Saturday, 14 April 2018

PlayStation 3: The Negative Influence of Externalities

There's an old maxim about patience. The gist of it is that patience is a virtue. Do you know how the maxim goes? "Patience is a virtue". That's how it goes.

Patience is a virtue, especially when it comes to video games. Games are often released in a partially-completed state and are only finished after months of patches, assuming they're finished at all. Brand-new games are expensive, and in the absence of any decent gaming journalism there's no way to tell whether a game is any good or not without getting hold of it first. Time is like a blowtorch to bad games. It burns away the dross. The righteous survives.

Some good games, plus Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising. Total cost about £15, versus about £250 if I had bought them new. Not pictured: Batman: Arkham Asylum, Journey, and Thomas Was Alone.

And so it came to pass that only twelve short years after the PlayStation 3 was released, I decided to try it out. Or rather six years. Twelve years. Six years. Nine years. The PlayStation 3 was launched in 2006 but didn't really start to win over the crowd until the Slim model, which was released in 2009. My machine is the final version, the Super-Slim, which was introduced in 2012. At that point the machine was nearing retirement but still had a bit of life left in it. The console's heyday was roughly 2008-2012, but The Last of Us, Grand Theft Auto V and Journey, among others, were released in a final burst during the Super-Slim era.

The PlayStation 3 had an infamously rough launch. It came out a year after the XBox 360, but despite Sony's incredibly bullish publicity sales were very slow at first. For three years it was outsold by the PlayStation 2, which had been launched in 2000, and on a technological level the esoteric architecture promised much but continually failed to deliver a knock-out blow to the competition. Review after review of multiplatform titles pointed out that games on the XBox 360 looked much the same if not slightly smoother than games on the PS3, and ran no slower.

On a technological level the PlayStation 2 was a major advance over the original PlayStation, but the PlayStation 3 felt like more of the same, but at a slightly higher resolution and a much higher price. You may have already seen this video, which compiles highlights of Sony's 2006 launch announcement:

Five hundred and ninety-nine dollars was a lot of money in 2006. At launch the console was more than four times the price of a brand-new PlayStation 2 Slim, two hundred dollars more than an XBox 360. Here in the UK it was £425, particularly galling given that the Sterling/Dollar exchange rate was almost two dollars to the pound at the time. There was a cheaper model with a smaller hard drive, but it wasn't sold in the UK. The UK launch bundle included the cables and a controller and that was it! No game, no Blu-Ray film, nothing.

Gran Turismo 5 was the first proper Gran Turismo game for the PlayStation 3. It was stuck in development hell for ages and didn't come out until 2010. In general it was worth the wait, although it only came into its own after a series of patches.

The PS3 was much cheaper than a home theatre system or a gaming PC, but neither of those markets were particularly interested in a games console. Kids who just wanted to play the new Metal Gear Solid game found it difficult to persuade their parents to splash out on a PS3, and even though 2006 was still in the midst of a credit-fuelled boom I imagine that adults were starting to feel uneasy about having thousands of pounds of debt spread across six credit cards.

Sony didn't care that the PS3 was expensive. The company expected you to work more hours to afford one, or take up a second job, and that's not a joke - in an interview that raised eyebrows in 2005 Sony bigwig Ken Kutaragi opined that consumers would want to work more hours to buy a PS3. He pooh-poohed the competition and came across as a man drunk on his own success; to be fair the PlayStation and PlayStation 2 were the best-selling consoles of all time, but by 2006 the competition was much stiffer.

Nonetheless, as far as Sony was concerned the PlayStation 3 had no competition and would sell five million units even if there were no games to play on it and no films to watch, and again I'm not making this up. Sony executive David Reeve really did believe that five million Sony fans would buy a PlayStation 3 just to own it. There's no way of knowing if he was right or not. My personal recollection is that the PS3 didn't have the same kind of confident swagger as the PS2, or the understated class of the original PlayStation. If it had been a film, it would have been the 1998 version of Godzilla; a synthetic event that made a lot of money but didn't have a future.

