Serial Missteps on the Parallel Road

Knowledge, once gained, is impossible to ignore, and so it’s difficult to remember what things were really like in the past. The attitudes and assumptions we held before time torpedoes them tend to disappear, and everyone acts as if they’d known the truth of the matter all along. But rewind to the year 2005 and recall that gamers, technology journalists, soccer moms and developers alike imagined the PlayStation 3 as a mysterious and formidable box with potentially earth-shaking powers. The Xbox 360 was a fine machine, the thinking went, but the PlayStation 3, when it arrived, would blow everything else out of the water.

I too became excited for the PlayStation 3 when the first rumblings and rumors about the successor to PlayStation 2, which had dominated the industry during its lifetime, came my way. The core of the project started with the idea, simple and true enough, that going parallel was the next big thing in computing architecture. Sony, Toshiba and IBM had been collaborating on the development of something called the Cell microprocessor architecture for years, and it was enshrouded by an unusually thick aura of novelty and exoticness. The net effect was that the PlayStation 3 became associated with– even synonymous with, in some of the more hyperbolic press– the entire future of technology.

So when the massive, ugly metal boxes with the hex readout and toggle switch on the front that comprised the first PlayStation 3 development kits began arriving at the studio where I worked, there was a charged anticipation in the air. Here we were, about to take a peek at the real capabilities of this much talked-about machine. As we stood around watching, a programmer quickly got an included demonstration program up and running. It displayed what was essentially a handful of flat-shaded cubes. We paused, a little confused– that’s it? The programmer quickly found the line of code responsible for the number of cubes, bumped it up to a thousand, and ran it again to see what would happen. The system halted in its tracks.

Over the next year, the team charged with PlayStation 3 development struggled valiantly against daunting headwinds. It’s commonly alleged that the system’s unusual architecture makes it more difficult to work with than most other consoles, but even if we had employed all of the best programmers in the world, we couldn’t have solved the other huge problem: the fact that the PlayStation 3 just wasn’t ready. Most of the way through development it wasn’t a system at all, but a processor on a circuit board that you could make do things. Until the very last second, nobody knew how its online components would work or what the platform requirements might be– Sony simply hadn’t written them yet.

The fundamental nonexistence of the PlayStation 3 as a real platform and game development system didn’t stop the powerful marketing organization behind the PlayStation brand from going into overdrive. If you flew to Los Angeles to attend 2005’s Electronic Entertainment Expo, there was a sticker on the television of your hotel room: “Welcome Chang3,” it read, as did numerous signs and billboards around the convention center. Expectations ran impossibly high, but that year, the press conference didn’t just meet them: it exceeded them beyond imagination. Trailers for upcoming games showcased improbable details like mud splattered on a windshield being smeared by a running wiper, or a close-up of steam rising from the sweat-sheened skin of a martial artist. Talk was breathlessly reported about what games might be like at hundreds of frames per second or running on two 1080p monitors simultaneously.

Sony’s booth on the show floor had a theatre, and attendees lined up to be admitted inside, to be subjected to a brief movie about “connected entertainment” with some vague, hand-wavy video sequences showing things like car shopping in an augmented reality where real-time computer graphics could be superimposed over and integrated into a live video stream. What that had to do with anything was anybody’s guess, but it hardly mattered. As people exited the theatre they filtered past a mockup of the PlayStation 3 enclosure, in silver, and a strange controller that looked like a boomerang. Everyone held up their cel phones to take a picture. “Come on, people, it’s just the box!” someone shouted.

One day, deep in crunch, I finally realized that PlayStation 3 games would be about as good as Xbox 360 games, in the grand scheme of things– that there were more similarities than differences in the two consoles’ relative power for typical video game software. If I was more technical, this might have registered sooner, but as it was, it took my actually working with the thing to understand it was as much a product of the current generation as anything else– not a piece of impossibly advanced technology that had traveled backwards in time to get to us. But most of the people I spoke to (who, to be fair, weren’t trying to ship a PlayStation 3 launch title) were taken aback by this notion. Such was the hold that the PlayStation 3 had taken of their imaginations that even claiming it would only be slightly better than the Xbox 360 was a shock to their understanding of the world.

It’s remarkable how long it takes for such perceptions, once fixed, to fade in peoples’ minds, however. The first cracks in the façade were exposed to the public at the following E3, in 2006, with the infamous press conference that saw the system’s specifications downgraded, its price revealed to be astronomical, and a flop of a game demonstration that had people snickering at the phrase “giant enemy crab” for months to come. But even after all that, and again after the system actually came out and you could inspect its games for yourself, people were still claiming that the watershed moment was yet nigh– just as soon as those lazy developers got around to “figuring out” how to unlock that inscrutable Cell’s latent superpowers.

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The lessons from Sony’s great misadventure, of course, are well-documented: that greater raw strength does not mean greater fitness for the task at hand, that creating a development environment is not the same thing as creating a piece of hardware, that marketing needs to act in harmony with the actual product and set expectations responsibly. It’s too bad that the cost of learning them was falling from being the unassailable leader to third place among three. And the further unfortunate thing is that the incredible, often heroic efforts of those at Sony and elsewhere to bootstrap a next-generation entertainment platform into existence from nothing under great duress deserve much praise. This stuff is very difficult to do at all, let alone get right, and the final version of the PlayStation 3 ultimately delivered to consumers is by all accounts a superbly engineered piece of consumer electronics. I mean, hey, at least the GPU doesn’t melt off after a little normal use.