Isn’t This Thing Supposed to Play Games First?
In order for Sony’s Trojan Horse strategy with Blu-Ray to work, the Playstation 3 has to succeed as a gaming console. As a game console, the Playstation 3 has to deliver on several fronts. In pure horsepower and graphical ability, there’s little doubt that the console will impress. There are serious reservations as to Sony’s online strategy (compared to Xbox Live) and we’ll cover that in a bit. However, one aspect of gaming that is often ignored, but can become a major issue is load times. Ask any Sony PSP owner what annoys them most about the portable console and you are sure to hear about it’s dreadful load times. Gamers are an impatient breed and if Sony frustrates hardcore gamers – and developers, for that matter – it could greatly damage it’s reputation with the group that will comprise PS3 early adopters.
Until now, it’s been widely assumed that the Blu-ray drive that will make it’s way into the PS3 will be single-speed. If true, this choice could be disasterous. Blu-ray single speed transfers data at a constant rate of 36Mbps (Megabits per second) or 4.5 MBps (Megabytes per second). Sound impressive? Think again. DVD single speed is rated at a little over 1.32MBps max. A 12X DVD, such as the one in the Xbox 360, transfers data at rates between 8.2 and 16.5 MBps for an average of around 13MBps. This article from Gamespot provides all the details on transfer speeds, but simple math should show that there are some serious concerns looming with a single speed Blu-Ray drive. So, all things being equal, a 20 second load-time on the Xbox 360 would equate to just under 60 seconds on the PS3!
In order for Sony to bring load times into the same range as the Xbox 360, it would have to use at least a 2X drive (which would transfer a little faster than a 12X DVD’s minimum speed) or a 3X drive (which would closely resemble a 12X DVD’s average transfer rate). Since Blu-ray is a new technology, it’s a certainty that the faster speeds will increase the base cost of the PS3, which leads into the next point.
Money Doesn’t Grow on Trees
The Playstation 3 will lose money for at least a few years. How much and for how long is key, and recent projections from Merrill Lynch Japan suggest that the PS3 could lose a tremendous amount of money for Sony in the first few years. Merrill Lynch is projecting losses of 1.18 billion in year 1, 730 million in year 2 and 457 million in year 3. By comparison, Sony’s profits in the past three years has been about 1.86 billion. If the PS3 doesn’t start turning a serious profit in year 4, Sony’s bank accounts could start drying up. There’s no indication if these losses also anticipate the costs involved with setting up the massive infrastructure for an Xbox Live competitor, which most people think Sony will provide. If not, Sony’s losses could skyrocket even more as it looks to create a brand-new online presense.
Sony could try to offset these losses by launching the PS3 with a higher price point, but anything above $500 is considered too high for wide adoption. Will consumers agree with Ken Kutaragi’s assessment that you will want to work an extra job to have one? Kutaragi has even lamented that “…the PS3 can’t be offered at a price that’s targeted towards households.”
Additionally, Sony is stil having to compete with HD-DVD, which is getting significant backing from Microsoft (and their 37 billion in cash). Whereas Microsoft has little to lose if HD-DVD fails, Sony has everything to lose. Additionally, recent announcements at CES in January indicate that the least expensive Blu-Ray drives will start at $1000 while HD-DVD is hitting the market with players starting at $500. Many analysts saw these changes as giving HD-DVD a second-wind that could ultimately hurt Sony more than it helps HD-DVD, which leads to another point.
Tell Me Why I Need Blu-Ray More Than DVD?
Unless you have an HDTV set, you’ll never see the difference between Blu-Ray and DVD. And considering that Hi-Def adoption is currently at 24% and more than half of consumers are waiting for price drops, the target market for Blu-Ray is not as lucrative as one might believe. When DVDs hit the market, there were several reasons to purchase them. For one, the quality far surpassed VHS. Additionally, menus and extra features made DVD content easier to access and gave it more value. Also, DVDs don’t degrade in quality over time, making them a better long-term investment. The jump from DVD to Blu-Ray (or HD-DVD) is not as significant, unless you’re an HDTV owner. Even then, the question remains: Is Blu-Ray content going to be compelling enough to make me say “I have to have it?”
Recent announcements also suggest that Blu-Ray disc prices will come at a significant premium over existing DVD prices. With broadband adoption growing rapidly, one also has to ask if a physical format has a long life ahead of it. Bill Gates has publicly stated that he thinks the format war is the last we’ll see, because hi-def content will be soon be delivered over the Internet instead. HD-DVD may not win the war, but it doesn’t mean that Blu-ray will.
Games, Games, Games
The Playstation 3 has wide support right now. However, rumblings have been surfacing that the PS3 is hard to develop for, due to the complexity of a brand new processor with multiple cores. Similar criticisms arose with the PS2, and while Sony was able to overcome the same hurdles then, there is one major difference now that may keep history from repeating itself: the Xbox 360.
Since the original Xbox came into the game a good bit later than the PS2, developers had to stick with Sony because it was the clear market leader. This afforded Sony liberties that it may not have had otherwise. Now, Microsoft has the head start. Additionally, the Microsoft unit has already been praised by the likes of John Carmack (creator of Doom, Quake, etc…) for it’s great development environment, while Hideo Kojima of Metal Gear Solid fame has expressed some concerns that development for the PS3 could be more difficult than for the Xbox 360. Sony must have strong 3rd party support so that licensing fees will help recoup the costs of putting the PS3 into the market. Just being Sony may not be enough anymore.
While I don’t think we’ll see Sony close it’s doors for good, I have some concerns about the affect the PS3 could have on Sony’s financials over the next few years and into the future. Microsoft has created an impressive console with the Xbox 360 and while Sony has a strong history in the Playstation line, there are key components for concern. Blu-Ray, an online service like Xbox Live and a hard development environment create additional areas for financial loss that may not be recouped. For the sake of competition and a strong market, let’s hope Sony can address these concerns adequately and while there is still time.
Filed in: Industry Buzz