It’s Friday, 7 October, 2022 in Portland, Oregon and outside is fog and grey.
The weather should do what it’s normally supposed to do this season: the fog burns off toward the afternoon and then around 4pm we hit our high temperature of the day.
This is part three of an impromptu series of what does PlayStation do when console hardware sales growth has peaked?
First, apologies for today’s subtitle, software defined brands, because a) ugh, more software-is-everything, and b) brands, but you know what? It’s also true, no matter the memetic and discourse poisoning of how fast an insight to a thing gets repurposed and laid with baggage.
I’m using my favorite strategy framework, Playing to Win, again, at my day job, so it happens to be top of mind as I do this thinking-out-loud about what a multi-decade plan for PlayStation might look like.
This type of thing involves working up and down a cascade that goes like this:
Longtime readers will notice that much of my work has involved working closely with exec leaders to find out what it is, exactly, they’re supposed to (or want to!) achieve, and then making sure, for the part that I’m brought into, at least, that a particular bit of “technology” or “IT” actually delivers that desired outcome. You will be unsurprised that many times the “technology” or “IT” has been procured or bought or been in development for a long time with hardly any clarity in terms of “what it’s supposed to do and why”, other than “because… we have to.”
Fortunately nobody else is normally doing a good job of thinking clearly this way, so it’s all a much of a muchness in terms of competition.
(In government, “where will we play” are sometimes difficult questions to answer because the naive answer is “we serve everyone” and while that is true on a high level, it is definitely not true. I will be very happy to explain this in detail and work with you as to how it applies to your particular situation. The other part, “how will we win” is also difficult for government folks and also non-profits, I guess, because the traditional answers are “by competing on cost or differentiation” which are also areas in which government believes it is boxed into but again! Are not strictly true! There is much space that is not cheaper or differentiation.)
Also, this whole thing is a cascade. Even though it’s numbered, it works upwards and downwards to reinforce as a sort of whole gestalt the entire goal of winning, however you want to define it. (It also works at whatever level of hierarchy). It’s hard to show it’s normally shown as a waterfall, and humans being humans in a universe with a distinct opinion about entropy don’t have an (I think, at least, on 5 seconds of consideration) easy mental visual models of reversible processes because nature doesn’t work that way. Go figure!
PlayStation needs to figure out what choices it has in where to play and it absolutely has choices. It could play in mobile again, and it could play in mobile on other peoples’ devices, which it does by offering a streaming app on e.g. iOS. It could also play in mobile devices in the way it has in the past – by designing and shipping hardware. It could even decide to make hardware with a partner – like the original partnership with Nintendo – or it could decide to license out, like the ill-fated Mac Clones, or 3DO’s strategy.
It could also choose to play on different platforms. PlayStation has a choice as to whether to show up on iOS or Android but those are hardware/software platforms. PlayStation could show up and decide to play in the places where people spend time – Netflix is doing this by playing the game of win at the amount of people who pay to give us attention and branched out into games. Disney appears to have a bit of a weird situation here because they’re also kind of but not getting back into games? That was a digression.
What I mean is PlayStation could in a tired way (sorry) decide to show up in “social” and the places where certain types of people send their time. It could show up in Instagram, it could show up in Twitch, it could show up in YouTube and so on. It could, like I mentioned yesterday, show up in TikTok.
The reason why where to play is positioned in a way as the second question is that the answer to the question what does it mean to win, which also essentially encompasses what does it mean to be PlayStation, starts defining the choices about where to play.
This is where the software-defined brand comes in to play (sorry. Again).
PlayStation could decide, for example, that it wants to be the place where the most people experience rich, interactive worlds and have fun – where playing includes creating – with each other in realtime. That would be a bit like Minecraft, so again, you’d need to figure out how to differentiate.
So now… well, is PlayStation competing with Unreal? With Unity? Unity only went and nearly (or did?) get bought by a goddamn mobile ad company, which I think partly caught some people by surprise because at a high level it’s non-intuitive as to what a game engine that’s merging with photo-real modeling and realtime rendering plus an asset store has to do with mobile ads.
But… PlayStation also has a game engine that’s merged with photo-real modeling and realtime rendering with and an asset store because it has Dreams. Sony has a whole bunch of first-party studios (and second party) that might even use those player generated assets (no, don’t even fucking mention that word), and that’s only after they might considering making more/better/more efficient usage of assets across studios, to commoditize certain areas of production and creative so that… so that what, exactly? And that’s why you need to figure out what exactly it is you’re competing in and against.
Look, here’s another part:
Apple has Gamecenter which is… anemic, I think? Do people use it? Maybe? I don’t. Words With Friends uses it maybe? It’s used for matchmaking? But the big games don’t, and game center you can kind of see as a rudimentary, evolutionary dead-end of a lobby, a sort of “we need this at the very least to be a minimally viable games platform”.
But then you zoom out a bit, and Apple (and Facebook, and Google, and Microsoft) are also identity providers.
… what if PlayStation were an identity provider? What sort of capability or strategy to win would that reinforce? What would it be like to login with PlayStation, and why would that be good for a) players, b) developers/studios/publishers, and c) PlayStation? And how might you navigate that in this wonderful age of slightly-more-backboned privacy and consumer rights regulators? (Sony is already facing attention in the EU for having a monopoly on… the digital storefront that is on the PlayStation)
Anyone who has a PSN id already has an email address, it’s a fair bet most of them have an email address that’s with one of the major identity providers anyway. So again, what could be worth it, and in what contexts could it be worth it to sign in with a PSN id?
