A few months ago I spelled out to some friends exactly what I’d like to see Sony do with their next console. I said I wanted the biggest and baddest box they could build — a quad-core x86 processor (one designed by a single company, not some half-baked collaboration between Toshiba, Sony, IBM, Betty Crocker, and Jiffy Lube), 4 GB of system RAM, and a video processor at least on par with the Radeon 6870m, with at least 1 GB of GDDR5 memory. In order to put a stop to the never-ending, George-Jestson-nightmare treadmill of numerical nomenclature, I said that I’d call it the PlayStation Quad, what with it being the fourth PlayStation, and the proposed four cores and 4 GB of RAM and all. Alternately, they could have ripped a page from a more successful company’s playbook (no, not them) and simply called it the PlayStation, in a “there-can-be-only-one” type of move, thereby declaring that they don’t need no stinking numbers. Either.
As it turns out, last week’s announcement of the PlayStation 4’s specs was startlingly close to what I wanted to see; they doubled the processor cores and system memory over my preferences, and they did indeed switch to x86 architecture, which will undoubtedly make the PlayStation 4 much easier to program for than either the PlayStation 3 or the PlayStation 2. Presuming that everything else is equal (royalty rates, for instance), this should translate into more games over less time for SCE’s nifty new machine, which could, in turn and quite theoretically, extract them from the pecuniary tar pits in which they currently wallow. I’d buy Sony stock tomorrow (it can only go up) if it weren’t for the not insignificant fact that the only thing missing from last week’s Big Announcement was, oddly enough, the PlayStation 4 itself. Basically, the only difference between what I did and what Sony did was that I didn’t invite members of the press to my house, read to them a series of kick-ass system specs and absolutely irrelevant social networking features, then send everyone home with a cookie and a promise.
Show Don’t Tell
I’ll admit that I’ve been spoiled by a Certain Other Company that shows you the thing they want you to buy on the day that they announce it. There’s none of this coy posturing with Certain Other Company, none of these vague, I’ve-got-a-secret, meet-me-in-the-playground, maybe-I’ll-tell-you, maybe-I-won’t, come-back-later, elementary school shenanigans in their press events; Certain Other Company enjoys an immediate, gotta-have-it furor surrounding its new products, which stems from the fact that its presentations answer four core questions that sow the seeds of hype more effectively than any amount of showmanship and posturing:
1. “What?” — This is Our Thing. See? Isn’t it pretty?
2. “Why?” — This is what you can do with Our Thing. Cool, huh? Bet you didn’t even know you wanted to do that!
3. “When?” — This is when you can buy Our Thing. Usually in about a month to six weeks. Get in line now!
4. “How much?” — This is what Our Thing will cost. By now you don’t care about the price, and are already making arrangements to mortgage your grandmother. We like that.
Few members of the press, if any, come away from Certain Other Company’s announcements thinking, “nice idea, but…well…it’s still just an idea.” All of them walk away knowing what’s coming, what it looks like, what it will do, when they can get it, and how much it will cost, information which they then pass on to readers and viewers; not everyone agrees with every decision made by Certain Other Company, but at least their complaints and concerns can be addressed to objective, quantifiable standards. To say that a product is too small, or too big, or too round, or too heavy, or too expensive can be disputed; to say that it wasn’t even there, and to have that become the hinge pin of all criticism, cannot be.
Distant Early Warning
There’s a reason why Sony announced the PlayStation 4 without having a working, sales-ready model on-hand to be ogled and fondled and slobbered upon by the attendant cadre of journalists. There’s a reason why they didn’t announce the price. And there’s a reason why they didn’t announce the release date.
First, they probably don’t actually have a sales-ready model to show anyone. If this is the case, then they shouldn’t have made their announcement until they had one. Remember; show me. Don’t tell me. Turn my head with its sleekness, tempt me with its polygonal pulchritude, and in my state of technological tumescence I’ll fork over the cash before I even know what’s going on. If I have time to think about it, though, I might just decide that the Wii U or a new PC looks like a better deal. Or, and this is much more likely, I might have time to remember the PlayStation 3.
Second, with the regard to the price, it’s going to cost as much as urgent fornication. As in, “PlayStation 4? Damn, y’all, that there’s expensive as fuck!” No one waits to break good news.
And finally, the release date. If they didn’t have a model on-hand to show people in February, and they don’t want to say how much it will cost (if they even know for sure themselves), they can’t very well announce a release date. If they can’t make November, which is in time for this year’s holiday season, they might as well wait until next year.
In all the coverage of the Big Announcement that I watched, I was left with an eyebrow-arching suspicion reminiscent of fatherhood, the essence of which is “there’s something you’re not telling me.” The hype seemed forced and overblown, as though I might peek behind the proverbial blue curtain and spy a little bearded guy back there pulling levers and flipping switches in order to make himself appear to be more than he really was. Given that Sony’s stock price rose shortly before the announcement, then fell steadily over the next few days after the announcement, I’d wager that the impression the little guy was trying to create was one of confidence, competence, readiness, and success, and that he failed. There’s only one reason to try to fake such attributes, which is that you don’t actually possess any of them.
Time Stand Still
This isn’t 1999, or even 2005, for that matter; everything about their business has changed since the last time SCE hurried onto the stage to announce a console; back then they could get away with merely talking about it and showing supposed gameplay footage, but between Twitter, Facebook, and the ubiquity of mobile platforms that provide access to these services, people are connected to each other in ways that they’ve never been before — continuously, instantaneously, and in numbers to challenge belief — and as a result, a ripple of discontent at a press event quickly becomes a tidal wave in the gulf of social media. This is why asking anyone to get excited about a device that doesn’t even exist yet is a monumentally stupid idea. You jumped the gun here, S. Big time.
If the PlayStation 4’s system specs are trustworthy, Sony is on the right track, having already made several important good decisions with the hardware, but the air of desperation that surrounds this company, and its refusal or inability to keep pace with a changing world, cannot be denied as causes for concern about its short- and mid-term prospects.