It’s Wednesday, 19 October, 2022 in Portland, Oregon. It’s getting cooler this week, and we’re still forecast to get rain over the weekend. Depending on who you ask, iOS Weather says the current AQI is 150, AirNow.gov says it’s 195. Either way, outdoor school is cancelled again.
Welcome to the anthropocene.
Continuing a loose series of thinking out loud about PlayStation’s place in the videogame industry:
Well, this might be worrying if you were PlayStation, although it shouldn’t be news:
Netflix’s gaming business (which they more or less signaled after explicitly stating that they’re competing with other leisure activities for share of hours-spent-with-your-brand-per-day): Matthew Ball (who’s a good follow!) wrote last year that videogames are Netflix’s most threatening competitor3, not another media streaming brand like Disney, HBO Max or Amazon Prime Video.
As an aside, I don’t know if Netflix will ever change its name to reflect it’s increasingly obvious focus on leisure time. The last time, I think, that Netflix tried to change its brand name, it came up with Qwikster to hive out its DVD business. That didn’t work, people still liked getting DVDs by mail, and within a month the name change for DVD rentals was reversed and everything went back to being under the Netflix brand.
Netflix, for what it’s worth, is an air-quotes bigger air-quotes company than Sony with a market cap of 122.6 billion! Sony’s is only 82.5 billion, which I feel is a bit of a discount and the disgusting corporate raider part of me wonders if SIE would be worth more if it span out and was publicly traded. I do not, though, think that would be a good idea, but that’s just a gut reaction.
But! Netflix faces a similar problem to PlayStation in that growth in one area (subscriptions) has peaked, that they’re facing competition in terms of their content library (everyone in video/film is trying to build their own exclusive moat now that the costs of delivering a premium paid subscription video service are somewhat manageable, are more of a commodity (given that nobody appears to give a shit about good streaming app user experience)), and have to follow through on their we’re about leisure time strategy and make headway into videogames. There’s some fiddling around the edges – trying to increase subscriber counts by adding an ad-supported tier now that their offering isn’t quite as compelling as similarly priced or cheaper offerings like Disney Plus and a renewed effort at dealing with people sharing accounts.
So. Videogames. For now, they’re free and bundled into the service but again, this is a new category for them. They’re providing subscription access to new games, so they’re not going after videogamers [sic], they’re again going after the explicit leisure market, which includes the moments you snatch while, I don’t know, waiting for a bus or sittin’ outside, sippin’ your pumpkin spice latte in your $80,000 electric crossover waiting to pick up your kids from school.
Netflix’s catalogue is, right now, unapologetically “casual” [sic] and because of its launch on mobile platforms is a certain kind of game – the kind of game that fits technically on a mobile device across iOS and Android and tablets, but also the kind of game that fits into the “game you play on a mobile device” gestalt.
Netflix divides its catalogue into:
One thing that I’d be interested in seeing that I’m not sure if Netflix will ever divulge is the number of attention-minutes its subscription games garner. What’d be really interesting would be to see how those eyeball-attention-minutes compare to, say, Meta’s Quest videogames. Or all of Meta Quest in general. I know! They’re different things! But they’re both entrants into certain markets.
So here’s how this ties into PlayStation, he says, thinking out loud:
PlayStation doesn’t do leisure games. Sure, they have leisure games, but I’m relatively sure that all the leisure games are ports, because PlayStation is, weirdly, lean-forward-and-lean-back in that they’re games that bring you in. They are, like I think I said before, the movie and film equivalent of IMAX videogames. They are not play-anywhere videogames and this should be obvious, but sometimes the obvious is discounted or ignored because it’s been there the whole time. The whole fish doesn’t know what water is. (You could even argue that this is reflected in the brand name: a place, a station, where you play. Which, again, doesn’t anymore have to be a physical place in that it had to be in the mid-90s)
PlayStation, like I start exploring above is tied to hardware and a place, that hardware and place was designed for videogames, so its history is steeped in an activity that is immersive and not quite drop-in-outable and this is despite PS5’s efforts towards fast load times and instant resume. I can see how fast load, instant resume are quality of life improvements, but they’re quality of life improvements for core [sic] videogamers, and not I think coming from the perspective of expectations of consumer electronics these days. There’s also the side benefit that hardware really supporting fast load/resume also happens to involve internal architecture and cleaning up some legacy “what a computer is” hardware design that you can get with custom-but-also-x86-64 as a base.
For PlayStation to compete with Netflix would require a full-on brand repositioning. I’d love to see what people think about PlayStation right now. For all that people say PlayStation has been the winner at videogames, that belies how we describe and put arbitrary lines around the videogame market. PlayStation won at sit-down gaming, and even then in a category that we (the industry) decided was separate enough from PC gaming, because you bought the box for the thing.
