Oh, Sony. Sony, Sony, Sony. What's happened to you, old friend? How have you fallen off the wagon so disastrously? In the past year, we've seen a company gripped in the ravages of hubris and incalculably poor judgement that has shuffled through an ineptly implemented launch bereft of popularly demanded games and wracked with bad publicity, egoistic executive snark, and poor timing. The handling of the pre-launch removal of Emotion Engine chips from European PS3s was a PR debacle; the system stumbled through various high profile third-party defections to the nirvana of multiplatformhood, not the least of which being Devil May Cry 4 and Virtua Fighter 5.
And the sales showed. Despite vaunted remarks of coming dominance before the next-gen party began (because, of course, the party could not begin until the star arrived), Sony had to suffer through being dramatically and consistently outsold by both of its competitors and hitting such ignominous milestones as selling under 90,000 a month in North America and under 10,000 a week in Japan (not to mention the humiliating factoid of tracking behind both the Saturn and the GameCube in Japan). If all that were not enough, fate conspired to add insult to injury -- Sony was something of a laughingstock after their mismanaged and nightmarish E3 2006. The internet (and even games themselves) were all abuzz with japes of "599!," "Ridge Racer," hitting weak points for massive damage, and irrationally exuberant Warhawk .gifs.
And so it was that the company embarked for E3 2007, severely damaged and straggling in last place. The company had quite a hurdle laid out for itself if it hoped to use the business summit as a platform for turning about its flagging fortunes. But, as I steadfastly believe, there was one thing in its favor: the company that's losing, and badly, is also the company with the least to lose and the least to proof. Because when you're on rock bottom, you can't really sink much further -- and it's also pretty good inspiration to give a marvelous show.
So that's precisely what Sony did. "Save the best for last," they say, and (Chewbacca cameos aside), Sony clearly took this maxim to heart. After the stale, unambitious lack of surprises offered by Microsoft and the agonizing boredom Nintendo had on tap, Sony hit it out of the park... er, apparently. I didn't get to see the press briefing myself, as I regrettably needed to be somewhere else to meet an appointment with a company representative. But I spoke a lot with our team members who did attend, and what they (and the press coverage) affirmed was that Sony's event was all about the games, the games, the games. Oh, sure, there was the pulling back of the curtain that had long concealed the most poorly-kept secret in gaming (the PSP hardware revision), but for the most part, it was a software driven event. Sony laid out a highly promising slate of games heading to consumers not just in 2007, but in the year ahead -- a message to consumers, "Hey, go ahead. Buy. We're not going anywhere; we'll keep giving you great games." They demonstrated a continued third party love-in. They revealed promising never-before-seen games. And though I didn't get to see their press briefing, I did get to go to Sony's behind-closed-doors private Gaming Arcade at the Le Merigot Hotel, and the selection of impressive titles on display really made an impression.
Of course, it didn't hurt that right before E3 began, Sony took a big step towards rectifying its biggest problem of all: the horrible horrible price which placed their machine well outside of mainstream affordability. The 100$ price cut was a godsend, just the sort of pick-me-up needed to get everyone back in a Happy Sony buzz before the show started. With all of this, it seemed clear that Sony would be the dashing victor of 2007's festivities.
But, er, this is the new Sony, and things just never can go that well. In a public spat that would probably make even 90's era Sega gasp in horror, Sony Europe, America, and Worldwide decided that E3 would be the perfect venue for a no-holds-barred smackdown. Commenting on the North American price cut, Europe let the cat out of the bag that it wasn't really a permanent price cut at all -- it was a stock liquidation on the 60gig units so that a new 600$ model could be introduced with 20 additional gigs, a pack-in game, and the removal of the Emotion Engine chip that fueled near-perfect backwards compatability. Whether the price was being cut on the 60gig unit or not, this was not a good move. 600$ had been a disaster for Sony, and anything that continued to keep the association in the public's mind between that number and their system was not good. Recognizing this, perhaps, Sony America quickly snapped back a denial. But just a day later, Kaz Hirai confirmed in an interview that the stock liquidation was the true story. Sony America, never one to take a hint, denied this as well... before finally conceding defeat and admitting the plan.
The whole thing was just downright embarrassing to watch unfolding in real time, a Who's On First skit that of course had much bigger implications for the hardware giant. And it's hard to deny that such ridiculousness didn't put a damper on some of the enthusiasm Sony had generated during its briefing and arcade showing. It's impossible not to wonder: does the company get it yet? Has enough of a mess been made, or shall the hole be dug just a bit deeper? If Sony expects to emerge truly victorious, not just from E3 but also from the entire console race this generation, they need to stop taking cues from the Sega of America vs. Sega of Japan playbook and get their house in order post haste.