How Sony Became 'The Good Guy'

It says something about a website and its community when it supports both a casual audience seeking to be informed while being entertained by short, bite-sized articles as well as lists and Tops pieces.

At the very same time -- and including the very same groups of community members -- the marked preference to sink your teeth into detailed analysis when the subject is one that you care a lot about helps to illustrate just how wide and far-reaching the audience can be in terms of interests. The gamers of SuperCheats are no exception to that phenomenon!

The following analysis of just how Sony became 'The Good Guy' on the video game console scene began as a series of emails among a small group of community members that quickly grew in number to such a size that it became obvious to me that this subject was worthy of a featured piece.

Bearing in mind though that we still prefer your interaction here at SuperCheats to use the well-established comment and forum-based communication system, if it takes email to stimulate a topic so be it.

And email is how the issues surrounding how Sony historically emerged from the Console Wars as 'The Good Guys' is right where this one begins -- and that is interesting considering that we just saw the launch of a new generation of game console, and a new generation of consoles is often seen as a chance for the major players in the video game console industry to make a statement of spirit.

No, not ghosts, we mean the sort of spirit encountered on the TV show Glee!

Due to the combination of past posturing, a willingness to believe only the best of Sony -- and the worse of Microsoft -- gamers firmly entrenched in the PlayStation camp sported very optimistic attitudes about Sony's Next Gen Game Console -- and as the launch day for both consoles approached a few months ago that optimism was still widely felt...

In the Sony camp there were some very broad expectations in terms of the success (or lack thereof) for fans of Microsoft's Xbox One -- a console that, by the way, hard core PS gamers still consider to be something of an upstart, or Mikey-Come-Lately if you will...

To be fair they do have something of a point -- after all the PlayStation line of gaming consoles originally appeared on the gaming scene in December of 1994 in Japan, and September 1995 elsewhere in the world, while Microsoft's original Xbox did not arrive on the scene until November 2001 in North America, and Spring 2002 for the rest of the world.

That is something of a big deal when you pause to consider that Microsoft's entry in the console wars took place at a point with striking similarities to the US Revolutionary War...

Bear with us on this, we actually have a point to make here!

A Historical Battle

Historically speaking nobody will ever argue that the American Revolution -- what the rest of the English-speaking world refers to as The Colonial Rebellion -- was ill-timed.

You see the military of Great Britain that the colonists rebelled against was something of an open question at the time, for reasons that will become obvious momentarily.

The Royal Army and Marines were, for the most part, made up of a mixture of professional career soldiers and recruits primarily from England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, with a small number of Canadian and French Protestant soldiers serving to round-out their numbers.

The Royal Navy on the other hand was largely made up of an officer's core from England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, with a small number of Canadian and Americans, while the percentages before the mast (that is to say among the regular sailors) tells a vastly different story.

The Royal Navy needed sailors so they took them from wherever they could, you know, TAKE them -- and that included a lot of Americans. But we are getting ahead of ourselves here...

The issue of impressment -- the forced recruiting of American sailors by quite literally seixing them from the crews of US-flagged vessels and snatching them up in foreign ports -- and forcing them to serve in the Royal Navy was one of the more serious issues that caused the United States to declare war against Britain in 1812.

That actually worked out really good for Britain because unlike the time period of the first rebellion, in 1812 a lot of the distractions that prevented Britain from giving the United States its full attention 25-years before had been eliminated. Was that a coincidence? Well, no, not really...

When the American Colonies declared their independence in what is now called the American Revolutionary War, Britain was fully committed to a series of on-again, off-again confrontations with France, was dealing with very serious threats to its colonial presence in Africa, South America, and what we now call The Middle East, and faced significant domestic issues.

You know how it can happen... Things got out of hand... Maybe the music really was too loud, and the soldiers really did park their horses on the neighbors lawn -- who can say?

By the time the police showed up to shut down the party the White House was in flames, the Cherokee Lacrosse team had trashed their rooms at the Hay-Adams Hotel, a bloke called Tenskwatawa got some odd ideas about enforcing First Nation retroactive immigration policies and, well, you can probably see where all of this is going, right?

Now add to that the US Navy mistaking a rowdy Canadian fishing fleet for an invasion, while at the same time some wannabe rockstar named Key inflaming the public with an early death-metal-rap-song called The Star Spangled Banner that caused angry British cartographers to invade and occupy Maine, and things just went from bad to worse. Seriously, it's all on Wikipedia and you know everything you read there is totally true.

The More Things Change...

By this point you are probably wondering what all that has to do with Sony and Microsoft, right? Well, the thing is that by the time Microsoft got around to entering the Console War it was really pretty much over.

Because they were not forced to spend a lot of time, effort, or money in strategies for dealing with and crushing the competition, the development teams at Microsoft's Redmond Campus were instead very busy inventing the bits and bobs that improved the console gaming experience in significant ways.

Among those improvements were more than a few that arrived well before their time! For example there was the social-gaming-network (Xbox LIVE) as well as the core elements of what would eventually become widely known as the much treasured (and copied) Achievements System.

Actually there were a lot more examples -- but as Sony was busy ruthlessly crushing all opposition those elements are largely forgotten or ignored by time.

When the Console Wars broke out -- we are pretty sure it had something to do with Taxation without Representation with respect to Jolt Cola -- a beverage dear to gamers anyway -- and Sony might have found itself under attack by a large group of Console Manufacturers, and things got down-and-dirty quickly.

