There is a running contest being waged amongst the console manufacturers and evaluated solely in my mind. I call it the Ingenuity Award, and it is bestowed on the company that most shakes things up, that most pushes the console envelope, that most advances the medium of videogames. In the 32-/64-bit generation (1995-1999), the recipient was easily Sony.
It was under Sony’s watch that cartridges were phased out, systems (slowly) became multimedia beasts, and marketing campaigns switched from the prepubescent demographic to that of the twenty-somethings; it was on the PlayStation that such endearing and enduring gameplay experiences as Resident Evil, Tomb Raider, and Metal Gear Solid were collected. Despite the Nintendo 64 offering some compelling titles of its own – many of which are still considered to be the best games ever crafted in the history of the medium – there was simply no contest between the mostly regressive and reactionary Nintendo and the progressive and trailblazing Sony.
The 128-bit generation (1999-2005) saw a substantial-but-not-irrevocable slide, with Microsoft, the new newcomer, grabbing the award – there was no way Sony (or Nintendo) could compete against the onslaught of a perfectly streamlined console experience that produced Halo and resulted in Xbox Live – but it was a backtracking that carried with it a formidable dose of forewarning: if the giant international corporation were not careful, it could and would replace Nintendo as the remote island of gameplay experiences, an oasis of Gran Turismo and Ico surrounded by miles and miles of cultural irrelevance.
It was, alas, a warning the company was too arrogant to take notice of. The 256-bit Sony is a fumbling, Vaudevillian mess, the Jar Jar Binks of Microsoft and a resurgent Nintendo’s Rebel Alliance – one produces X-wings and Admiral Ackbars; the other, in a vain attempt to mimic his more sophisticated brethren, fabricates fart jokes in between Jerry Lewis pratfalls. What a difference eleven years makes.
Just what happened? There have been many mistakes, ranging from outrageous price tags to the seemingly never-ending parade of dropped features (dual HDTV outputs, USB/memory card slots, backwards compatibility, Linux support), but there is one fundamental element that lurks behind every misstep and manifests itself in every miscalculation: passiveness. Instead of being boldly progressive, Sony is now blindly reactionary, lurching desperately from one concept to the other in the desperate hope that something, anything will work to keep the evil bogeymen of Microsoft and Nintendo at bay. The one thing that each of these concepts has in common? They’re all someone else’s idea.
Sony had been in the console manufacturing business for exactly one decade when Microsoft kicked off the current generation with one of the most mystifyingly moronic decisions in all of videogame history – releasing multiple configurations of one system. Instead of rebuking the development by summarily ignoring it, as did Nintendo (to much success), Sony instead adopted it as its own, even taking it to an extreme that can only be described as silly. Three-and-a-half years and six iterations later, there are now more PS3 variations on the market than the number of Nintendo consoles made within the past 25 years.
But it is in Nintendo’s newfound Mecca of motion controls that Sony has most shamelessly shoplifted. After an initial, bungled effort to incorporate motion sensitivity into its original, quasi-DualShock controller – blatantly lifted from the Wii’s press conference announcement and rushed to market before Nintendo’s system could arrive – the company has ended where it began, making much fanfare and flourish over the PlayStation Move, a Wiimote controller that makes use of a Nunchuk-esque “sub controller” and a video camera (which is itself a holdover from the PS2 days). Sony even kicked off its marketing campaign for the device at this year’s Game Developers’ Conference by essentially brandishing the peripheral(s) as a “Wii for the HD” crowd. One cannot get more reactionary than this.
A comparison can be made between the console manufacturers and television networks – when one is on the outs, it turns to cutting-edge material (or, simply, material that cuts edges off of production costs), making it fresh and new and rocketing it to the top of the Neilson hill. Once it becomes dominant yet again, it becomes complacent and, thus, grows stale and conservative, plunging down the ratings ladder and starting the process all over again. There is little doubt that Sony will manage, at some point down the road, to reinvent itself and, along the way, the rest of the industry, as well – but there is still the small, gnawing possibility that it will pull a Sega instead of a Nintendo, becoming an evolutionary dead-end instead of evolving to serve other ends.
Indeed, at the rate Sony’s going, I just might have to add another category to my mental competition: Most Wayward Spirit (original recipient: Sega).