Because that means PlayStation becomes a bit more amorphous, that it extends beyond just “games that you play on PlayStation hardware, or in a PlayStation app, or even open with a PlayStation Studios tag”, the latter of which is a very new development with ports/adaptations to PC.
And again, thinking out loud: Nike is possibly the most consumer interactive brand that Apple has ever partnered with, I think, and I don’t see Apple partnering with Microsoft in games. But… is there a partnership between Apple and PlayStation that’s worth it? Might PlayStation bet that PlayStation Studios games be the first ones that launch with Apple’s thousand-odd-dollar augmented reality kit? Might you even get the equivalent of Reality PlayStation in the same way you get WATCH NIKE?
I mean, you’d need to keep an eye on Apple. They launch with your mapping service and then they go and launch their own. But at the same time, Apple has never really gotten games and while there’s always tv and film creatives who are going to be drawn to drama (ha, and also not just creatives), Apple also are accused of not getting film and tv in the same way, but completely fumbling on how to promote shows and films (which hasn’t stopped them from winning awards, at least).
And that’s just scratching the surface.
This gets good and has something to do with technology, software and society, I promise. I’m totally confident I stick the landing here.
I said the other day that who watches the watchmen is a useless insight these days1 because we have enough watchers. There was a Washington Post story with insiders who are anonymous in exchange for the info etc but validated that as soon as Trump got in all rules and reasonable rules about the handling of national security information went out the window. There were certainly watchmen watching the watchers, and yet nothing was done.
In other words, who the fuck cares who watches the watchmen when there’s nobody enforcing consequences.
This is very frustrating and emblematic of a shift in power and therefore the mechanisms through which power and compacts and agreements are enforced, and it’s partly stressful because the world isn’t supposed to work this way and spoilers, it hasn’t worked this way perfectly ever but clearly enough (normally white men, or men of the appropriate pigmentation for your local jurisdiction) of it has worked for enough people for not too many people to complain.
But it’s breaking down a bit (duh), and very clearly at the highest level of government, executive leadership, and power in the western nations. I stare here, pointedly, at the U.S. and U.K. government institutions and the people who actually run them.
Now’s the turn.
This is why the blockchain people are desperately trying to persuade people about smart contracts and so on.
You can frame this – and it’s usually framed – as lack of trust in institution. We don’t trust the courts, we don’t trust the banks, we don’t trust whomever to do the right thing, sometimes because we’ve been fucked over in the past due to indifferent bureaucracy, and sometimes as a matter of human-decided policy on purpose and it doesn’t matter. So I get it, replace the institution with what you think is a known, computable institution (i.e. “code” or “software”)that is deterministic and will provably generate the same decision or outcome every single time. (Spoilers: unless you write your software differently, it won’t do that every single time, (e.g. not without stuff like formal methods?) so you’re replacing admittedly a low level of trust with what you hope is a higher level trust))
That’s the institutional trust angle.
But I think the different angle is automated, speedy accountability to outcome. The rules you said this was going to happen and it’s going to happen and what’s more, it’s going to happen quickly because it’s a trivial, computable issue.
In one respect the whole world has Moore’s lawed itself in that “progress” is accelerating, which is just another way, in a roundabout manner, I suppose, of saying that it’s getting easier to move faster to break more shit. And that speed at which you can move faster is cumulative, like, I don’t know some sort of law of motion. The speed at which you can move has always outpaced the speed of regulation to keep up inherently because our social processes (broadly, the democratic ones in the West) are based on the negotiations of the values and desires of lots of different people. To the software people out there who don’t get it, this is called politics and you also experience it every single goddamn day when you don’t get what you want and you have to wait because something in some shitty Jira isn’t prioritized the way you think it needs to be. Pop quiz hotshot, who doesn’t live in a totally scarcity-free economy? Oh wait, it’s all of us.
So we want Trump to be accountable. We want Elon to be accountable. (I mean, I and my friends, I think). I want cops to be accountable for the horrific shit they do on getting off on power. Sorry if you’re a cop, but also, not really. You don’t have a union, you have heavies who hold society hostage.
So here’s the bit: software made doing things easier and it made it easier do them quickly, and accountability nowhere near caught up. But that isn’t an inevitability, at least not to the degree that we have such a delta in the time between time-to-do-thing and time-for-accountability-to-catch-up. It would be good, then, to have some decent fucking proposals to improve accountability speed and outcome by using… the very methods that software is used to increase the speed of doing-things-that-need-being-kept-accountable. Now, you wouldn’t really want this to be done arbitrarily, you would it to reflect the democratically recognized and agreed upon rules and norms of your society. But you might, for example, want to be a lot clearer about, say, running gerrymandering autocorrect and that being a concept that should exist in peoples’ minds. AND YES I know that what the gerrymandering autocorrect is correcting towards is the hard bit, but you know, we’re supposed to do the hard things because they’re important.
Okay, that’s it. And it’s Friday! And apparently it’s a long weekend in America, and Indigenous Peoples’ Day which I totally forgot? That’s not good.
How are you?
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