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GamesIndustry.biz: Feeling Blue

Rob asks, could Blu-Ray sink the PS3?

The question of whether Sony could possibly hope to get the PlayStation 3 out in Europe on the originally planned November timescale is one which has been discussed at length in many game companies, and Eurogamer Network is no exception. Today's announcement that the console's launch has slipped to March 2007 puts an end to all of that speculation, and elicits equal measures of surprise (from the camp that believed Sony's promise) and smugness (from those who did not).

I confess to being in the surprised camp, for reasons I'll go into in a moment. In fact, I'm a princely ten pounds out of pocket over the whole affair, having shaken on a small wager with our business development manager Pat Garratt only a couple of weeks ago during the Leipzig Games Convention. Pat didn't believe that Sony had any hope of being ready for a November launch. He has now earned himself almost exactly 4.7 per cent of the expected retail price of a PS3 through this wager - and a similar wager on the same terms with Eurogamer TV editor Johnny Minkley,

At the time, Johnny and I disagreed with him - not, admittedly, out of any great measure of faith in Sony's organisation of its launch to date. We simply felt that for the giant corporation to slip the European launch - after standing on stage and telling the whole world that it was committed to November 17th - would be so embarrassing for the firm as to be inconceivable. The very fact that the firm's own track record contains a similar embarrassment in the form of the PSP launch - which eventually slipped a massive nine months in Europe - seemed to stand as a stark reminder that Sony had learned a hard lesson and would pull out all the stops to prevent a recurrence.

We were wrong, in the end, because no amount of stop-pulling could have rescued the PS3's European launch date. All the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put this disastrous mess of broken egg back together again - and while there are plenty of factors which have conspired to make the PS3 launch trickier than it needed to be (developers, for example, are still complaining of software libraries which, while generally acknowledged as being very good indeed, have not actually been locked down into a final, working form even at this late stage), the real villain of the piece, responsible for giving Humpty Dumpty the final vicious shove off his precarious perch, is Blu-Ray.

How many times has that sentiment been expressed with regard to PlayStation 3? Blu-Ray has felt like the millstone around Sony's neck for over a year now. This apparently innocuous technology - simply an optical disc, much like a CD or DVD, but holding vastly more data - has been accused of delaying the roll-out of PS3 over and over again; it has been fingered as a major culprit in the high price point of the console; it has even stood in the dock over Sony's ongoing PR difficulties, with the firm being lambasted over its apparent decision to foist an unloved next-gen movie format onto purchasers of its new console.

With this fresh delay, Blu-Ray stands in the spotlight even more clearly than ever before. Sony's own official statements on the delay pinpoint a lack of availability of blue laser diodes as the reason for its manufacturing difficulties. Blue laser diodes are a core component of Blu-Ray drives; a shortage of these diodes will impact not only the availability of PlayStation 3 (and reading between the lines of today's announcement, we're looking at restricted shipping volumes in 2006 in North America and Japan as well as no launch at all in Europe), but also of other Blu-Ray players. In fact, recent reports have suggested that Sony has diverted pretty much the entire output of suitable blue laser diodes to PlayStation 3 - if true, this means that standalone Blu-Ray players will be thin on the shelves this Christmas.

Faced with the prospect of a major delay to the Blu-Ray rollout schedule as a whole, a costly and damaging standards war with Toshiba's rival HD-DVD standard, not to mention general consumer apathy to the high-definition DVD standards, why is Sony clinging so stubbornly to Blu-Ray? What is it about this standard that makes the company - which for all its occasional arrogance or slow learning, is not noted for genuinely insane decision-making - willing to allow it to botch the launch of its most important hardware product in decades?

Singing the Blues

The roots of Sony's stubborn commitment to Blu-Ray are difficult to fathom, and while it's not terribly helpful, it's probably entirely reasonable to dismiss them as being a typical example of Japanese corporate stubborness. Sony has made a huge public show of its commitment to Blu-Ray, and indeed, there's no doubt that the technology is impressive. However, in the face of the massive delays, setbacks and manufacturing problems it faces with the standard, there have doubtless been moments when the firm wishes it hadn't so publicly nailed its colours to the mast over the next-gen DVD standard wars. HD-DVD hardware, by comparison, appears to have had a relatively smooth path through early manufacturing; sadly, it would have been an inconceivable loss of face for the Japanese corporation to turn around and opt for HD-DVD rather than Blu-Ray, even when it became apparent that Blu-Ray was going to cause some seriously thumping headaches for the PlayStation 3 and, indeed, for the company as a whole.

One question that's been asked frequently in the past year is why Sony needs a next-gen disc format for PlayStation 3 at all. This is a question Microsoft like to see asked, and indeed, the spectral hand of the Microsoft PR dreadnaught can be seen carefully guiding opinion towards that point of view on a regular basis. Xbox 360, after all, simply uses the same old DVD standard which was used by PS2 and Xbox - and while logically this should be seen as a failing of the Xbox 360, cleverly placed statements and comments from Microsoft have led to a common perception that the Blu-Ray drive in PS3 is for movies only, and that by releasing a movie-playing HD-DVD peripheral for the Xbox 360, Microsoft is offering consumers choice, while Sony is forcing them to buy a component they don't actually want or need.

