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Anyone with a passing interest in quantum theory (no, seriously - bear with me) will probably be familiar with Schrodinger's Cat. For the uninitiated, the moggy in question is part of a famous thought experiment in which a cat is sealed into a box, and there's a random chance that it may be killed while in this box. However, according to Erwin Schrodinger, who thought up the experiment and presumably didn't like cats very much, in quantum mechanics, the cat is neither alive nor dead while it is in the box - instead, it exists in both states, and those states are only resolved when the box is opened and someone peers in.
All of which is, in a somewhat convoluted way, not dissimilar to what will happen this Saturday in Japan - when the PlayStation 3, after literally years spent in a half-conceived state of rumour, speculation, postulation, discussion and more often than not, criticism, will finally go on sale in Japan. By the time lunchtime rolls around in Tokyo on Saturday, 80,000 Japanese consumers will have opened the box, peered inside - and will be drawing conclusions on whether the kitten is alive or dead.
The launch of a console, especially one so hugely anticipated and so hugely important to the industry as the PlayStation 3, is a fascinating turning point. Prototype units of the PS3 have been floating around for some time now; journalists and developers have been playing PS3 games for weeks, and even some members of the public have had hands-on time with the console at various shows. However, the moment when people can walk in off the street (albeit via a massive queue, no doubt) and buy a console off a retail shelf is a crucial step. It is the point when fact finally takes over from speculation, and when the debate over the merits of a system moves to an entirely new stage.
Nobody could claim that Sony has had an easy ride in the past year, and even noting the astonishing vitriol directed at the PS3 from many quarters, nobody could claim that the company deserved an easy ride. The price point, the European delay, the small unit allocations, the pre-rendered footage, the occasionally astonishing statements from senior company executives - all of these things posed questions which demanded answers, and many of them contributed to dissatisfaction even among Sony's own customers, not to mention howling hatred among those who have chosen to act as flag-carriers for the firm's rivals.
None of that changes the fact that the company is, in sheer unit volume terms, the creator of the most successful games consoles in the world - and that it has proved in the course of two console generations that it alone had the muscle to provide a software line-up broad and deep enough to drive its platform, and the PlayStation brand, into the minds of the mass market. While it would be rash to disregard the level of discontent among hardcore consumers with some of Sony's decisions on the PS3, it's equally important to recognise that the specialist press and the tiny segment of the public who vocalise their opinions online don't tell the whole story. The tens of millions of consumers who have owned no console without the word "PlayStation" in its name in the past decade are largely unmoved by criticism of the PS3 - and while they may baulk at the price point, and may take a year or two to buy into the new system as a result, they're still waiting for a new PlayStation, not a new games console. The distinction is key, and it's the reason why this generation remains Sony's to lose, not Microsoft's - or even Nintendo's - to win.
Hardcore gamers, genuine fans of the medium, naturally look down on this mass market response to the PlayStation brand; these are not, after all, people who appreciate games as an artform, or who will ever buy into the cult masterpieces which take pride of place in the collections of reviewers and "true" gamers. It's a fair point, but one which holds little weight in a business sense. As a gamer, I may not think much of the taste or opinions of someone whose gaming habit extends only as far as buying the latest FIFA, GTA and Tekken titles for their PlayStation - but their utterly vital effect on the bottom line of the videogames industry is absolutely undeniable, and their taste for Sony's products is a bastion which Microsoft's fantastic marketing efforts have so far failed to penetrate.
As a result both of this factor, and of the simple fact that the PS3 itself has a strong if somewhat diminished fan following, 80,000 units will fly off the shelves in Japan, and 400,000 will disappear in a flash in North America six days later. The box will be open; the cat will spring out, and like most cats, will probably proceed to do something terribly unsavoury like licking its own rear end - a tortured extension of an already strained metaphor which refers to the inevitable build quality problems, network service teething issues and so on which PS3 will suffer in the initial weeks and months of its lifespan.
Regardless; this Saturday, the pre-launch phase is over. The hardware is out in the wild; the PS3 begins its life as a real, tangible product. Finally, the discussion can move from back and forth arguments over hardware specifications to the topic of real importance - software. Whether the PS3 has Blu-Ray or not; whether the Cell and the RSX can outperform the Xbox 360's formidable components or not; whether the hardware looks like it needs a drip tray and a multi-buy pack of bacon or not; all of these issues don't matter a damn in the long run. Software will sell hardware, as it has always done, and it's time to move the PS3 debate away from chips and diodes and on to software and services. It's time to stop wondering if the cat will still be alive when we open the box, and start discussing whether it knows any good tricks.
It's been a long, tortuous road - but even the console's most ardent critics should find it in themselves to raise a glass to Sony and the PS3 this Saturday. Competition will benefit everyone, after all - and regardless of your views on the different platforms, there's no question that the next five years will be one of the most competitive, and hence the most creative, in the history of the interactive medium.
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