What Are They Playing At?

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Yesterday saw Sony reveal long-rumoured hardware updates to its ridiculously successful PlayStation 4 console at their #PlayStationMeeting event in New York, after a solid year of conjecture.

To say it’s been roundly negatively received is an understatement, as hardcore gamers object even more strenuously than usual to being taken for eejits.

$300 gets you a slimmed-down version of the current hardware, while $400 gets you a slightly shinier box with (partial) 4K compatibility among other perks.

PS4 hovers just outside the top 10 best-selling videogame consoles of all time, approaching the lofty heights of Nintendo’s records for the NES and Wii machines, and even its own industry-defining efforts with their first two boxes.

All this in three or so years, completely wiping the floor with Microsoft’s tempestuously-launched XBox One and Nintendo’s unfairly-ignored Wii U in the home-console marketplace.

Sony’s move here leaves us with a small few questions, like what they’ll do with the preponderance of “old” PS4 stock to be had (any surplus units can of course be sent to Karl’s den the Broadsheet office to be given a good home)?

Why should anyone subsequently pay up for the newly-repackaged PS4 Slim when it just does what the “old” box did without a price cut, and why does this PS4 Pro, a machine aimed at adopters of Ultra HD/4K tellies, not support 4K Blu-ray movies?

But these are small fry compared to the overall question: what, precisely, are Sony and Microsoft (whose XBox One is also getting a steroid injection next year) playing at?

This whole situation, console companies on the pig’s back and blind to their own failings, should be familiar news to any gamer or tech hack of the last three decades, because right up until this generation, the following story has been wheeled out any time a games journo has needed a lazy cautionary tale…

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In the nineties, it’s safe to say that Japanese/American outfit Sega were the men who would be kings of the vidya roost.

Having placed Master Systems in every Toymaster and Quinnsworth in the land in the late eighties, their massively-successful Megadrive console (above) was the must-have item of an entire generation, recovering from a slow 1989 launch to claim a place under tellies worldwide off the back of Sonic the Hedgehog.

So, when talk of the next generation of consoles began, the pressure was on Sega to succeed, and their Japanese division began developing hardware that would lead the company into the new millennium, Sega Saturn, now a cult classic.

The American division was not so thrilled about the rapidity of expansion, however, as after a hard sell, the Megadrive finally had a massive user base on which to capitalise.

But with Sony’s upcoming PlayStation seemingly arriving from the future in glorious 3D and upsetting the natural order of the games market, the decision was taken in Sega of America to bump up the Megadrive’s specs and satisfy existing console owners at the same time, while Sega of Japan worked on the real successor…

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…the result was the 32X (above), a supremely ill-advised expansion that clipped into the cartridge port of the Megadrive, and ran games designed exclusively for itself, rather than beefing up older games.

The privilege would set gamers back another $200, on top of the cost of their existing machine, and in a few truly unfortunate cases, would also need the similarly-greedy (and near-defunct) Mega CD drive, another $200.

All of which, when stacked atop each other, needed separate plugs in the wall for each component. Separate versions of certain games were released, and there were one or two rather underwhelming exclusives, but as talk of the next games generation proper became announcements, deals and reveals, the expansion quickly disappeared into the ether, along with new titles, lining bargain buckets within months.

Early adopters were furious, casual consumers and parents were confused as to whether the Saturn or 32X was the next big thing, and the whole kerfuffle cost Sega untold amounts of momentum right at the worst possible time.

Later that year at E3, Sega, looking to bounce back from all this stupidity, made the surprise announcement that their next-gen Saturn would be on sale immediately for $399.

It was rushed out overnight as market exclusives to big chains, much to the fury of other stockists, who then refused to pick up the machine and its paltry line-up of available games.

The same evening, Sony delivered the blow that would ultimately finish Sega’s console racket off, cutting the announced price of their new PlayStation by a hundred dollars to $299 in a succinct keynote speech.

The Saturn was a great console with a solid library of games that remains a favourite of core gamers to this day.

But it had its head cut off early by the aforementioned boardroom fumbling, exacerbated by both the disappearance of a Sonic the Hedgehog sequel intended to bring in casual gamers and kids, and the rush announcement two years later of its similarly-doomed successor, the Dreamcast,.

The Dreamcast would eat it by 2000, and Sega ceased home hardware development the following year, while Sony’s PlayStation 2 became the biggest-selling games console in history.

The fall of Sega to this day is a lesson to hardware manufacturers across all sectors, mostly in the virtues of temperance and patience at the top.

A successful company gets a bit big for its britches and expects the audience to stump up again for a half-concocted expansion/repackage, midway through the current hardware cycle, off of brand recognition and awkward lurches into new technology the hardware can barely manage.

Sounds familiar, alright.

29 thoughts on “What Are They Playing At?

