Is the PS3 finally winning people over?

Sony won itself few friends with the roll-out of the PS3. But could it now have turned a corner, at last?

The PlayStation 3.

Last weekend marked, personally, a bit of a turning point. Under my television right now lies a PlayStation 3 and an Xbox 360, and for the past year or so, it’s the latter that’s been seeing the most action. This isn’t down to any format prejudice, it’s just that the 360 has seen the most interesting games, and has, to me, been the slightly friendlier system. Not least because I don’t seem to have to wait around for yet another update with alarming frequency.

But what happened at the weekend was, for the first time, I bought a multi-format game, and I bought it on the PlayStation 3 instead of the 360. And, when faced with that choice in the past, that’s not happened before. Granted, I regretted it as I waited for said game to install, but it’s still a bit of a personal turning point.

Yet I’ve had a sneaking suspicion for sometime that the thus-far troubled PlayStation 3 has been making a quiet comeback. Okay, perhaps it’s not that quiet, with Sony chest-beating about out-selling the Xbox 360 right now in the US, but it’s still managed to turn things around.

But then Sony really had to. It’s a well-told story that the PlayStation 3 didn’t have the most successful launch in the world. In the UK, it arrived late – courtesy, primarily, of the inclusion of the Blu-ray player inside – and it was expensive, selling for £425. Considering the PlayStation 2 won the last generation of the console battle by a landslide, it was little surprise when firms such as HMV would only accept initial pre-orders for the console if you bought a pack that totalled well over £600, if memory serves. Yet it didn’t take long for HMV, and the many other retailers and e-tailers that were imposing pre-ordering restrictions, to relax them. And come the launch day of the console, it wasn’t supply that was ultimately lacking: it was demand.

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Yet things had clearly changed. Here, for the first time, Sony was facing a competitor in Microsoft that had stamped its mark on its ground far more effectively than before, and in getting its machine to the market quickly – and well in advance of the PS3 – the Xbox 360 mopped up sales. Faced with a £400 PS3 on launch day with an uninspiring software line-up, or a much cheaper Xbox 360 with shelves creaking under the weight of games, it wasn’t a tricky decision for the buying public to make.

Sony didn’t help itself then by stripping away parts of the PS3 hardware. Already in the move across the Atlantic, we’d lost hardware backwards-compatibility with earlier PSOne and PS2 titles. But then, in an effort to cut the price of the machine just before last Christmas, Sony released a model with only two USB ports, no backward compatibility support at all and a smaller hard disk. The retailers brandishing big posters declaring that the PS3 was now under £300 neglected to mention that this had been achieved by stripping back the specs of the machine that was on sale. I’d suggest that nine out of ten buyers last Christmas had no idea it’d happened.

The PS3, of course, had been used as a major pawn in the high-definition format war, and it’s likely that the console swung victory towards Blu-ray and away from HD DVD. Yet it’s a win that came at a cost, with the late arrival of the PS3 giving Microsoft an opportunity with the Xbox 360 that it wasn’t going to squander (although it had a damn good go with the red rings of death).

The greater worry, though, came from those who did fork out for a PS3. Because once you’d battled your way through the impressive Resistance: Fall Of Man, there just wasn’t that much else of interest on sale. For many months, the PS3 software library didn’t look close to competing with the 360’s, and the lack of big Playstation franchises such as Wipeout, Gran Turismo, Tekken and Metal Gear Solid really didn’t help at all.

In the opposing camp – and we’re not even touching on how Nintendo outflanked both Sony and Microsoft with the Wii in this piece – the Xbox 360 was having no such problems. Killer game followed killer game, as Gears Of War, Halo 3, Bioshock, Mass Effect, The Orange Box and many more swept up sales. And in a nod to the reported difficulties in programming for the PS3, it’s perhaps telling that the PlayStation version of The Orange Box was ‘problematic’, and the Bioshock is only now – a year after the PC and Xbox 360 versions – heading to Sony’s machine.

And yet, slowly, things have started to turn. Wisely getting on with business while Microsoft’s Xbox 360 hit reliability problems, the PS3 hasn’t yet managed to match the 360 in terms of games, but it’s sure picking up speed. The first signs were arguably in the excellent Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, a success out of nowhere before Christmas that many proclaimed the best game on the PS3 to date.

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What’s more, it was the first exclusive for the PS3 since Resistance appeared that looked to deliver the goods for the machine. And while exclusives have been less important in this round of the console war, not least because many third parties are unwilling to produce them, they still have a habit of ratchetting up the numbers. Uncharted didn’t sell anywhere near at Halo levels, but it did mark some form of breakthrough.

Since then, the PS3 software catalogue has quietly built up, albeit primarily off the back of third party, multi-format releases. Sony has brought, with various levels of success, some of the exclusive names to the machine too. Everybody Golf: World Tour was perfectly fine, Namco’s Time Crisis 4 was a bit of a disappointment, SingStar came with wired microphones, and Gran Turismo 5: Prologue broke through with some impressive sales numbers (albeit at a lower price).

Yet while there are no award-winners in that lot, Sony has been building slow and steady momentum, at the point where Microsoft has been struggling to answer some of the questions asked of its Xbox 360 machine. The 360 release schedule, now that the spoils of Grand Theft Auto 4 have been shared (mainly in Microsoft’s favour), isn’t looking overly impressive before Christmas, with just Gears Of War 2 to really crow about.

The PS3, meanwhile, might just be in better shape. While I didn’t personally care too much for the indulgences of Metal Gear Solid 4, it’s undoubtedly a staggering, staggering piece of work, that’ll sit in the shop window of Game looking proud for months to come. It’s also a major PS3 exclusive, that may not have set console sales alight, but certainly sends out at least a signal of intent. Sony now needs to capitalise on this, and between now and the end of the year, it’s certainly going to have a go.

Thus, once Buzz is out of the way next month (which is likely to be better than the passable Microsoft attempt to cash-in on the quiz game genre, Scene It), Sony has LittleBigPlanet (surely one of the big hopes for the rest of the year), Resistance 2, Motorstorm 2 and EyeToy. And there are new Tekken, Gran Turismo and Killzone games likely to follow in 2009.

It still might not be enough, of course. In spite of accelerating hardware sales, Sony will still have a job to oust Nintendo and to earn much of a lead over Microsoft. Furthermore, it’s still some way off matching the 360’s software library for breadth and depth, and its PlayStation Network (in spite of Bishi Bashi Special for £3.49!) isn’t at the level of Microsoft Live Arcade.

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But this has just about, thus far, been a better year for the PS3 than the 360. The hope is that the firm can learn its lessons, treat its customers with a bit more respect (surely the biggest failing of Sony this time round, and a reason why many still won’t touch the PS3) and continue to build from here. And, you suspect, it’ll feel the consequences of allowing the PlayStation’s brand lead to slip so much for a generation or two to come at the very least.

All said, though, we wouldn’t bet against Microsoft pulling some punches out of the bag in the next few months too. But the PS3 is, at last, proving itself to be a machine to be reckoned with…