This is a masterful piece of spin on Microsoft's part. Sony's response, quite reasonably, is to point out that PlayStation 3 games will actually take advantage of Blu-Ray, while Xbox 360 games will be restricted to DVD technology for the entire lifespan of the console, since the HD-DVD drive will be non-standard and will only play back movies. As a result, it's simply not true to suggest that the PS3 is forcing an unwanted component onto its purchasers - the Blu-Ray drive, both in terms of capacity and transfer rate, is a key part of the gaming offering of the PlayStation 3. It's commonplace to see this claim, in turn, being greeted with a derisory comment about high-definition cutscenes; this is exactly the same argument which was made when games moved from CDs to DVDs, with gamers moaning that the higher capacity would just be used for more pre-rendered scenes.

Secret Weapon

As it turned out, the move to DVD actually enabled one of the most important leaps forward in videogames technology of the past five years. DVDs had the capacity, and more importantly, the sustained transfer speed, which was required to allow the streaming of large environments as players moved through the game. The result? Grand Theft Auto 3, a game which would not have been possible on a CD based system - and one which didn't have a single second of pre-rendered cutscene in it. Equally, the strong sustained transfer rate and enormous data storage of the Blu-Ray system will probably enable new gameplay experiences and even more impressive feats of content streaming, which won't be possible on DVD-based systems.

In other words, Blu-Ray is actually quite a formidable weapon in Sony's arsenal; one which gives the PlayStation 3 a genuine edge over the Xbox 360 and could be used to provide PS3 with games that simply won't work on rival systems. That being said, what's the point in having an amazing weapon in the arsenal if your army can't get it out the door? The advantages of Blu-Ray shouldn't be underplayed, but the absolutely massive disadvantages of the system are showing themselves right now - and enabling unique, fantastic game experiences two or three years down the line won't matter a damn if Sony has allowed Blu-Ray to mess up its production volumes, launch windows and even price point to the extent where it gives Microsoft even more of a lead in the battle.

In fact, Sony now risks finding itself in exactly the same situation that Microsoft had in the last generation. Xbox was a more powerful system than PS2, but faced with a massive Sony head-start and a huge installed base of its rival, the system struggled to get developers and publishers to commit to fully optimising their titles for Xbox. The result? Xbox software shelves filled with ports of PlayStation 2 games, using levels, textures, models and other assets which looked little better than they did on the less powerful, but more popular, PS2. This time around, Sony will have the technological edge in many departments - but if Xbox 360 has the edge in terms of installed base, at least in the early years of the battle, then publishers will lead development on Xbox 360, and PS3's power and flexibility will be under-utilised. If that happens, Blu-Ray and other such features - like the motion-sensitive controller - might as well not exist; in a closed system like a games console, unless a developer actually uses a feature of the system, its existence is pointless from the users' perspective.

Then, of course, there's the question of Blu-Ray as a video player - a thorny issue which I've already discussed at some length on this site, and which we'll undoubtedly return to many times in the coming months. The long and the short of it is that right now, there is no evidence of a massive consumer desire to move past the DVD format. High definition has not been sold effectively to consumers, and upgrades to high definition television appear to simply be happening as consumers opt to replace their old TV sets, rather than in some headlong rush to join the HD Era. The World Cup, which Microsoft among others confidently predicted would drive widespread adoption of HD, has done no such thing - and the simple fact is that while HD looks quite nice, the effect is genuinely too subtle for many consumers to actually care about it. The predominant feeling is that consumers will shift over to HD when the gear drops in price and when they want an upgrade anyway - which isn't exactly the attitude that people selling HD movie discs will be wanting to hear, especially since they must be painfully aware that their window of opportunity is narrow to begin with. In a few years' time, we'll all be getting used to downloading movies over the 'net, just as we're all getting pretty comfortable with doing the same with music now - if HD-DVD or Blu-Ray hasn't taken serious root by the time that point comes, they'll go the way of the Dodo. Or the Minidisc. Or the Super Audio CD. Or the Laserdisc. Or, for that matter, the UMD...

Achilles' Heel

The more you look at the involvement of Blu-Ray with PS3, the more it appears to be a millstone weighing heavily around Sony's neck. While acknowledging that the technology is excellent and that its potential to make the PS3 into a system with capabilities far exceeding its competitors is certainly important, serious question marks must remain over the firm's slavish devotion to launching a new physical media format into a hugely contested space at a time when some industry players - including Microsoft and Apple - are already questioning the future of physical media as a whole. This week, the extent of that devotion was revealed even further; Sony has allowed Blu-Ray to dictate the timeline of the PS3 once again, leaving European retail up in arms, European consumers feeling like they're being treated as third-class citizens, and Microsoft laughing all the way to the high street for a second unopposed Christmas in the high-end console space. Optimistically, you might call this admirable devotion to achieving a vision, and claim that it will pay off in a few years' time when the DVD drive in Xbox 360 starts to look distinctly underpowered. Back in the real world, it looks more and more like stubbornness and folly.

Sony has often, and in some sense quite accurately, been described as betting the farm on the PlayStation 3. I learned this week that betting on PlayStation 3 can leave you lighter of wallet. For Sony, the stakes are much, much higher - and the odds are starting to look uncomfortable.

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Rob Fahey avatar

Rob Fahey

Contributor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of GamesIndustry.biz who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.

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