Opinion: PS3, Blu-Ray, & Sony As 'Global Infant'

In a fiery opinion piece, game designer/author Ian Bogost examines NPD chart trends to suggest that Sony's lack of unified message on PS3, Blu-ray and the 'average consumer' is rendering ineffective its pitch to users.
[In a fiery opinion piece, game designer/author Ian Bogost examines NPD chart trends to suggest that Sony's lack of unified message on PS3, Blu-ray and the 'average consumer' is rendering ineffective its pitch to users.] Sony is a global conglomerate which is significantly different from its hardware competitors in the video game industry. It makes consumer electronics ranging from telephones to computers to GPS units. It publishes video games, movies, and music. It also maintains an army of support businesses, including banks, insurance providers, facility management companies, staffing services, and packaging providers. The business strategy makes sense: control as much of the market for both electronics and the media we use them for. That’s why Sony purchased CBS Records and Columbia Pictures in the late 1980s; they wanted to own part of the content people played on their Walkmans and VCRs. The problem is, Sony’s corporate subsidiaries don’t work well together, on a scale far worse than other multinational conglomerates. The company is more feudal state than networked global multinational. Sony, Divisions, & Co-Ordination I’ll give you just one example from a previous life consulting for Sony Pictures Entertainment. The first installment of Spider-Man was about to come out, and Columbia Tri-Star was really banking on it; unlike many other studios, Sony didn’t own a film franchise. ImageWorks, the studio’s visual effects arm, was doing all of the CG for the film. Their offices sit across the sidewalk from what was then called Sony Pictures Interactive Network (SPiN), which developed interactive properties for the Sony Pictures Entertainment companies. But when SPiN wanted to use poly-trimmed Spider-Man 3D assets to create games and other interactive applications, personal politics made things impossible. This wasn’t just Sony, but also Hollywood, where everyone jockeys for the next job up the rung all the time. When you think about it, it makes sense from ImageWorks’ perspective; who wants their highly crafted, high-poly character models looking crappy online before the film’s release? The same thing happened when Columbia Tri-Star marketing wanted to get their early film exclusives on memory sticks that ship with Sony electronics. These are good ideas for the company in general, but troublesome ones for individual units whose executives and managers don’t want to rock their own boat to support someone else’s. There are many more stories like this; just ask your friends who used to work at a Sony division but left or were laid off after one of their many reorganizations. Sony's 'Mirror Stage' In Effect In one of his earliest innovations, French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan suggested the name "Mirror Stage" for the moment in a young child's development in which it recognizes its own image in a mirror. Before this time, the child has no sense of its own body as a whole, but only as a loose assembly of fragments: arm, hand, leg. So, while sometimes we might be tempted to say that Sony is one of the dumbest corporations on the planet, it would be more accurate to say that it's one of the most infantile. Sony is like a baby that doesn't know its own arms aren't alien beings smacking its unwitting face. The situation has improved somewhat over the years; early copies of the PSP shipped with a copy of Spider-Man on UMD, for example. But the company’s head still suffers at the bludgeoning of its limbs. For example, despite the relative popularity of film licenses, very few films from the huge Columbia Tri-Star and MGM back catalog have been adapted for videogame. Blu-ray's Mirror-ing Issues But now Sony’s videogame fiefdom has found an unexpected servant in the Blu-ray format, which, ironically, may end up saving them in the long-term. Back in October 2007, market research firm NPD Group reported PlayStation 3 sales that trailed behind every other console, including the PS2. Nintendo sold over four times as many Wiis that month in North America, and Microsoft over three times the number of Xbox 360s. But according to the latest NPD report, 269,000 PS3s left store shelves and entered American dens in January 2008, only 5,000 sales fewer than Wii and 39,000 more than Xbox 360. From bottom of the barrel to leading contender in a fiscal quarter isn’t bad - even if some other hardware firms are claiming shortages. A major factor in the turn of the tides is the Blu-ray optical disc format. Before and just after the PS3 was released, Sony defended the machine's high price by citing the built-in Blu-ray movie player as a consumer motivator. Yes, the system is more expensive than its competitors, they admitted, but it can also play high-definition movies. Despite these claims, Sony never really marketed the PS3 as a home theater system, and the company itself probably had very little to do with the PS3’s recent success. In early January Warner Bros. endorsed Blu-ray exclusively. Blockbuster Video, Netflix and Wal-Mart recently announced that they’d carry the format exclusively, effectively dooming HD-DVD. Anyone who had been on the fence about high-definition home theater now has all the reason they need to climb over to the Blu-ray side. After all, a cut-rate Sony Blu-ray player costs $400-500 list — the same price as a PS3. By all accounts, the PS3 is a great deal, almost a two-for-one videogame/high-def movie system. Where's The Blu-Ray/PS3 Marketing Crossover? So why hasn't Sony followed through and marketed the machine more directly as a Blu-ray player? For one, they don’t have much content worth tempting mom and dad, grandma and grandpa. After all, there are plenty of Blu-ray movies, and they run across the whole spectrum of film genre: everything from Ratatouille to 300, from Planet Earth to Casino Royale. For someone who might not otherwise buy a PS3 but enjoys HD movies, maybe they would also enjoy Madden or The Simpsons Game. But Sony hasn't exactly made it easy to know that would be the case. And there are essentially no PS3 titles for, let's say, more sensitive souls. FlOw might be the closest thing, and there's no way you'd know it even existed unless you read the game trades. And even then, it's too abstract for my mom, and it can only be purchased from the arguably less-than-usable PlayStation Network Store. Despite market research reports that suggest the broad expansion of game playership, the incremental advantage of a videogame machine would be lost on a whole segment of buyers. Those other folks are buying Wiis instead. PS3's Casual Need? Here's a speculation: the PS3’s future success is tied partly, and perhaps strongly, to the availability of games for the less experienced, more casual player, who is part of a household in which high-end home theater is valued. Yet, as far as videogames are concerned, Sony has ignored both casual gamers and home theater buffs. The situation for casual games is quite simple: what few casual PS3 games exist are hidden intractably in the PSN Store. Things are more complex when it comes to home theater fanatics. Think again about Sony Pictures huge back-catalog. Everyone who bought a DVD since the late 1990s now has to consider buying it again on Blu-ray. Take 1982’s Annie, for example, a Columbia Pictures release that is also Amazon’s top-selling DVD musical. Wouldn’t a new bonus feature like a PS3 game offer an incentive, not to mention an interesting format and constraint for film-to-game adaptation? Don’t hold your breath: home video falls under the auspices of yet another division, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. Conclusion: Sony As Colossus One of Sony Computer Entertainment’s best titles for PS2 was Shadow of the Colossus, a game in which the player battles huge mythical creatures to resurrect a young girl. In a press release about the January sales figures, Sony Computer Entertainment America CEO Jack Tretton praises his division’s accidental success: “The PS3,” says Tretto, “demonstrated continued momentum.” But even this tepid word is too strong. Unlike the awesome colossi, with their formidable and deliberate brawn, Sony lumbers through inertia, not momentum.

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