          1. Bruce Wee

            The issue for the Wii was the simple fact that “Gamers” grew very tired, very quickly at the graphics and the game play for the majority of their game. The novelty wore off so the Wii U was doomed given it took so long to get to market. It’s a carbon copy of what Sega did with the Mega drive as you pointed out in the piece….will it work for Sony…who know….there will always be people who will buy it for the 4k HDR aspect but as you said, it could be a slap in the face for current holders of the console (myself included)

          2. MoyestWithExcitement

            Didn’t Nintendo market the Wii as a family entertainment machine as opposed to a gaming console? Like wasn’t it aimed at a completely different market?

          3. ivan

            They did, Moyest, but the problem was, far as i can tell, that ‘family console’ people aren’t going to jump on the upgrade merrygoround like ‘gamers’ will…so the family console people were happy out with the first iteration of the gadget and didn’t really feel a need to upgrade. The WiiU was, in a way, a solution to a problem that nobody cared about solving…

          4. pedeyw

            It’s not really a carbon copy of what sega did. You had to already own a megadrive to utilise a 32x or a mega cd, so if you were late to the game you were essentially putting down twice the price for the base console. Add to that the promises from sega that MD, 32x and mega CD games would be playable on the saturn (which tuned out to be untrue), and also the saturns weird architecture which made it difficult for 3rd party devs and the fact that they dropped it 3 years after release. I love my Saturn and my Megadrive and I’m a bit of a sega fanboy but None of the current Gen hardware manufacturers are in anywhere near as dire straits as Sega were circa 2001.

  1. rotide

    Consoles by their nature are doomed by AAA games (that term makes my skin crawl) to never be ultimately satisfying.

    #pcgamingmasterrace

    1. pedeyw

      Up untill the ps3/360 the joy of owning a console was that the game worked as soon as you inserted the disc or cart. Now PC’s are getting easier and consoles are getting harder. Though you’d get a fairly poor PC for €399.

  2. jeremy kyle

    Modern consoles are becoming a mess, but if the people are gonna pay £599 for an iPhone 7 then I can easily see people paying £349 for a PS4 Pro. I agree the lack of a 4k blu ray drive is really weird.

    Anyway, I’m still playing Castlevania on the GBA…

  3. Clampers Outside!

    What’s the catch… PS4 slim is only €299 (on its own, no games)…. has it a tiny hard-drive or wha?

    My current PS3 was a replacement (for the first gen PS3 which died within 13 months, due to a bug) but the replacement had only a 30GB hard drive.
    So, just wondering… does the PS4 slim have a reduced spec hard drive compared to the standard?

    Anyone else enjoyed this wee teaser……. :) ….it’s like Giger meets Tool

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MvBo_rKleNw

    1. ivan

      good question. I think I got one of the last of the 60Gb PS3s in late 2007 and it packed in two years later, and similarly i’ve got a 40Gb one that can handle around 4 to 5 games installed on it at a time….

      however, slim ps4 shoudl be grand from a HDD side…memory (of that sort) is cheap as, hur hur, chips*.

      (*yes, I know, this would work so much better if we were talking about RAM and not a HDD)

    2. pedeyw

      The catch is there is a more powerful ps4 for €399. They will probably phase out the original ps4 games in a couple of years. You can replace the HDD in the ps3, can you in the ps4?

    1. Anomanomanom

      Is it sad I still regularly play my Nes Snes which are near mint condition. While the ps4 so underwhelmed me im waiting years for the ps5.

  4. rory

    I have some questions (which I suspect will sound embarrassingly naive) for the games people, if any of them would be willing to give their 2 cents.

    I’m thinking of trying gaming out. I havn’t actually owned a console since the 90’s. I don’t have any console or PC game related stuff. If I was to branch out into gaming, which console should I go for? Or is it PC gaming I should go for?*

    *(If yes, my current PC is old, I’m talking ‘still running on windows Xp’ old. So I’m guessing I’d have to get some kind of souped up PC for that kind of gaming stuff. Any recommendations?)

    I’m guessing I’d be into all manner of indie type games (Inside, Stanley Parable, Undertale, Papers Please look interesting at a glance, though I’ve never played.) I’d probably give more conventional games a go (Bioshock Infinte looks interesting, again at a glance. Mario kart 8 looks great.) I’d give first person shooters a go as well.

    Or would you recommend I stay away?
    https://youtu.be/Knab9oQIMOQ

  5. Ivor

    Decent article but while add ons have generally not worked well on previous consoles, Microsoft and Sony may feel forced into this upgrade by the mobile/tablet market. As you get to the end of a generation cycle, mobiles and tablets begin to catch up to consoles.

    Rolling upgrades work for Galaxies and iPhones so I can see why they might try out this model now.

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