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Maybe Sony does get digital: the case for the defence
by Nicholas Lovell on 03/28/11 07:15:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


This post originally appeared on GAMESbrief.

Earlier this month, I wrote a post on why recent pronouncements from Nintendo and Sony show they don’t even understand the threat they face.

Having read The Black Swan, I am a great believer in searching for disconfirmation. Once you have identified your thesis, stop trying to prove it; start trying to disprove it. It is so easy to keep seeing evidence that supports your beliefs; anyone who wants to think critically should adopt the opposing position as a way of challenging their biases and preconceptions.

In that spirit, I present the case for the defence: why Sony does get digital

1. PlayStation Home

PlayStation Home logo

Sony offers a free virtual world to all PlayStation 3 users, and has done since the early days of the platform. Originally conceived as a place where brands can showcase their products, it has evolved into a platform in their own right. Companies such as nDreams (Disclosure: I own equity in and sit on the board of nDreams) and Outso have launched virtual spaces and games such as Aurora and Sodium with high production values and huge appeal to their committed fans.

Aurora screenshot

Now Sony is investing further into the platform. They have 17 million users (perhaps more accurately, 17 million PS3 users have visited the platform). They are investing in making PlayStation Home more indie-friendly and I’ve been told to expect more announcements in 2011.

PlayStation Home is a free-to-play virtual world in which users can chat to their friends and which has an in-built microtransaction business model. While I don’t believe it can ever be a 3D rival to Facebook (the barriers to entry that come from being required to own a PS3 are too high), it is an exciting and potentially highly lucrative platform.

2. Free-to-play MMO on PS3


On March 29th, Sony is launching Free Realms as a PSN download. This is a huge step for Sony, bringing a free-to-play game, funded by microtransactions, to a platform that has been dominated by games where you have to pay upfront to play the titles.

Of course, Free Realms comes from SCE sister company Sony Online Entertainment. It is highly polished 3D world with at least 10 million registered users. It is a proven piece of high-quality entertainment from within the Sony stable. This is miles away from Facebook’s strategy of throwing the doors wide open to all and sundry.

But it’s a great step in the right direction, and a sign of experimentation.

3. PSN, the Pub Fund and PSP Minis

Sony has been very vocal about championing independent developers. It has supported them on the PSN (unlike Microsoft, who insists that you need to have a retail distribution strategy for some of the games in your portfolio before you can publish a game on XBLA), it has created the PubFund to help finance independent development and it offers PSP Minis. (A bit of a damp squib, I think, but it shows that they care).

I think that Sony still thinks much more about curation than about filtering, which is a challenge in the world of unlimited shelf space that the Internet has created. It still thinks that the “stamp of quality” is a better approach than “allow lots of content to flourish, and help users to filter out the content that is not for them.”

On the other hand, they have been very helpful to indies who are the creative lifeblood of the games industry.

4. PlayStation Suite

Sony knows and acknowledges that smartphones pose a threat to its handheld business (unlike Nintendo). Its response? The PlayStation Suite, “delivering the PlayStation experience to Android based portable devices.”

The initial launch brings a range of PS1 games to Android devices, and Sony believes that it will be great for partners, helping them stand out from the morass of poor quality content available on smartphones.

I think that the first pass of Suite will be pretty disappointing. Users who are used to getting long-term experiences for free, with a few users paying a lot of money, are likely to be underwhelmed by PS1 titles for which they have to pay a premium before they’ve really experienced the game.

On the other hand, this is a bold step outside Sony’s traditional comfort zone. It is as clear an experiment in whether consumers prefer curation over filtering as I can conceive.

I’m glad to see Sony taking the initiative.


When I started writing this piece, I was looking for evidence that Sony really did get the threats that they face from the changing market. From virtual worlds to mobile phones, the company is clearly experimenting with different technologies, different business models and different consumer offerings.

It’s become clear to me that Sony has a different world view to the one that I hold:

  • They believe that curation is better than filtering
  • They believe that consumers want to find high quality content, and that they will pay for it
  • They are unclear about the value of free: sometimes equating it with poor quality, sometimes assuming that the only way to make it work is via advertising, sometimes believing in it (as in PlayStation Home)
  • They are experimenting, but they aren’t opening up their platforms (PlayStation Home still has only day a week a when it releases content, for example, anathema to a world where web businesses update their offerings multiple times a day.)