But, you know, as Microsoft is somewhat shy to point out, your Xbox Series X|S can pretty much run Windows apps without much tweaking.
PlayStation tried to get into not-sitting-videogames and didn’t get it right. It tried with the PlayStation Portable4, a ridiculously overpowered at the time handheld that launched in 2005 in the US at USD $249, $100 more than the Nintendo DS at the time. Statista reckons PSP lifetime sales were ~81 million which frankly is a stunning number (the follow-up 2011 PlayStation Vita, is reckoned to have sold around 15-16 million units, compared to its peer in the generation, ~75 million Nintendo 3DSes).
Of course the entire time this was happening, smartphones exploded and became a thing.
In this respect, you could argue (well, I guess it’s not argue, it’s true) that PlayStation’s hardware sales included an extra, generously, ~100 million units at roughly $250 a piece retail, and that those stopped in 2019 when manufacturing stopped. Arguably (correctly, I think, this time) that hardware income was dwarfed in the meantime by the rise in digital add-on sales [sic] and the digital storefront cut, plus increasing PlayStation Plus subscriptions.
But. In the meantime, that means there’s no PlayStation Anywhere strategy other than streaming PlayStation exclusive games that are tied to the console hardware, whether that hardware is virtualized in the cloud and significantly more economical (I’d hope!) than the retail consumer hardware, or it’s streaming from consumer-owned, consumer-hosted consoles (I’d expect this to be a tiny number).
So PlayStation hasn’t shown up in the play-anywhere only-videogames market, where Nintendo’s sold ~111 million units since March 2017 at a consistent, non-discounted $299 – a good $50 more than the launch price of the PlayStation Portable and the PS Vita).
PlayStation also hasn’t shown up in the leisure-anywhere-that-includes-videogames market, which is basically “mobile games” and Apple and Google act as a gatekeeper, and where entrants like Netflix have started to figure out how to (potentially) grow their market and eat into others without having to pay the app store tax.
These are both choices, and they go straight to the core of what PlayStation is, what is has been since the start, and what it wants – or needs – to be in the future if it wants to continue growing and be successful.
PS VR is a long bet, and also one that I’ve mentioned before is an attach-item. It might exist on its own – but the state of the art at the appropriate price point is the standalone Meta Quest 2, now at $399, originally $299 in the Beforetimes.
You’ve got a technical envelope you can hit inside $250-299 and because of the corner PlayStation have decided themselves into, based on Play Has No Limits (itself unclear! What kind of limits? The limits broken in demonstration through the hardware and the games of course), performance gaming on a big TV.
You can hit PS4 era videogames on Valve’s Steam Deck, which starts at $399. Which is a PC. Which also is thanks to AMD’s Semi/Custom group. Which is handy, because PlayStation knows how to work with them.
But PlayStation isn’t about letting you play last generation’s games wherever you want. Is it? Should it be? And if it is, is the hockeypuck where you’re running those games locally on local compute and GPU, or are you streaming them?
This is why Netflix is such a threat to PlayStation – because just like Microsoft deciding it wants to play a different game in subscription services with exclusive, gated library content, Netflix has decided it’s playing the leisure time game and is also prepared to throw money at it. Maybe it’ll work. But again, these are all choices for PlayStation to make, they just need to have the courage to make them.
I wrote about the metaverse being the in-between recently5, that the metaverse isn’t a singular place like a Fortnite or a Horizon Worlds or a Second Life (even though the latter was the closest at the time), but that it was the translation and portability between things and how that translation and portability happens in a not-literal way.
Now I’m going to argue the opposite, and I’ll start with the simple:
PlayStation should buy Electronic Arts just for their Maxis studio, which will get them The Sims 5
There’s reports that The Sims 56 (in early development, so you know, ymmv) will have a build mode and an explicit play-anywhere strategy, being “fully cross-platform”, which at this point is meaningless if it doesn’t include full-on mobile.
The build mode also looks like a full on object creator and editor.
Here’s what PlayStation would get:
I mean. If it’s there, you know. I’d buy it just to see what would happen.
Throw all of it behind PlayStation Plus, of course. Turn The Sims into a subscription product. Whatever. That would all be very annoying and offensive. But still. Worth a thought.
Okay, that’s it for today!
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s13e07: It’s not a place, it’s what’s in-between; Twitter will be unbundled, me again, October 13, 2022 ↩
The Sims 5 is in early development, has cool new build mode, The Verge, Cass Marshall, October 18, 2022 ↩