GamesIndustry.biz: You Are The Colony

Has Sony finally found a third way for online services?

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Following Phil Harrison as he delivered his keynote in San Francisco yesterday brought back an almost forgotten but eerily similar memory of console launches past - another shaven-headed, confident console executive, grinning to the camera and announcing, "You Are The Colony".

J Allard doesn't stick his nose into Microsoft's games business much any more - he's got his hands full these days trying to convince people that there's a future to the firm's Zune music player - but his legacy lives on. Xbox Live hit six million users this week. There's your Colony, right there. It's a substantial advantage which Microsoft and its vocal supporters aren't shy about bludgeoning Sony over the head with.

Yesterday, though, Harrison finally outlined what Sony plans to do to wrest the online advantage from Microsoft - and crucially, it's a remarkably different vision to the one which Microsoft itself has been pursuing. Microsoft's key objectives with Xbox Live have been to deliver a smooth, reliable service for sending messages, playing games and buying stuff. Sony, in contrast, believes that what we want to do online has more to do with participating, contributing, creating and customising.

Turning Tide?

For Sony, it was a great keynote. It laid out a vision and a strategy which was expressed with demonstrations of real games and services, which is exactly what we've needed from Sony for two years. At last, the company stopped saying "we're going to do cool stuff online" and actually showed us that stuff in action, with a concrete timeline to release. After two years, they finally managed to provide some answers other than "pretty graphics and 7.1 sound" to the "What Is Next-Gen?" question.

Not all the answers, admittedly; PlayStation Home, Singstar and LittleBigPlanet are exciting, but they can only be a part of the equation which balances out to 599 Euro on the other side of the equals sign. But at last, we're seeing some of that expensive hardware being put to use - the hard drive, the network connection, some of the physics calculation power of the Cell SPUs - on providing experiences we couldn't have had on the PS2.

Finally, there's something other than MGS4 and FFXIII on the horizon to generate buzz and interest for the PS3. The questions won't go away, the price point remains unattractive, and Sony's public image still needs a hell of a facelift, but today the PlayStation 3's existence feels more justified than it did yesterday. Ask someone why they want one, and they have three platform-exclusive, uniquely progressive and surprisingly innovative reasons which they didn't have last week.

Of course, it's not enough - by the time E3 rolls around in early Summer, Sony needs to have a damn impressive line-up of software and some set-in-stone dates to share with the world if this momentum is to be continued. The fact that there is genuine momentum and a lot more positive feeling around the PS3 in the wake of GDC, however, is a vital piece of stage-setting for E3. It turns an event which could have been approached with widespread cynicism into a chance for Sony to make good. That's important.

Critical Mass

Something else is important, too - perhaps more important than any short- to medium-term perception problems suffered by Sony. For the wider industry and for the future of the videogaming medium, what's vital is that Sony's announcements provide a long-awaited third way for online gaming - an acknowledgement that there are other approaches aside from Microsoft's Xbox Live or Sony's own former laissez-faire attitude.

For all that Microsoft talked the talk about customisation and user participation when the Xbox 360 was rolling out, the company hasn't really walked the walk. Xbox Live is beyond a doubt the most robust, consistent, fully-featured, user-friendly and generally brilliant online service we've ever seen on a console (or indeed on any platform, PC included) - but Allard's proud boasts that the HD Era would be all about user customisation seem to have been reduced to snap-on covers for the console, downloadable skins for the interface and the ability to play your own music in games.

That's a perfectly legitimate approach; there are plenty of people who would argue vehemently that all that matters is the ability to find your friends online and play games with them with ease. That may well be so, but it would be foolish to think that the market is so homogenous that a one-size-fits-all approach will work - and it would be doing a great disservice to gamers everywhere if new and different approaches weren't tried.

As such, we should all welcome Sony's attempt at doing something of its own rather than simply playing catch-up with Microsoft's service. Do I, personally, want to deck out a virtual bedroom with statues of Solid Snake and pictures of my friends being drunk which I've taken with my camera phone? Do I want to share videos of myself slaughtering Frank Sinatra in Singstar, or create physics and logic puzzles to tax the wits of my friends in LittleBigPlanet? Honestly, I'm not sure - but then again, I never thought I wanted a Flickr, LiveJournal, MySpace or Second Life account. Not until such time as other people I know started getting involved, having fun and sometimes even creating genuinely interesting and fascinating things did I hop in.

It's the critical mass argument; a good enough socially-focused product, at a certain tipping point of user numbers, suddenly explodes in popularity. It may be that PlayStation Home and its ilk will never reach that level of quality or that critical mass, but even if these concepts are failures than we should praise Sony for having the guts to try.

The Third Way

Copying Microsoft would be easy - not simple, because what Microsoft has achieved is pretty substantial in itself - but easy, because Sony could lift concepts and functionality wholesale from Xbox Live and cobble together something which would work, even if it totally failed to give the PS3 any kind of unique selling point. Certainly, aspects of the firm's "Game 3.0" approach are lifted from elsewhere - Microsoft's XBox Live Achievements, Linden Labs' Second Life virtual environments - but taken as a whole, the approach is fresh and interesting. Even if it fails, it will have been worth trying.

What's more, it lifts some of Microsoft's most promising rhetoric and makes it into Sony's own. When Allard talked about customisation, his language was all about "tricked out" cars and skateboards covered in stickers and decals - and while the potential to make the games your own in some way was exciting, the vision of having to pay for every sticker and every piece of underlighting in an Xbox Live Marketplace micro-transaction was a lot less exciting than it could have been.

With Home, with LittleBigPlanet and with Singstar, Sony is taking things a step further. If we are the colony, these products promise us the chance to actually interact with the rest of the colony in a genuinely meaningful way. Rather than just changing our own environment, we are offered the opportunity to create and then to show off what we have created, and to see what others have created. It's exactly the concept which drives YouTube, Flickr, the blogosphere, DeviantArt and countless other sites. It's all about the Colony.

Of course, Harrison didn't say "You Are The Colony" with a grin at the end of his presentation, and it's just as well - Sony isn't out of the woods by any means, and it'll take more than a new online strategy to make people forget about the firm's much derided arrogance and smugness over the last 12 months. But even if he didn't say it, plenty of us thought it. A new front has opened up in the console war; it may be very late to the party, but Sony has finally got a conflicting vision of online services to offer the world.

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