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The Saturn 2

October 6, 2000

It's less than a month before the launch of the PlayStation 2, and there are already signs that the launch is deeply troubled.

First of all, let's begin with the price. When Sony first announced the PlayStation 2, it was taking pride on the fact that a personal computer cost about $850, and the PlayStation 2 was more powerful and was going to cost less than that. People began wondering whether the PlayStation 2 would cost $800, and began having thoughts about "the next 3DO". Fortunately, the executives at Sony realized that they would never be able to sell the console at that price, and announced that it would sell in Japan for about $350, and later, in the U.S. for $300. This is the price that the original PlayStation had at launch, so one would think this is not a bad deal. However, there is another factor people have to consider: five years ago, the PlayStation seemed cheap because its main competitor, the Saturn, was selling for $400. Right now, the Dreamcast sells for half the price of the PlayStation 2, so it doesn't seem cheap anymore.

The price of the PlayStation 2 also reminds me of another potential flaw, which, even though Sony has not confirmed it, would really damage Sony if true. Soon after the PlayStation 2 was announced, Merrill Lynch made a report saying that Sony was loosing about $200 on each PlayStation it sold, and that it would be several years before Sony made money off it. Of course, Sony would never admit that, but I consider Merrill Lynch a reasonable source...

Another problem with the PlayStation 2 is its hardware design. One of the main advantages the PlayStation had over the Saturn was that it was much easier to program than the Saturn. Right now, I keep hearing over and over from the developers about how hard the PlayStation 2 is to program. They get the feeling that they are fighting with the machine in order to get it to do what they want it to do, instead of working with it. They also keep talking about how little VRAM (video memory) it has. It has exactly half the memory the Dreamcast has for that. Plus the PlayStation 2 does not provide texture compression in hardware. The Dreamcast does, which gives the illusion of even more memory that it actually has. The artists who work at my company have said that they have to build their art around this texture limitation, and are thinking of new tricks in order to maximize the memory, like making all the textures in shades of grey, and then changing the colors of the polygons, saving space in the process. Meanwhile, the artists that make Dreamcast games can use much better textures.

Another limitation in the PlayStation 2 hardware is, you guessed it, its lack of anti-aliasing. Many people think this is a big deal, and it really bothers them, but it doesn't bother me personally. Anyway, Sony said that this gives programmers the freedom to implement it in several different ways, giving the programmers more choice. What Sony doesn't say is that this approach places a burden on the main processor. The Dreamcast, on the other hand, provides a way for developers to implement it on hardware. This frees the main processor to do other things, like processing the artificial intelligence of the enemies, for example.

All this takes me to my next point, which is that Sony has been over promising and under delivering with the PlayStation 2. When they first announced it, they claimed that you would be able to make games for that console that look like the movie Toy Story, in real time. You don't hear them saying that now, do you? That's because they don't look that much better than Dreamcast games. And by the way, I do notice the difference. Since I work in the video game industry, I trained my eyes to notice these subtle distinctions. But most people won't really notice the difference. To me, the difference between the Dreamcast and the PlayStation 2 is similar to the difference between the Genesis and the Super Nintendo. The Super Nintendo was noticeably better, but that didn't prevent the Genesis from being successful.

Of course, some people will say now that this is only the first generation of PlayStation 2 games, and that as developers get more familiar with the hardware, games will look better. However, since the PlayStation 2 is so difficult to program, it will be a long time before you see major leaps, if at all.

Another thing that, in my opinion, hurts the PlayStation 2, is its ability to play DVD movies. Yes, it hurts it. Sony has to pay a license fee for every PlayStation 2 it builds because of this feature, which prevents it from selling the console at a lower price. Oh, I forgot that Sony might be loosing hundreds of dollars on each console. Hey, maybe this is not bad for the consumer; it's only bad for Sony. Hmm...

Anyway, even taking this into account, this makes the PlayStation 2 loose its focus. The Dreamcast (and for that matter, the Nintendo Gamecube) are gaming machines, pure and simple. You only buy them if you want to play games on them. I heard from many people (including the receptionist of the company I work for) that they are going to buy the PlayStation 2 instead of the Dreamcast because "they want a DVD player". Again, good for the consumer, but bad for Sony. That means that a substantial amount of people will only buy a few games for it, since they will use it mainly to play movies. Does that explain why only a few PlayStation 2 games in Japan have sold 500,000 copies, even when millions of people bought PlayStation 2s? Remember, Sony doesn't make any money if people buy the console just to watch "The Matrix".

However, the worst mistake Sony made with the PlayStation 2, by far, is how it handled the launch itself. Sony knew the amount of people who pre-ordered PlayStation 2s. I remember that several months before the Dreamcast was released, Sega was boasting about the amount of people who pre-ordered Dreamcasts. If they could not manufacture that many consoles, there is no excuse for this. It seems like they did not begin to build them until the last minute.

This reminds me of the way Sega launched the Saturn. They decided to make a surprise launch, and since they didn't have enough consoles for all the retailers, they decided that for the first few months only a few retailers would have them: Toys R Us, Electronics Boutique, and Babbage's. Everybody else would have to wait. This made the retailers very angry, and what did they do? Many of them said "To Hell with Sega!" They wholeheartedly supported the PlayStation and left Sega behind. Some retailers, like Kay Bee Toys, never carried the Saturn at all, probably out of revenge. Right now, even if Sony appears to be supplying PlayStation 2s to all or most of retailers at launch, they will only receive a small fraction of the ones they pre-ordered. There will be many angry people on October 26. I don't know how retailers will act in the future, but Sony better start praying that they don't stop supporting the PlayStation 2 because of that.

Also, have you thought about something? Two months before the Dreamcast was released, most major retailers already had Dreamcasts at the stores, so people could try out the technology and be excited about it. The advertisements for the console had also already begun by then. However, the PlayStation 2 kiosks and advertisements are nowhere to be found. One could say that this is because Sony doesn't want costumers to be disappointed from seeing the PlayStation 2 in action, but I don't think that's the real reason. It is because they don't have enough consoles to satisfy the demand as it is. Why promote something then can't supply? Sad, indeed...

It's still too early to say how well the PlayStation 2 will be accepted. By next year, I will have a better idea. However, all these mistakes make me feel like calling the PlayStation 2 "the Saturn 2".


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