I bought mine mainly as a Blu-Ray player. Zardoz isn't a great Blu-Ray showcase - Geoffrey Unsworth used fog filters and smoke abundantly - and John Boorman's commentary is sourced from the DVD, but it's a fascinating film. Shown here the Twilight Time edition. All the screenshots in this article were taken by photographing the screen. Zardoz is not yet a computer game but the material is there.

And yet over the next decade Sony gradually turned things around. The PlayStation 3's launch range was weak, but when developers finally got to grips with it a string of great games emerged, and I imagine that if you were born after the year 2000 you probably remember the console more fondly than I do. Despite the high price it sold tens of millions of units and, although it was outsold by by XBox 360, the gap was tiny, and the XBox had a one-year head start. It established Blu-Ray as the sole high-def optical disc format, albeit that it was something of a Pyrrhic victory. Its exclusive titles included Gran Turismo 5, God of War III, The Last of Us and Uncharted 2, classics all. Furthermore its hardware really did form the basis of a credible supercomputer. although the company's decision to drop Linux support with later versions of the firmware put the brakes on its supercomputer applications.

Before launch Sony boasted that the PS3 was a paradigm-shifting home entertainment centre, but although this sounded like bluster the PS3 was a solid Blu-Ray and DVD player, and from 2008 onwards Sony's PlayTV peripheral turned it into a competent television recorder. It could play media from USB sticks and even surf the internet at a pinch, although the browser was very clunky and Sony never implemented an app store (e.g. there was never a word processor or spreadsheet for the PS3, even though it supported USB keyboards and mice).

Nonetheless the PS3 will always be tainted by the scent of failure, or at the very least unfulfilled promise. It was expensive to make, and over the console's lifespan Sony had to cut features to get the unit cost down - PlayStation 2 compatibility went first, then Linux support, then eventually the motorised disc slot. On a broader level it embodied everything that had gone wrong with Sony. The company began the decade as a well-loved consumer electronics giant that seemed to "get it", but by 2010 it was an unwieldy giant with a reputation for technical eccentricity and a range of products designed by different departments that didn't want to compete with each other. With the PlayStation 4 Sony has regained some of its former magic, but it will never be the invincible world-dominating-and-we-don't-mind Sony of the early 2000s.

The first two models had a slot-loading Blu-Ray drive. The Super Slim has a top-loader, plus a smaller case with simpler internals. It has a smaller power supply and uses less power than the other machines. According to my voltmeter, this Super Slim model draws 65w idling and around 73w when playing Fallout 3, less than half the original 2006 fat model.

Most PlayStation 3s came with a standard 2.5" SATA laptop hard drive, which was user-replaceable. My model - a late budget variant only sold in Europe - has a 12gb flash drive built onto the motherboard. I think it was an experiment created in response to the flooding in Thailand that raised hard drive prices. Although PlayStation 3 games mostly stream from the Blu-Ray, 12gb still isn't enough for more than a couple of games, but the hard drive bay is fully functional and it's easy to add a hard drive.

You do however need to get hold of a hard drive bracket, but they're available on eBay for a fiver including postage. The PlayStation 3 formats the drive, and then asks if you want to transfer everything across from the 12gb internal storage; you can't use both storage media at the same time.

Let's talk about the technology. The PlayStation 3 used a novel new CPU - the Cell Broadband Engine - that had been designed by Sony, Toshiba, and IBM. It was essentially a multi-core development of the PowerPC 970 that appeared in the Apple Power Macintosh G5, but with a twist. The Cell combined a single-core 64-bit PowerPC Power Processing Element with eight Synergistic Processing Units or Synergistic Processing Elements depending on which source you read. The SPUs were little number-crunchers that could operate on blocks of data in parallel. Six of them were available to developers. The idea was that some tasks could be offloaded to the SPUs while the CPU ran the main game loop, but coding the SPUs required a lot of planning and know-how, and quite often games were ported to the console without making much use of the SPUs at all. This was unfortunate because the single-core PPE was, shorn of the SPUs, not particularly powerful. It was designed to be simple and power-efficient and lacked features that were standard in contemporary desktop CPUs.