In short, I think Sony is more aware of the threat that it faces than Nintendo is. It is trying a number of experiments.

In my mind, the jury is still out on whether these steps are enough, but I hope they keep experimenting.

That will be good for us all.

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Maurício Gomes
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No mention directly of Xperia Play and PS Certified phone program? (that implies other phones than Xperia Play will run PS Suite games with PS controllers)

Nicholas Lovell
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Maybe I'm misunderstanding something. I said that PlayStation Suite brings PS titles to Android phones, not specifically Xperia Play. Did you understand something else from my point?

Maurício Gomes
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You don't misunderstood, the Xperia Play is the kickoff of a theoretically separate program named PS Certified Phone, where phones will have PS Suite games and normal Android games with PS Controllers (even if emulated on screen).

It is not that it is really missing, just a interesting tidbit.

Banksy One
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Nicholas, i appreciate your observations, but they don't seem to form a path towards Sony's next console beyond the NGP, which is maybe an indication that 1) i'm not understanding the plan, or 2) Sony don't have a clear defined goal in mind.

Even now they have men like Richard Marks just kind of working on experiments around the office, yet shouldnt they have him working with the Home team? I know they've put lots of money into Home, but are they really serious about it, as serious as Unreal is about their Unreal Engine 4.0? Sometimes i feel that Sony are letting their competitors win purposefully. They make design decisions like having rounded analog sticks on their controller, and a half hearted motion controller. Then you look at PS Home. My God the amount of dance moves you can perform in PS Home, yet theres no voice chat (or PSN voice chat in general for that matter). I know theres voice chat in clubs and private spaces, but its been pretty impractical for me to get to grips with, because joining a club means you have to search for clubs by keywords, and then wait for invitations... its a bit of work. Even dancing is more work than it needs to be.

Then theres the issue of downloads. Cant Sony afford to put all the Home spaces onto a Blu Ray and sell it as a physical disc? Christ it would save a lot of people a lot of time, money and hassle. Little things like that.

As for offline gaming, the whole trophy system is a bit of a mess. PS3 owners cant customize their trophy lists or delete trophies, and save data is non transferrable across profiles (even though Sony says it is transferrable). In that regard Sony have actually taken a step back, and why? because of the trophies (i.e we need to copy Xbox 360's formula).

What would you like to see Sony do in the future Nicholas?

Nicholas Lovell
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I would struggle to be in favour of putting the home spaces on a Blu-Ray. That kills the busness model and the margins stone dea,d, and would rapidly slow down innovation and experimentation in Home.

I hope that Free Realms works. If it doesn't, I hope that Sony doesn't conclude that "free-to-play" doesn't work on consoles and keeps experimenting.

I hope they make communication easier within Home. I have to admit I don;t have any specific suggestions there.

Most of all, I hope they keep experimenting.

Jeremy Reaban
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The thing with Sony though, is they don't provide a unified download experience for all their Sony content and all their Sony devices.

For instance, you can buy and download comics to your PSP. Can you read your comics on a Sony e-reader? No.

On the flip side, can you read books bought from the Sony book store on the PSP (or PS3)? No.

Another great thing for them to do is open up a Netflix like streaming service for Sony movies and TV shows.

They are competing with Apple. You can do all these things on their products.

kspray dad
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Apple has a streaming movie service? No

If i buy an iBook I can read it on my Mac? No

Rick Kolesar
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Sorry, but this sounds more like an advertisement then anything else. Even though you said "I own equity in and sit on the board of nDreams" you can't expect me to think your not just a little bias towards a company that is funding a lot of your work.

Nicholas Lovell
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It's no advertisement. Go read the original post for my "Sony really doesn't get it" argument:

Only on point #1 could there be any accusation of bias (which is why I declared my interest). I have no financial interest in the success of #2, #3 or #4.

This was intended to be a puff piece. It was me seeking out evidence that Sony get it, as an attempt to counter the arguments I previously put that they don't get it.

I'm sorry if you saw that as an ad.

