Feature: PlayStation 3 Retrospective - Part One
Posted by Sammy Barker
The third place
As our celebrations for the PlayStation 3’s fifth anniversary continue to march on, we’ve taken a moment to reflect on some of the key events from the system’s life so far.
It’s been a turbulent half-decade for Sony’s black behemoth, with more drama packed into its formative years than the entire series of a police procedural combined. But while it’s been far from plain-sailing for the platform holder, no one could ever describe it as bland, with headline defining hack attacks and spluttering debuts all helping to define the system we love today.
In this first part of the series we cast our minds back to the PS3’s shaky launch and plot the platform’s progression right through to its reboot in 2009. Strap yourself in as we take you on a trip through time, but be warned: it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
2007: Humble Beginnings
On 23rd March 2007 the PlayStation 3 finally released in Europe. Six months later than North America and Europe, the system’s slow route to market prompted the start of a turbulent period for Sony’s new box of tricks. Despite posting impressive early numbers – a whopping 600,000 PS3s were sold in its first 48 hours on sale in Europe – the chinks in Sony’s previously untouchable armour were starting to show. For the first time in more than ten years, the industry leader looked vulnerable.
A remarkably poor E3 2006 showing loomed over the manufacturer throughout 2007. The promise of a competition shattering power-house – driven by the vaunted CELL processor – never quite became a reality, and developers quickly opted to favour the more accessible Xbox 360, creating a divide between the fidelity of early multiplatform content.
Assassin’s Creed – Ubisoft’s heavily hyped historical stealth series – was an early example of this. Originally pitched as a PlayStation 3 exclusive, the game’s 2007 release was ultimately marred by the performance discrepancies between its PS3 and 360 counterparts. The discussion – which centred on the PS3’s unusual development architecture – would go on to become a key theme during the system’s early years, and a public relations nightmare for Sony who had originally promised the world in terms of PS3’s performance.
With Sony's attention elsewhere, Microsoft implemented its strategy to erode PlayStation's grip on third-party exclusives. With Grand Theft Auto IV already pledged for the Xbox 360, the company followed up with the announcement of Devil May Cry 4. It kick-started a trend that would go on to dominate headlines throughout the PS3’s early years, with the feasibility of third-party platform exclusives called into question due to the spiralling costs of the high definition generation. PlayStation-associated brands such as Tekken and Final Fantasy both famously later made the jump.
But throughout Sony was working quietly on expanding its own first-party portfolio designed to counter the rise in multiplatform games. Heavenly Sword and Lair both released with high expectations in 2007, but ultimately failed to deliver. It was the less hyped of Sony’s first-party endeavours that went on to encourage global critical acclaim. Few realised in late 2007 that Nathan Drake would go on to become a video gaming icon, but with visual fidelity that finally proved the PS3’s promise, Naughty Dog’s Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune melted hearts.
And Sony didn’t stop there. Then Worldwide Studios President Phil Harrison quietly used 2007’s Game Developers Conference as a venue to trumpet the future of PlayStation 3’s first-party content. During a pivotal keynote, the executive revealed LittleBigPlanet, a game which introduced us to the concept of “Play Create Share” for the very first-time. Meanwhile, while Microsoft’s Xbox Live service made strides in the connected multiplayer space, PlayStation Home promised a revolutionary new platform for online gaming and social interaction.
But in spite of the excitement surrounding the new announcements, 2007 was a strange time for the PS3 and Sony’s gaming division as a whole. The platform was hindered by its expensive price-tag, and the inventiveness of the Nintendo Wii was tilting the market in a new direction. Meanwhile, Microsoft was proving the advantages of a less ambitious architecture, and putting out its own heavily anticipated software in the form of Halo 3. At the time, many analysts and journalists were calling time on Sony’s industry domination, and it was clear by the end of 2007 that the manufacturer had an uphill battle ahead of it.
2008: Growing Pains
2008 was a year of growth for the PlayStation 3. Having been heavily criticised throughout much of the previous year, all eyes were on Sony’s response. The changes weren’t immediate, but much of the progress made in 2008 laid the foundations for the system’s more stable future.
At the start of the year, Sony completely redesigned the PlayStation Store from its original web-based interface to a more functional custom application. It then added Trophy support in April; a direct response to the success Microsoft had enjoyed with achievements. The system was poorly supported in its infancy – with Super Stardust HD and Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune being amongst the first games to take advantage of the digital rewards component – but it went on to become a mandated feature and, subsequently, a key part of the PlayStation experience.
Sony released 13 firmware updates in 2008 – more than any other year – serving as an admission of the mistakes it had made at launch. The PlayStation Network was transformed, and though key improvements continued to be made throughout 2009, Sony’s work in 2008 introduced the fundamentals of the service we know today. Staples such as in-game XMB and more were all implemented in 2008.
The software catalogue showed signs of improving too. April saw Grand Theft Auto IV release to staggering acclaim, while summer ushered the arrival of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. The release of Konami’s stealth sequel actually managed to push the PS3 out of its sales slumber, with the release of a silver system bundle incentivising new adopters.
The strong software push continued into the fall, with the release of anticipated titles such as Mirror’s Edge, Dead Space and Fallout 3. The fruits of Sony’s newly implemented first-party emphasis also started to kick into gear, with the release of Resistance 2 and the massively anticipated LittleBigPlanet later in the year.
It wasn’t all plain sailing for Sony’s biggest hit of 2008 though, as LittleBigPlanet was delayed at the last minute due to a controversy regarding the lyrics to one of its songs. The game (eventually) released to critical acclaim a few weeks later than intended, and went on to scoop up numerous game of the year awards.
Its success was bitter sweet though, as the man that commissioned the title in the first place, Phil Harrison, departed the company citing a difference of opinion with Sony’s directors. Shuhei Yoshida took the Worldwide Studios post and immediately got to work culling a large portion of the platform holder’s first-party projects.
Anticipated titles such as The Getaway 3 and Eight Days were amongst the first to go, prompting outrage at the time. Yoshida later stated that his intention was to transform developer Studio London into the centre of Sony’s casual output – a strategy that was underlined when the developer released Eye Pet in 2009.
Subsequently, 2008 will be remembered as a year for change. While the PlayStation 3’s commercial fortunes didn’t improve dramatically, Sony spent the time securing the foundations for the system’s future. It was inevitable, then, that 2009 began the PS3's revolution.