On Its Anniversary, Just What Does PlayStation Mean Today?

PlayStation-4-PSOne-4 copy

Maybe this should have been my response last week about the 20th anniversary of PlayStation, but Sony and other people still seem to be celebrating it all season long. For some reason the whole event has fallen kind of flat on me. Last week I suggested it was because I never got into Sony hardware until 2005, but I think the real reason is what the PlayStation brand looks and feels like today.

I’ve noted it in previous blog posts about console exclusives, but I kind of feel like PlayStation doesn’t have as much of an identity today as it did 15 or 10 years ago. I feel like the 20th anniversary celebrations are more a celebration of the past than of what PlayStation is right now. In the past PlayStation was a unique library of entertainment. Today I feel like it’s just another box. I actually don’t think this is a bad thing, but I do think it’s a sign of where console gaming is going, because Xbox is no less susceptible to the change.

Basically, it’s about the lack of exclusives we see on consoles these days. For the longest time a console’s identity has been its exclusive games. That worked in the days when multiplatform games weren’t the norm. Now they are, and for the last several years we’ve seen Sony and Microsoft scramble for small exclusives, now often indie games, temporarily exclusive games, really niche games, or downloadable content. Recent issues of Famitsu have many of the Japanese developers who made PlayStation what it is reminiscing about their experiences unique to PlayStation — the games they made for PS1 and PS2. Most of that conversation seems to focus on the past because all those developers are pretty much making games for everything now.

I haven’t seen many people go over all the reasons this has happened. Sure the economics of game development get talked about a lot — during the PS3 and 360 era game development got too expensive to just launch on one console. That’s just one part of a whole cycle of factors though that’s bringing an end to the era of exclusives.

I remember someone referring to it as the “Pax PlayStation.” “Pax” of course referring to eras of peace in history overseen by dominant world powers. Maybe you could say it was preceded by a “Pax Nintendo” that followed the chaos of the early eras of video games. During these eras, you had a lot of exclusives for game platforms that were dominant. Nintendo could demand third party exclusivity in the NES era with its draconian publishing policies because console game publishers had almost nowhere else to go. This only eased a little bit during the SNES and Genesis/Mega Drive era. Those publishers fled to PlayStation as soon as Sony provided a good alternative and many of them stayed exclusively with that house for 10 years because they could afford to. The PS2 in particular was such a dominant console that most Japanese console publishers were safe in the assumption that their game would be fine if they just released it on PlayStation. That’s what built up the identity of PlayStation. That’s what made franchise like Final Fantasy and Metal Gear Solid known as PlayStation franchises.

The succeeding era is where things started to fracture. Nintendo’s Wii dominated everywhere sales-wise but went completely against what third parties wanted to do. Xbox became dominant in North America and the UK. PlayStation became dominant in continental Europe and de-facto dominant in Japan which is slipping away from console gaming altogether. That’s actually another factor of the fragmentation — the fact that consoles are no longer the “main” way for everyone to play games anymore. Developers have to diversify more and more. Final Fantasy and Metal Gear are no longer just PlayStation games, they’re just games. Ultimately I think that’s better, since more people get to play them, but it just begs the question of what the PlayStation anniversary celebration is really about other than the past.

Another factor is hardware. Traditionally each game console was its own snowflake under the hood which combined with loss-leading sales strategies allowed manufacturers to build machines with unusual amounts of power for your dollar. Now consoles are less about exotic power and more about offering affordable boxes with stable architecture. This has made games much easier to port, and it’s also made consoles less and less able to keep up with PC hardware.

In the past you bought consoles because they had killer lineups. Sony tried to make some exclusive coups at PSX but what did it get really? Outside its first party content it got Street Fighter V — kinda, a Final Fantasy VII port, an English version of the two-year-old Yakuza 5 (which I will buy), and a lot of indies, some of which are exclusive. Let’s face it, today if you buy a console you buy it because you don’t want to spend more than $400 on a gaming machine and you don’t want to mess with graphics settings on a computer. It’s a fine choice, but that’s what it is. It’s no longer a “nation” that you identify with.

That’s why I don’t understand why console fanboy wars are still going on in this day and age. I could understand it when you actually had unique game libraries to compare, but on forums today I just see people getting mad about the difference in resolution and framerate between the PS4 and Xbox One version of a game. I’ve already said it before, but today PlayStation and Xbox are more like competing cable services — both offer most of the same content with slight differences.

In light of this, I wonder what people will be celebrating about PlayStation upon its 25th or 30th anniversary. Is it gonna be like some empire continually referencing its past glory? Personally I wouldn’t mind a future where consoles become something like what the mobile and PC platforms already are — competing operating systems that each come in various form factors and differ not so much in their software libraries but general usability quirks. That’s a discussion for another time however.

BULLETS:

  • So USGamer has a podcast. https://t.co/Ku1dhKzanc
  • After Burner Climax is being delisted from PSN and XBLA. You should go and get it.
  • I wrote a review on Steam for Kromaiahttp://t.co/LisDCylW6w
  • Anybody watching Marco Polo? Reviews are saying the show should have just been “Kublai Khan.”
  • The director of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars has a new thing. http://t.co/4F0IchJPQ1
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