Tuesday saw the widely-expected unveiling of Sony’s new hardware model: a slimmer, lighter, and less energy-hungry Playstation 3. They also debuted a new, $299 price, meant to make the PS3 more competitive with the XBox 360 and Wii. At the same time, my PS2 has started to sputter; it had a tough time chewing through Persona 4, and since then has only gotten more feeble. This would be a great time for Sony to sell me a brand-new PS3 with a reduced form factor and lower energy consumption, but Sony has chosen not to include backwards compatibility with PS2 games in the feature set of their new hardware. In the end, that turns out to be a minor problem for me, and perhaps a larger one for Sony.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a Sony “hater”. Obviously I have and love a PS2, and much of my home theater is Sony electronics. And I’m not going to say that the PS3 Slim is a great huge terrible waste of time because it doesn’t have backwards compatibility. Nothing could be further from the truth — the Slim answers most of the demands of the average consumer and the game developers Sony needs to keep happy. I personally think this particular change is too little, too late to fundamentally change the balance of power. Nonetheless, the lower price, in combination with Blu-Ray, makes the PS3 a much more solid choice, and arguably the best choice, for anyone buying his or her first HD console.
But I’m not buying my first HD console. I have an XBox 360, and that means I already have access to nearly all of the games I’m interested in. I don’t need a Blu-Ray player, though I might use it if I had one, and while I’m fascinated by some of the games I’ve seen available for the PS3, I don’t need those either. Not even for the new, low price of $299. What I do need is a way to keep playing my PS2 games, and Sony is still selling new PS2s for $100. Sales of the PS2, though they’ve declined dramatically, have still been bringing in much-needed money for Sony, and their pronouncements that backwards compatibility is never coming are probably meant to prop those sales up. But it seems to me that continuing to sell the PS2 is a dead end.
If I buy one, the executives at Sony will think they gained $100, but they’re wrong. The sale of a PS2 is a loss of at least $199, because it’s a lost opportunity to sell a PS3. Sure, the profit margin on the PS2 is higher, but the guy who buys a PS2 is going to use it to play PS2 games he already owns, or to play used games, and none of this will earn Sony a dime. These players won’t be playing PS3 games that earn royalties for Sony, or supporting the Blu-Ray market that Sony is invested in. That means that the sale of a PS2 is a lost opportunity, not a net benefit. What Sony should be striving to do is find a way to turn any would-be PS2 buyers into PS3 buyers. Now that the PS3 Slim offers a more competitive price, they should leverage their existing, unbelievably massive PS2 install base into new buyers for PS3 by presenting that console as an upgrade that possesses all the capabilities of the console those users have already invested in (some substantially), plus exciting new capabilities and games.
Why hasn’t Sony done this? Some initial offerings of the PS3 (back when it cost too much for me) had a hardware solution, but this seems to have been uneconomical, and anyway would probably be at odds with their goal of shrinking things down for the PS3 Slim. The answer, then, is software emulation, which seems to have been pretty difficult to implement for even some titles, and given the size of the PS2 library, would represent a QA nightmare. I understand that problem, and if Sony feels that the investment required to make emulation possible on their sole SKU going forward is not worth the (considerable) reward, then I’ll accept that, though I feel their cost-benefit analysis has been suspect in the past (e.g. Home).
But what I would like to see is all the cards laid out on the table. Those recent comments from Sony reps that backwards compatibility is never coming carry as much weight for me as the ranting of some random fanboy, because Sony’s communication with their customers this console generation has been an endless cycle of dissembling and outright lying (in which they are admittedly not alone). They did this with rumble functionality, and with the Slimitself, so why wouldn’t they do it with backwards compatibility? There’s no reason to trust what they say, especially when it takes the form of some slick marketing director spewing nonsense about surveys. The simple fact is that used backwards-compatible PS3s are selling for more than the new console price right now, a sure sign of continued interest and demand. What Sony should do is come out with the tech guys and say, “Look, here’s the problem, here’s what we’ve tried to do, here’s why it hasn’t worked, here’s how much it would cost to make it work, and that’s why we’re not doing it.” Or, if they really do have plans to try, come out and say that’s happening, but they don’t know how it will turn out. That may not do much for the corporate ego, but it would go a long way towards establishing some credibility.
As it stands, I feel like I’ll get burned whatever I choose to do. If I buy a PS3 in hopes that BC is coming, and it doesn’t, then all I’m really getting out of those $300 is access to a set of exclusives that mostly don’t excite me. I could see myself paying up to $50 to play Flower, but not more than $300. I’m willing to opt for the PS2 and maybe eventually get a PS3 when its case is strong enough, but I’m not so wealthy that the $100 means nothing to me. If I replace my PS2, will Sony screw me by introducing backwards compatibility shortly thereafter? I don’t know, and until Sony chooses forthrightness over the ability to make a big splash by holding back secrets, I can’t possibly trust what they’ll say. So until my PS2 gives up the ghost permanently, what I’m buying from Sony is nothing, which from their perspective should be the worst outcome of all.