The Problem with Sony….

The PS3. Or a bit of it, anyway.

So, after all this months troubles at Sony, do I think they’ve got a grasp on their problems?

No.

Let me start by saying like most people, I grew up with Sony. It was the luxury brand, innovative and reliable and daring. The Sony Walkman was an amazing revelation at the time, in the mid 80’s. Hell, Sony were so popular and so powerful that they were even featured directly in the fantastic comedy Crazy People in 1990, at the height of their global power. Rather than coming off as arrogant or as the parody the movie envisaged, it hit a truthful nail on the head – at the time, no-one could outshine them.

But over the years Sony grew fat and bloated and complacent. It is no longer the market leader in the TV market – today you see LG, Sharp and Panasonic all ranking higher than Sony. In the mobile market, once the Sony Erricson was the height of cool, but of course now we have the iPhone and the Samsung Galaxy S2 and upcoming S3. Their concerted gamble and heavy investment in the Blu-ray format has seen them unable to match the old DVD market, at a time when people are now starting to move from physical media towards systems like LoveFilm, Netflix and Sky Go. Heck, Sony were late to the MP3 market, by the time Sony came in Apple had dominated the landscape – and even other smaller manufacturers had larger market share on MP3 players than Sony did.

Sony haven’t innovated for a long time, and it has shown. The PS3 was a bold attempt at creating a new machine, but the arrogance of the company, the awful public relations and the general complexity of the system has meant that the PS3, on multi-format releases, generally comes in as the worst system. It’s an extremely complex beast because they stuck with the Cell processor – which was powerful, is powerful, but requires time and money and access to all of its layers to get the most out of. The only people with access to the full potential of the Cell are first-party developers, and this has meant that the X-Box 360 has generally always been the preferred format of choice for developers to base their games around; it is easier to manage, to code for and there are no artificial boundaries there for them.

Sony cruised along on their name alone for most of the Noughties, but by 2007 we kind of all knew the shine had worn off. The PS3 itself was fraught with challenges – the issues with dual-shock and the patent infringement case they continued to fight and pay money on, the public relations, aggressive and yet fruitless marketing stunts for the PSP and the PS Move – which was, as many stated, a souped-up version of the Wii Remote.

Did we need a souped-up Wii Remote? Not really. Nintendo realised they could do a lot with tech that wasn’t exactly cutting edge – and infra-red isn’t cutting edge. If anyone cares to think about it, we were doing this on the PS1 and Dreamcast with light-gun shooters. The principle for Nintendo was very much the same. Sony seemed to think that by throwing money and tech at it, they could better Nintendo – sometimes, as it turns out, you really can’t reinvent the wheel. Sometimes the simpler, cheaper options are best. The PS Move and lack of support for it demonstrate how costly this error was for Sony, who have never sold enough of them to justify the expense.

Even this week, Sony have once again taken a Nintendo idea and not simply copied it, but flagrantly stolen it waving it about as if they just stole a pair of panties belonging to Katy Perry. The Sony All-Stars Battle Royale isn’t so much an homage to Super Smash Bros. as the most blatant rip-off conceivable. So far nothing about the game looks new, innovative or fresh. It’s basically just Super Smash Bros. with Sony characters, and that’s a bad situation to be in.

It’s demonstrative of a deep-rooted lack of enthusiasm for new, bold concepts. Sony are amazing at creating technology, there is no doubting their credentials, but the world is changing and so too must Sony. Currently, Sony are floundering, trying to play catch-up and riding in the slipstream of other companies, desperately hoping that their van will overtake the Dodge Charger in front of them.

This will never return them to profitability. Sony need to innovate, and stop trying to justify the losses it has made on things like 3DTV, Blu-ray and PS Move. 3DTV is still not catching on, I’ve said this before but there’s too large a margin for error in 3DTV for it to hit true market penetration. If Sony focused on new ideas to get around this inherent human failing, they’d immediately be back on top. The Blu-ray was an expensive gamble that never paid off – Sony had hoped within a few years, that it would have overtaken DVD sales. It never has, and with more digital options available streaming movies, it is unlikely it ever will take over DVD sales.

