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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 November 2006, 13:59 GMT
Game on for console conflict
By Darren Waters
Technology editor, BBC News website

PlayStation 3, Sony
Much rests on the success of the PlayStation 3
"Do not underestimate the power of PlayStation" was the advertising campaign for the first Sony console to bear the name - and those words still ring true today.

When Sony launches the PlayStation 3 console in Japan on 11 November it will be one of the biggest gambles in the company's 61-year history.

That the launch of the console is a gamble reflects not just the risk the company is taking by placing its faith in the machine but also how trying the last year has been for Sony.

It is also paradoxical that the world's most successful games console manufacturer - which has sold more than 200 million PlayStations (one and two) globally - should find itself in such uncertain territory as it releases a new machine.

PlayStation, along with the Walkman and the CD player, has been among the biggest successes for the Japanese company.

Big questions

When Sony entered the games market in 1994 it was derided by some who saw Nintendo's dominance of the market as unshakeable, and the future of the industry as a whole unpredictable at best.

Yet Sony transformed the games industry, dragging it from the status of sideshow distraction to arguably one of the pillars of contemporary culture.

The industry is now worth more than $30bn a year and, by some measures, video games sales generate more revenue than cinema tickets.

Wii console, Nintendo
Nintendo's console launches in the US on 19 November
Sony has dominated the last two rounds of machine releases with almost ridiculous ease, forcing Sega out of the hardware business, reducing Nintendo to dominance in only the handheld space and holding off the challenge of Microsoft.

From that position it should be a given that Sony will dominate the third round of console hardware and 18 months ago most analysts would have agreed.

But now there is general uncertainty, not least because Sony has made a number of mis-steps on the road to the release of the PlayStation 3.

There is also uncertainty about much of the new technology that is packed into the new machine:

  • How powerful is the cell processor?
  • How can developers exploit that power?
  • Is Blu-ray a selling point of the machine?
  • Will Blu-ray win or lose the high definition DVD battle?
  • What exactly are Sony's plans to explore the online space for gaming and for content?
  • Sony's vice-president of worldwide sales, Phil Harrison, told the BBC News website that Sony was ready to unleash the PlayStation 3 on the world.

    "We have an integrated system which is not just a great games system, we have added network functionality, Blu-ray functionality, the power of the cell processor; it has all come together and now people can see the full picture," he said.

    "It's all about the games now and we have some amazing launch titles," he added.

    His words would be more convincing, if Sony had not stumbled in the run-up to release.

    The PlayStation 3 is late to the market, being released months after originally envisaged and its European launch is still four months distant.

    Ken Kutaragi, Sony
    Mr Kutaragi's comments have been criticised by some
    The company has been accused of arrogance in the build-up to launch.

    Statements by Mr Harrison such as "the HD era really only starts when we are on the market" and the declaration by Ken Kutaragi, the father of the PlayStation, that people would buy the PS3 whatever the price have hurt the company.

    Criticism has also come from gaming bloggers who are now becoming powerful conduits of information to mainstream gamers.

    The machine also enters the market a year after great rival Microsoft launched its Xbox 360. The 360 has a six million unit head start and, on the basis of figures from both companies, will still have a lead of about four million by March next year.

    It remains an open question as to whether that margin will be enough to hold off the challenge of the PS3.

    Looking up

    So there is uncertainty; but Sony also has reasons to be optimistic.

    The PlayStation brand remains the single most powerful brand in gaming today. For many gamers it is the only brand.

    Mr Harrison said: "All the surveys we have seen and those we have conducted ourselves show that PlayStation is not only the pre-eminent brand in video gaming, it's a pre-eminent entertainment, consumer and youth brand."

    Xbxo 360 production line, Microsoft
    The Xbox 360 was launched in November 2005
    "We will never rely upon the 200 million units of PlayStation already sold, but it is good to have," he added.

    The delay in getting the PlayStation out of the door has given developers a little more breathing space to polish games and the launch line-up of titles is at least on a par graphically with games for the 360, which has been on the market for a year.

    There is no dispute over the assertion the PS3 is a powerful machine with plenty of scope to once again transform gaming.

    But the promises of Sony are not swallowed so wholly given the predictions it made about the PS2 five years ago and its "emotion engine".

    Most independent observers predict that the greater computational horsepower of the PS3 will eventually see titles released for the machine that will be the superior - at least graphically - to games for the 360.

    But for that to happen Sony needs to convince millions of gamers to hand over their money to buy a PS3.

    The machine needs to come down in price to hit the mainstream and Sony does not have the financial muscle of Microsoft when it comes to being able to subsidise the console's cost.

    Mr Harrison said: "There are early adopters reading voraciously about PlayStation 3 and know all about the machine.

    "But as we saw with PlayStation 2 it takes a couple of years before the mass market starts buying. That is partly to do with the kinds of games available and as we ramp up production next year the market becomes deeper and deeper."

    So who will triumph in the next generation wars?

    As the advert said: "Do not underestimate the power of PlayStation".

    Fans give their verdict on the PlayStation 3

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