I don't know what any of this means either. It sounds authoritative, that's what matters. Sony had high hopes for Cell. The company had a dream that in the near future your home would be full of Cell-powered devices that could link up with each other. It was apparently designed as a system-on-a-chip that would power televisions, Blu-Ray players, hi-fi systems and so forth; there are rumours that Sony's originally envisaged that the PlayStation 3 would not need a discrete graphics card, and that the SPUs could do all the work, but in the end that was too optimistic.

The PlayStation 3's GPU was a cut-down variation of the almost-two-year-old NVidia GeForce 7800. It had 256mb of memory. The rest of the PS3 had 256mb of memory to share between the Cell's main CPU and its SPUs. The lack of main memory and relatively weak graphics card were a continual bone of contention with developers. There was a perception that the console was terrific at modelling colliding galaxies but not particularly outstanding for games.

The PlayStation 3's GUI was called the XrossMediaBar. It's pronounced CrossMediaBar because the letter X is pronounced C in Sony's world. You push left or right to switch between games, films, online services, system settings etc, up and down to select options. It's not bad although occasionally sluggish, and the system menu is too big. The PlayStation Store is a buggy mess that crashes if you select "view downloads" if you don't have any downloads.

In contrast the XBox 360's architecture was simpler. It had a three-core IBM PowerPC chip, apparently a variation of the Cell's PPE, that shared a common pool of 512mb memory with a powerful, custom-made graphics card supplied by ATI. It appears that most XBox games didn't make use of the CPU's multi-core architecture, which potentially put the XBox at a disadvantage, but in practice developers didn't use the PS3's SPUs either. As a consequence most seventh-generation games ran on their respective consoles' CPU and GPU only, which benefited the XBox because it had a more powerful GPU.

Contemporary multi-platform reviews often pointed out that XBox games had better anti-aliasing and ran at slightly higher resolutions than the PlayStation 3 equivalents, with the poorly-optimised PS3 port of Half-Life 2 coming in for particular criticism. The XBox 360 version was a perfect recreation of the three-year-old PC original; the PS3 version was jerky and looked low-res in comparison. PlayStation fans blamed lazy devs for inferior ports, but now that all of the PlayStation 3's AAA titles have been and gone even the best-looking and best-optimised PlayStation 3 games were no better-looking or more powerful than their XBox 360 equivalents.

The PlayStation 3 had Blu-Ray, standard SATA hard drives vs the XBox's proprietary units, and a lower albeit still troublesome failure rate, but ultimately the XBox 360 was the better console. The original XBox was solid but mostly an irrelevance; with the XBox 360 Microsoft tried harder, and pulled off one of the most impressive turnarounds in video gaming history. And then ironically the company repeated most of Sony's mistakes with the XBox One, but that's another story entirely.

A filthy dirty DualShock 3. The PlayStation 3 was launched with the SIXAXIS, which looked the same but didn't have a rumble pack. Legal problems, apparently. As a PC person I'm used to keyboard and mouse, but the PlayStation's controller is a decent go at solving the problem of a compact, easily portable, handheld flexible control system.

There was a third player in the console wars. The Nintendo Wii was dismissed by young male games fans as a toy, because it was less powerful and came in a white case, and the pack-in game involved dancing around the living room with a motion-sensing remote control. It wasn't cool. It was however a huge sales success, and whereas the XBox and PlayStation were sold at a loss the Wii was profitable. Rumour had it that the console was essentially a Nintendo Gamecube with expanded memory and a faster processor but otherwise very few changes. Nintendo made a fortune from the Wii which it almost immediately wasted on the Wii U but again that's another story.

The success of the Wii caught Sony and Microsoft off-guard. It prompted both companies to launch their own motion-sensing technology - Sony even tried twice, firstly with the SIXAXIS controller and latterly with the PlayStation Move - although neither of them caught the public's imagination to the same extent as the Wii. The Move still exists but Microsoft's Kinect was discontinued at the end of 2017.