The PS3, whilst not in itself a mistake, was a silly concept. The Cell was a disastrous move for them, as it segregated their machine from numerous games and genres as developers moved away towards the cheaper, easier rival that was the X-Box 360 (or even the Wii). The PS Move was evidence that no amount of money and tech can improve on a perfectly good idea – sometimes, you have to follow the principles of KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid.

With troubles with the Vaio (Sony laptops have been style over substance and also had a long-standing issue with battery reliability), their home cinema suites and speakers (cheaper and more solid alternatives have taken over) and the mullering the PSP had at the hands of the DS, and the comparatively even more brutal spanking the 3DS is currently giving the Vita, Sony show no signs of getting to grips with all of their woes. At this point, they are juggling too much to be on top of any one thing.

The Vita is the real killer right now though. With a relatively barren release schedule, the one game Sony are pinning their hopes on right now of pushing Vita sales is… Mortal Kombat. Yup. That’s right, the current system-seller they’re banking on is a third-party beat-em-up that itself has a long and troubled history. Compare this to the 3DS, which in the last six months has seen a glut of amazing games like Mario Kart 7, Resident Evil: Revelations and Skylanders, with the fan-favourite and system-selling Monster Hunter coming out in the fall of this year.

Is there any wonder when the best sellers for the Vita are Fifa Football (stripped down Fifa 2012), Uncharted: Golden Abyss (generally accepted as a missed opportunity and not a good game) and Ridge Racer Vita (Don’t get me started!) as to why the Vita is lagging behind Nintendo so much? Once again, Sony have put out tech, and it is lovely tech but tech on its own isn’t enough.

We don’t admire tech as art. Not in the general sense, anyway, and not when you spend a lot of money on it. You expect to use it, you expect it to be reliable and good and Sony have failed on this. And from my own experiences at the hands of the Sony Customer Care team, I’d like to state for the record that I’d rather have a rabid doberman chew my manly man bits off than spend any length of time calling the Sony Customer Care team again. It’s truly, horrifically bad.

Sony need to accept these days it isn’t about how much money you have to throw at a problem, but how clever you are at solving it. For years, Sony have thrown about money and tech like it was going out of fashion (probably has) and now we’re just bored. I sit here itching for more news on the Wii-U, it’s looks and how it plays and how the final controller design will look. The Wii-U controller is an example of taking an idea that’s already been going and using it again, with imagination. The 3DS style of it all speaks volumes that Nintendo know they don’t have to do much more than offer this in a new generation, and watch as Microsoft and, inevitably, Sony do their utmost to catch up with their idea, or match it.

Nintendo approach the market and their games with imagination, creativity and looking at whether or not old ideas and concepts can be reborn as new. This approach has made them one of the strongest companies in the world – even despite their annual loss, their reserves are simply insane. Every Mario game tries new ideas, new concepts, new designs. Every Zelda game too.

Sony can copy what Nintendo does in the gaming landscape, but it will never get to grips with why it is Nintendo do it. That is what Sony need to discover, not just for their gaming division but overall, because you can copy and match up all you like, but you’re just a clone, a copycat, a facsimile.

You need to understand what drives them, what motivates them, why they do these things. And then learn those lessons, without throwing money at the problem and telling people to just “do what they do”. It doesn’t work. And say what you like about Apple and Nintendo (I do!), marching to the beat of their own drum on tech, specs and designs has made them both very wealthy, very strong market forces.

Sure, it may be ideas over tech at times. But they make a lot of money on comparatively slightly weaker tech than their rivals, letting the ideas and concepts sell their machines.

And we pay a premium when those ideas and concepts turn out to actually work, regardless of what is inside the shell. It’s not always about tech. Sometimes it’s about just trying something new, different, daring. Or simply solving an everyday problem for people.

This is the spark Sony need to reignite. Creativity. Because they’ve been creatively bankrupt for at least a decade – if they can’t get that creativity back, then they will never become a market leader again and never regain profitability.

That would be bad news. I hope I never have to say that Sony have become insolvent. But let’s be honest, Sony have got themselves into this mess.

It’s up to the brains they pay big salaries to to get them out of it.

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