Jamie Mann
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I think it can be misleading to think of Sony as a single entity with a single set of objectives; you've actually got three separate gaming divisions (JP, US, EU) and the non-gaming subsidiaries (Pictures, Music, etc). And traditionally, the "entertainment" subsidiaries have held considerably more power than the gaming/electronic subsidiaries, resulting in the hamstringing of the minidisc, the decision to push the UMD format on the PSP - and they were probably a major factor in the initial "kitchen sink" design of the original PS3, with it's blu-ray drive, card-readers, etc). Also, Europe has generally received fewer games on a later schedule, as compared to SCEA and SCE.

Overall, my impression is of a company with a fragmented vision, where more time is spent on internal debate and regional experiments than on producing new media.

1) Home: according to an article in 2009, retention rate was less than 30% (
r-30). Assuming this holds true in 2011, it'd put the active userbase at somewhere around 4.5 million: nothing to be sniffed at, but it certainly limits the market for your media when compared to Facebook, iOS, etc.

(out of interest, as a director of nDreams, do you have any greater visibility of the stats for Home?)

2) Free to play: this has a lot of potential - it'll be interesting to see how things plays out. It's certainly their strongest foray into digital publishing to date.

3) PSN/Pub Fund/PS Minis:

Sony have made some steps towards supporting digital distribution and indie developers, but they seem to do it in dribs and drabs. I suspect this is because the initiatives are mostly driven by bottom-up initiatives led by individuals, rather than being a top-down drive as happened with XBLIG (even if XBLIG has since lost momentum as a result of management changes).

There was an article on Gamasutra a while ago about the wide variations in user experience/game availability between the three regions; personally, I've certainly found the PSN experience to be heavily lacking when compared to the Xbox Marketplace. Though I've not used it for around six months, so I'll reserve further judgement until I've had a chance to log back in!

4) Again I think the Playstation Suite highlights the internal divisions within the company (this time between the mobile phone and gaming divisions): the release of two separate semi-compatible portable gaming devices (NGP and Xperia Play) is liable to confuse customers and is liable to lead to developers writing cross-platform games which don't take advantage of either machine's special features.

Joe McGinn
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>> In short, I think Sony is more aware of the threat that it faces than Nintendo is. <<

Yes. But is that not damning with faint praise, Nicholas? ;-)

Nicholas Lovell
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True, but it is at least a start...

Eric Schwarz
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I think Sony are, as Jamie Mann pointed out, rather confused and conflicted about what sort of online strategy to pursue. They've made an effort, but it hasn't been the same sort of focused, strongly-branded, heavily-marketed push that Microsoft has kept up for the last several years. Add to that different pricing tiers, relatively arbitrary feature sets offered depending on whether a user is a Plus subscriber or not, the omnipresence of ad-supported content despite optional memberships, and the general treading water when it comes to improving upon what they already have, and I think the picture is pretty clear that Sony know roughly what they want to do - make PlayStation Network profitable and ubiquitous - but not really how to do it, and I don't think they're convinced the short-term costs are worth the long-term gains.

If you look at what Sony offers, they have a pretty robust package. As a customer, I could say I'd be intrigued what Sony's console has to offer me in the online department, maybe not as a dedicated solution to online gaming, but certainly as something worth investing in. The problem is that Sony really doesn't seem to have any sort of long-term plan... they're clearly aiming at digital distribution with their new handheld, but the conflation of portable game devices, smartphones and tablets, also produced by Sony, suggests that they're still in a state where they're throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks. Microsoft is long past that - they've had a stable, dedicated games platform for years, and their new products are all extremely well-defined in comparison to Sony's line-up. Nobody's going to get the games offerings on Windows Phone 7 confused for Xbox 360 titles, but there's little confusion about what Xbox LIVE applies to. Sony have an uphill battle in better defining their products and services.

Christian McCrea
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The curation vs. filtering approach is worth of a bigger discussion. In an ideal market environment, Sony's approach to PSN would be a really wonderful space. But the realities of a two-sided market (I believe I've read you mention Tirole's work before on this) means that developers who aim for PSN are almost automatically inclined to include XBL in the dev process. The differentiators between the two services are less interesting than the fact there is HUGE crossover despite them being considerably different businesses.

Sony get devices. The high-value expertise is there in the company. You can see that expertise in the design of NGP. The partnership with software companies is an admission of guilt in a way.