I have long been a home computer person, and for me games consoles are background noise, but even I was aware of the Nintendo Wii. It was covered in the national news. For a brief moment Nintendo was the smart underdog that gave the people what they wanted, and Sony and Microsoft were big unfriendly giants selling console equivalents of the Ford Excursion.

The PlayStation 3 was launched at a time when advertisements always had a black man and white woman smiling at each other on a couch, or there was an ambiguously far-eastern-looking woman instead of the white woman. It was an attempt to cover as many bases as possible with just two people.
I always felt sorry for the people who never appeared in adverts - black women, Asian men, far-eastern-Asian men. I guess that from an advertiser's point of view black women aren't "general-purpose people", they're a specialist market.
This advert includes a euro-hispanic man, who is scruffy in a way that suggests his parents are extremely rich. Notice how he is pushing his black friend out of the frame.
The PS3's menu is designed so that whenever you take out a game disc, this screen appears. It's irritating. EDIT: But thankfully in March 2020 Sony released an update that got rid of the Singstar screen. At last the PS3 has come of age.

As a used buy in 2018 the PS3 is in an interesting place. Sony still supports it online although the video service will be discontinued next month. There's a dwindling trickle of new games but the console is suffering the same "death by football games" that happens at the end of every successful system's life. The only major games are football games because there's always a market for football games.

The PS3 was released at the beginning of the always-online broadband age but it doesn't require an internet connection to play games, so even if Sony pulls the plug the PS3's disc-based titles will still work. It remains to be seen what will happen to downloaded games. Patching freshly-installed disc-based games might be a problem. It took a few years for developers to get to grips with the PlayStation 3, and the pace of technical advances in games development has slowed drastically over the last decade, with the result that the console's best titles don't feel a decade old today. Sony sold millions of units so there is a steady supply of used models.

Blu-Ray never took off to the same extent as DVD. It was in theory replaced in 2016 by Ultra-HD Blu-Ray, a 4K format, and it'll be interesting to see if (a) people who waited before switching to Blu-Ray skip it entirely in favour of UHD Blu-Ray (b) people give up in confusion and abandon optical media entirely (c) people decide to stick with Blu-Ray and stream films in 4K instead. The modern-day PlayStation 4 and XBox One have Blu-Ray drives, although only the 4K model of the XBox One has a 4K Blu-Ray drive.

The PlayStation 3 is nowhere near old enough to be a retro collectable, and I suspect that as with the original XBox or the Atari Jaguar it will never develop a collector's market. That air of failure again. Perhaps the original Linux-friendly models with the appropriate firmware will command a price premium.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Let's describe the PlayStation 3. There were three basic body styles, each of which had a bunch of internal revisions as Sony desperately tried to get the cost down. There are some commonalities. All models play all PlayStation 3 games although the 12gb flash model might not have space to install Gran Turismo 5. They also run PlayStation 1 games with software emulation. All models have a region-locked Blu-Ray drive and an internal hard drive bay that accepts 2.5" SATA hard drives, apparently up to 1tb in capacity. All models had two or four USB 2.0 ports that accepted mice and keyboards for use with the browser and user interface plus USB sticks and external hard drives, albeit FAT32 only. Of note only a tiny handful of actual games - two in total, as far as I can tell, including Unreal Tournament 3 - actually supported the mouse.

The original case was huge and resembled a George Foreman grill. The console's name was written in exactly the same font as the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies because they were released by Sony pictures and it was the same company and why not. It had a front-loading Blu-Ray drive with a motor that swallowed and ejected discs. Internally it was a mass of heat shields and heat pipes that resembled a steel smelting plant, with a huge fan. Early iterations of the first generation PS3 had four USB ports; later revisions removed two of the ports; all subsequent models had two ports.

The 2009 Slim model had a smaller, simpler case but was otherwise very similar. The 2012 Super-Slim was even smaller, and swapped the motorised Blu-Ray drive for a manually operated top-loading model with a spring-loaded drive cover. Sony apparently lost over $200 on the fat PlayStation 3, $18 on the Slim model, and turned a slight profit on the Super-Slim.

