drive.
Meanwhile, game pricing will also be a factor. Sony started well, announcing that in the UK PS 3 games would go for £40 before discounts.
2. It's the games, stupid
The PS3 will stand or fall on the quality of its games. It's an obvious point, and one that's true of all the next-gen consoles - for example, Nintendo recently faced the first rumblings of criticism for the Wii's games roadmap. For PS3 to succeed, it needs great games, and it needs some exclusive games.
To some extent, you have to look beyond the launch line-up, although MotorStorm and Resistance: Fall of Man are a strong way to come out fighting, and Metal Gear Solid 4 is coming later in the year.
However, some games that were expected to be PS3 exclusives - the next Grand Theft Auto and Devil May Cry games, for example - are coming out on Xbox 360 too. This can be taken as a sign that canny publishers are trying to maximise their revenues to balance high development costs, or as a vote of no confidence in PS3, depending on your standpoint.
3. Blu-ray: bonus or blunder?
Is the inclusion of Blu-ray the PS3's secret weapon - or its Achilles heel? There's been much public debate over whether Blu-ray is beating rival format HD DVD in recent months, with the Blu-ray camp claiming discs are outselling HD DVD by two to one, spurring return claims that this is largely due to PS3 owners using their free Blu-ray vouchers, so doesn't represent real sales.
That line of argument should tell you that rather than 'Will Blu- ray save PS3?', it's as much about 'Will PS3 save Blu-ray?'. The success or failure of both is inextricably linked.
One thing is clear: if PS3 owners are to embrace the format, they'll want a steady flow of great new Blu-ray movies. And not just brainless action-flicks packed with explosions, either - that's what they get from their games. Still, the fact that Blu-ray isn't just a PS3 thing should ensure it doesn't encounter the same apathy as the PSP's UMD disc format.
4. Episodic games and downloadable content
Episodic gaming and downloadable content is The Future! At least, that's what various games industry bigwigs have been saying on conference platforms for, ooh, several years now. And while downloading new levels, characters and items for games is cool in theory, in practice it's yet to really prove its value.
Yet the success of these kinds of content downloads will be crucial to the PS3's future, not least because it's another way for developers to offset the costs of making PS3 games. Sony will need to be careful though: Xbox 360 offers a bunch of this kind of content, and Microsoft is already facing criticism from gamers feeling sore at having to pay for features they feel should've been in the original game.
5. It's NOT about the games, stupid
As I'm sure you'll tire of hearing in the next couple of days, the PS3 is more than a games console. You can rip music to it, watch Blu-ray movies, surf the internet, and in theory download films, TV shows and music from the PlayStation Store. It's a multimedia convergence zeitgeist-riding magic box! Or something.
Both Sony and Microsoft see this broadening out of features as crucial to the future of their respective consoles. A demo at Sony's PS3 bloggers event last year focused much more on the non-gaming features of the console than the actual games - admittedly because the games need less explanation.
Will these features mean millions more people buy a PS3 or a 360? Will people really rip their music collection - often already stored on their computer - to a console? And perhaps most importantly, when will Sony introduce music and TV/film downloads to its online PlayStation Store? The Xbox Marketplace already offers TV downloads, so Sony has some catching up to do.
6. Innovative Games
When thinking about the next-gen console war, it's easy to get carried away with rhapsodising over Nintendo's Wii Remote controller, and how it's a revolution in gaming which makes rival consoles look old hat. It's partly true - the Wiimote is marvellous - but the argument skips over some of the great work Sony did giving the PS2 new control mechanisms and gameplay.
Think EyeToy, SingStar and Buzz, for starters. All three used different controllers - or in EyeToy's case, control mechanisms - and all appealed far beyond the traditional stereotype of young, male, hardcore gamers. If only there were figures showing how many PS2s had been sold in the last year or two based entirely on these three game franchises alone.
Sony has proved it can come up with these kinds of innovative gameplay, which bodes well for the PS3's future - and not just because all three franchises will undoubtedly transfer to the new platform. So competing with Nintendo on innovation grounds is less about how the PS3's Sixaxis compares with the Wiimote, and more about what new ideas Sony can come up with to make use of its new console.
7. The community
Xbox Live is marvellous. It really has changed people's minds on what online gaming is all about - and, crucially, that it's as much about community features as it is head-to-head multiplayer gaming.
Although that's still important. Edge magazine recently published a really good article about how Xbox Live's Achievements had changed the way developers design games, as well as the way gamers play them.
How the PS3's Network functionality competes with what Microsoft has done will be another huge factor in PS3's appeal for hardcore gamers, while it'll also be important in drawing more casual PS3 owners into the gaming world. Will the PS3's games community be a me-too attempt to copy Live Arcade, or will it build on that success and do something new?
8. Backwards compatibility
OK, so not being able to play a five-year-old PS2 game on your PS3 won't condemn Sony's new console to the dumper, but it's a more important factor than you'd think in many people's decisions about whether to upgrade.
The confusion over how many PS2 titles will work on PS3 hasn't helped, spurred by Sony's decision to remove the PS3's Emotion Engine chip for its European launch. For the record, around 73 per cent of PS2 games are expected to play on the PS3.
The argument that people should play spiffing new PS3 games rather than old PS2 ones, though understandable, will take some selling to annoyed PS2 owners.
9. How Web 2.0-friendly is it?
The latest generation of consoles are powerful connected devices, as stressed above. And nowadays, when you talk about connectivity, you're talking about social networking, user-generated content, virtual worlds and all manner of communication activity.
So how Web 2.0-friendly will the PS3 be? How good is it for accessing MySpace, YouTube, Flickr, etc? Will Sony choose to launch its own versions of these sites for PS3 owners, or make it easy for them to interact with them? And how will communication work - will you be able to chat with friends on MSN or Skype, for example?
Sony has already made one intriguing announcement: its Home virtual world, which takes on Second Life at its own (non) game. But how it tackles the other areas could have a strong impact on whether the PS3 really is seen as a converged device, rather than a pure games console.
No, not the music game this time. You could say that whoever's going to win the next-generation console war will be partly defined by who everyone thinks is going to win the next-generation console war.
Right now, Nintendo's Wii has the buzz factor, both from the media and analysts, who have predicted that it'll outsell both the PS3 and Xbox 360 this year. And it's fair to say that PS3 has copped more than its fair share of the wrong kind of buzz in recent months, covering many of the areas above.
Reclaiming that buzz, which'll be a case of performing well in all the above areas and then communicating this successfully, will be the key test in PS3's battle in the years to come.