The console also plays DVDs. It will upscale for HD. The results are subtler than I expected - you could leave the option turned on without it being offensive - although I'm not particularly keen on post-processing. NB Not every film I own has Sean Connery in it. This is Outland, a decent but inconsequential mash-up of Alien (the design) and High Noon (the plot).

Early PS3s were prone to overheating, which caused the solder balls connecting the CPU and GPU to the motherboard to crack, bricking the unit. This could apparently be fixed, at least temporarily, by heating the chips up enough to melt the solder, but as of 2018 I imagine it's not worth the bother. The first two models of the original, fat PlayStation 3 - the 40gb and 60gb launch models - also contained the CPU and GPU of a PlayStation 2 and could run PlayStation 2 games straight from the game discs. The next two models crippled the PlayStation 2 functionality and all subsequent models dropped it entirely.

The original, fat PlayStation 3 and early Slim models could also run Linux. The official PlayStation 3 distribution was Yellow Dog Linux, although other distributions could apparently be made to work. With only 256mb of memory and no access to the NVidia GPU the results were not pretty, although a number of high-performance computer clusters were built with PlayStation 3 consoles running Linux. The console's supercomputer applications made for good press but hurt Sony's bottom line because the units were sold at a loss and particle physicists were not allowed to use their grant money on games and films so the more consoles Sony sold the more money the company lost breathe in.

Sadly in 2010 Sony released a firmware update that disabled Linux support. If there's a way to install Linux on the PlayStation 3 in 2018 I haven't found it. The machine can apparently be jailbroken to run pirated games, but as of 2018 used titles are so cheap there's not really any point.

I still have my old PlayStation Doom disc. The PlayStation 3 emulates the PlayStation with software. The console version of Doom is fascinating. It has a super-creepy ambient soundtrack and some transparency effects (top) and coloured lighting (bottom). Note also the distant computer consoles in the bottom screenshot, which have a fullbright effect absent from other versions of the game. The changes from the PC original are subtle but the make PlayStation Doom feel more like a horror game than pure action.

The equivalent scenes from the PC original, running with the ZDoom source port. Irritatingly the price of used PlayStation games has gone up of late because they're now "collectables".

Games. One criticism levelled at the PlayStation 3 during its early days was a lack of games. The console was released in time for Christmas 2006 but had a very small launch range without an obvious flagship title. People who queued up to buy the PlayStation 3 had to wait years for their favourite franchises to make their debuts on the console - two years for Metal Gear Solid 5, Grand Theft Auto IV, and Tomb Raider Underworld, three years for Resident Evil 5 and Final Fantasy XIII, no less than four years for Gran Turismo 5 and God of War III.

The wait for Gran Turismo 5 was particularly embarrassing given that its predecessors had been the PlayStation's most popular system-exclusive titles. In the interim the developers released Gran Turismo HD Concept, a severely cut-down demo that remained on sale for less than a year, and Gran Turismo 5 Prologue, another cut-down demo that sold over five million copies but felt like an act of desperation.

On the positive side - and this is what saved the PlayStation 3, in the end - the games mostly turned out to be worth the wait. There were no high-profile disasters on a par with Duke Nukem Forever or Aliens: Colonial Marines. The PlayStation 3 had an unusually large number of very good AAA titles, including new exclusives such as the Uncharted series, Heavy Rain, LittleBigPlanet, and late-period triumph The Last of Us, plus solid ports of Red Dead Redemption, Batman: Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, and Grand Theft Auto V, which remains the biggest-selling game on the platform by a large margin.

A few ports were criticised for bugs, although having played Fallout 3 for a few hours this seems overblown. On the negative side most of the multi-platform titles sold more copies on the XBox 360, although as time went on and PlayStation 3 sales increased the margin narrowed. The worst that could be said of the PS3's games library is that there was an over-reliance on franchise entries - Madden and FIFA accounted for no less than twenty-two PS3 titles, essentially one per franchise per year from 2006-2017 onwards - but that problem wasn't unique to the PS3.

PlayStation fans often complained of a lack of exclusive titles for the PS3. If you weren't interested in Blu-Ray and didn't care about Gran Turismo the PlayStation 3 was essentially a more expensive XBox 360 with the same games, so what was the point?

There are essentially two kinds of exclusive titles. There are titles that are released for one platform because other platforms don't have the technology to do it justice, but this was never a factor for the PlayStation 3. There are also titles released for one platform because the publishers have signed a deal not to port the game elsewhere. In this case the PlayStation 3's inability to convincingly outsell the XBox 360 meant that Sony found itself in a position of weakness when it came to the negotiating table; in particular longtime Sony pal Square Enix' decision to release Final Fantasy XIII for the XBox 360 as well as the PlayStation 3 seemed like a vote against the console, and Rockstar Games' contractual obligation to release Grand Theft Auto simultaneously on different platforms irritated fans of the series who had to wait while the company wrestled with the Cell processor.

The Blu-Ray drive. This one has two lenses, one for Blu-Rays and one for CDs and DVDs. The original PlayStation 3 had a single lens with a beam splitter, but this was presumably more expensive or more complicated than just having two lenses.

There's also the issue of style. The Dreamcast may not have had the graphical horsepower of the PlayStation 2, but my recollection is that it had a tonne of games with interesting visuals. There was the cell-shaded Jet Set Radio - a cliché later on, but refreshingly novel at the time - the glossy Space Channel 5, the psychedelic Rez and Cosmic Smash amongst others. Until the late-period indie renaissance of Journey and Thomas Was Alone I don't recall many PlayStation 3 games with the same sense of style. Some games looked fantastic, notably God of War III, but there's a difference between scale and style; the former tends to date whereas the latter sticks in the mind. The PlayStation 3 lived and died at a time when the market had shifted towards identical-looking sandy-brown military simulators or graphically uniform fantasy games with rusted brown armour.

The PlayStation 3 did have one thing that the competition didn't, however. It could play Blu-Ray discs. This was supposed to drive sales of the console in the same way that DVD had driven sales of the PlayStation 2, and also encourage consumers to pop out and buy a 40-inch high-def Sony Bravia television in order to fully appreciate 1080p. Blu-Ray quickly beat HD-DVD to win the HD format war, but the hardware added greatly to the console's cost and with every passing year it seemed as if the war had been pointless. As a casual viewing format the jump from 480p to 1080p was less apparent than the leap from VHS to DVD, and furthermore consumers were sick of having to buy the same films yet again. It's worth noting that although the PS3 output a 1920x1080 signal, most games ran at 1280x700 and were scaled up to 1080p.

Blu-Ray also introduced a copy protection feature that prevented HD playback unless the console was connected to a television or monitor with a HDMI cable. If the console was connected with analogue composite or component cables Blu-Ray output was scaled down to DVD resolution. The final version of the console even disabled Blu-Ray playback entirely unless there was a HDMI connection to the television. It was supposed to stop piracy but it just added additional layers of faff. Furthermore the launch model was bundled with analogue cables, so I wonder if millions of PlayStation 3 owners are, to this day, playing Blu-Rays at DVD resolution without realising.

As a PC person I ignored Blu-Ray entirely. Playing DVD films on a PC is easy - VLC will do it - but Blu-Rays require special software, and you can't make screen captures. As a means of transferring data it's much less portable than DVD because no-one else has a Blu-Ray drive. Notably Apple never got fully behind Blu-Ray; to this day no Apple computer has ever had a Blu-Ray drive.

Furthermore despite having much greater capacity than DVD - 50gb vs 4.7gb - Blu-Ray was released at a time when 500gb hard drives were common and 1tb models were on the horizon, in which case 50gb was a drop in the ocean for backup purposes.

As a games delivery medium the extra space eliminated the need for disc swapping, which was nice although not a system-selling feature. As of 2018 DVD still outsells Blu-Ray by a large margin, and both formats are being slowly killed off by streaming video. DVD and DVD burners are more widespread, and even the resolution advantage can be mitigated by burning MP4 files to DVD.

Uncharted 2 was praised for its cutscenes. By objective standards they're just as badly-written, badly-acted, awful-looking and dramatically unnecessary as any other cutscenes, but perhaps the competition was very weak. Do you remember how in Raiders of the Lost Ark we learned almost nothing about Indiana Jones, but he was immediately appealing because Harrison Ford is a charismatic actor and the script was smart?
Computer games are the opposite of that, and Uncharted's Nathan Drake is no exception. Masses of meaningless backstory, pages of boring dialogue, awful video game acting with flailing arms, no charisma.

Incidentally the PlayStation 3 was, as far as I can tell, the very first Blu-Ray player. Sony's standalone BDP-S1 was released shortly afterwards at a higher price, £700 here in the UK versus £425 for a PlayStation 3. It was aimed at the high-end AV market and had masses of connectors, but even so it illustrates just how much the Blu-Ray drive contributed to the PlayStation 3's cost, and also that if you really wanted a Blu-Ray drive the Playstation 3 was a relative bargain.

As mentioned earlier in the article most multi-platform games actually sold better on the XBox 360, but the PlayStation 3 managed to sell almost as many units as the XBox because more people bought it as a multimedia device. The basic idea of getting people to buy a console for its media output was sound, and had worked perfectly with the PlayStation 2, but as mentioned twice already Blu-Ray didn't feel special. It was DVD with more pixels.

It's fascinating to imagine how things might have gone if I, Ashley Pomeroy, had been around to sort out the PlayStation 3. During the 2000s MIPS and PowerPC and SPARC were rapidly overtaken by ARM (for mobile) and x86 (on the desktop). The PlayStation 3 was launched about a year after Apple transitioned from the IBM PowerPC to x86, specifically the Intel Core Duo, and the modern XBox One and PlayStation 4 both use x86-compatible processors manufactured by AMD.

Assuming I could travel back in time to 2004 or so and assume dictatorial powers over Sony, I would have been tempted to build the PlayStation 3 around a low-voltage Intel Core Duo, or if that wasn't yet on the drawing board I would use a Pentium M, plus a monster graphics card, as much shared memory as I could afford, and a DVD drive. Eliminating the Cell would have saved a fortune in development costs. Eliminating the Blu-Ray drive would have kept the cost of the console down.

The resulting machine would have resembled a contemporary PC laptop without a screen or keyboard but with a much much better graphics card, so I would further cut costs by merging the PlayStation design team with the Viao laptop team, sacking one-third of the staff in the process. My PlayStation 3 would have been conceptually similar to the XBox, but with OpenGL/PSGL instead of DirectX as its graphics API. Assuming I was still around in 2009 I would have thought about adding a hopefully-now-cheaper Blu-Ray drive to the Slim model as an added incentive to buy the console.

As a PC person I'm used to multi-gigabyte patches. But Gran Turismo V installs twenty-seven patches and this is just the first. And even after patching the game you still have the optional-but-not-really step of installing 6gb of data to the PlayStation's hard drive.
Having said that, Doom 2016 for the PC is a mandatory 65gb hard drive install, so Gran Turismo V's installation doesn't seem so bad.

Of course, in real life I didn't have dictatorial powers over Sony in 2005, and there was a mass of behind-the-scenes nitty-gritty driving the company's decision-making process, and it's entirely possible that a well-received PlayStation 3 wouldn't have made a dent in Sony's massive losses. Sony's top men presumably felt that the PlayStation 3 was highly "synergistic", but what was needed was a well-respected figure who was prepared to tell Sony that the Blu-Ray drive was a distraction, that the Cell's vector processing power didn't make any sense inside a television, and that the PlayStation 3 should be remembered by history as a top games machine first and a converged multimedia device second.

Historically that is the approach that Nintendo uses - make a games console, commission some good games, make people happy and worry about multimedia later - and although the results haven't always been successful for Nintendo my hunch is that devising strategy for a games machine is a lot easier and less prone to the negative influence of externalities than devising strategy for an amorphous entertainment hub.

But what about the games? There were apparently over 1,500 titles for the PlayStation 3, plus a few hundred PlayStation 2 titles that were ported to the console with software emulation. In the next post I will talk about some of them. But for now I have reached the end of words. Hurry up, it's time.