The true state of affairs exists somewhere in between -- and who threw the first punch, or who started it -- what side of the seat Sega had its feet on, and whether Nintendo really did drink the last cold soda, well, these are issues that will probably never be settled to everybody's satisfaction. But if you take a moment to examine just who the powerful players were on this road-trip from hell, what you will notice is that Sony was outnumbered 11-to-1 and despite our shared awareness of how things eventually worked out, there really was no good reason at the time to expect that they would turn out the way that they did!

When the first skirmish in what would eventually be called The Console Wars broke out, we know that the line was drawn with Sony on one side, and the other side made up of the combined forces of 3DO, Atari, Commodore, NEC, Nintendo, Sega, and SNK, with several of the enemy forces appearing more than once thanks to having multiple consoles in the fray.

Sony was trapped in a conflict with 11-1 odds, and somehow, miraculously, emerged from the first two battles still alive, having defeated all but Sega and Nintendo!

. . . the Less they Stay the Same!

Just when the embattled Japanese multimedia company was catching its breath, having created what it envisioned was a manageable three-way split of breathing room in the living room, the battlefield changed suddenly.

You know how they say that it is always darkest before the dawn?

Well, with Nintendo remaining as what Sony believed to be its only serious competition, they thought it just left Sega to be dealt with -- an event that Sony's Executive Board felt was manageable largely because it appeared that Sega was far more interested in creating and in publishing video games rather than maintaining a position as the third player in these console wars.

As a game developer and publisher Sega was an entity that Sony not only better understood, but was willing to work with -- and in fact the open and friendly gestures that Sony was making towards its rival at the time helped to cement the reputation Sony was building as the Gamers Friend at the time.

Nintendo had for the most part sewn up the arcade genre, with its two core platforms -- the Nintendo GameCube (NGC) and its portable gaming console, the Game Boy Advanced -- combined with the massive hit that Nintendo found in its Pokemon Line, left Sony convinced that it had a firm understanding of the situation that existed after the dust had settled.

So with all of this certainty, and a well-defined, equally well-documented market seemingly at their fingertips, that was when the worse possible scenario began to unfold, as Microsoft threw its hat into the ring.

Sony's then President, Kazuo 'Kaz' Hirai, who was at the time considered to be one of the most powerful executives in the entertainment industry, was in the midst of working through the pre-release development of the Next Big Thing for Sony -- The PlayStation 2 -- and had reportedly come to terms with both Sega and Nintendo in the remaining areas of concern over control of Gamer Living Rooms.

When word reached him that Microsoft was storming the gates, having launched something called The Microsoft Xbox Computer Gaming Console, his reaction to the news was somewhat mixed. Bearing in mind that it was not like the Xbox suddenly appeared out of nowhere, the concerns that were felt by Sony -- and Kaz -- had a lot more to do with the easy development system for the new game console from America than it did the console itself, an element that Sony had been dealing with and trying to address for over a year before Xbox's release.

'When the war of the giants is over the wars of the pygmies will begin.' Winston Churchill

The original Xbox was built using industry-standard PC hardware that leaned towards the cutting edge in terms of inherent capabilities, and its price point was exactly the same as Sony would eventually set for its PS2 -- which was $299 and very expensive at the time -- but it was its OS and development system that truly frightened Sony.

The original Xbox was engineered around Intel's 733MHz Pentium III and Nvidia's NV2A GPU, sported by 64MB of System RAM and a stock 10GB Hard Disc Drive. Add the standard DVD drive that, despite hopes that its aggressive pricing would cause Microsoft to reconsider it as standard kit for the console, eroded one of the core features for the next generation Sony games console.

The comparative specs were thought to be a crucial weakness by Sony, as they widely suspected that the average consumer would view only the numbers without fully appreciating what they actually meant in terms of performance, and so find he PS2 lacking before a single unit had reached retail shelves.

The Spec's for the PS2 were simple in every sense of the word: it was engineered around a 64-bit 300MHz Emotion Engine CPU.

The EE CPU was co-developed in a partnership between Sony and Toshiba, and really was both the equal to Intel's P3 and, in some ways, beefier. Considering that, in addition to its CPU Core, the chip included two dedicated Vector Processing Units (VPUs), as well as a graphics interface (GIF), a 10 channel DMA unit, and a memory controller, so that before the GPU and Graphics Card was even considered the CPU already offered superior graphics processing capabilities.

The display side of the board was built with a Graphics Synthesizer clocked at 147.456 MHz that worked in handshake with the pair of VPUs allowing the console to produce HD quality output. Considering that the graphics side of the processing bottleneck is usually the weakest point in console design, the PS2 was far more capable than the Xbox in that respect.

While it only offered 32MB of dedicated System RAM, the PS2 sported 4MB of dedicated Video RAM, which should give a franker and more revealing criteria for assessing its capabilities and goes a long way towards explaining how it remained a viable game console long after the next generation was released! In fact there are still studios creating original titles for the PS2, and mainstream games are still being released with versions for the console, which as of November 2013 is officially TWO generations older than the current gen console.

The problem with all of that is a very simple one -- with its combination of RAM-equipped GPU and the pair of VPUs built into its CPU, the PS2 was a complicated platform for game development.

Microsoft's Xbox on the other hand was dead simple to develop for because it utilized both a back and front end that was already well-defined and in use by the games development studios.

The Xbox OS and development kit had been built using the already well-defined Microsoft NT Kernel and DirectX -- basically the same kit being used to develop mainstream PC games.

Even today most gamers are not aware that it was that impressive (and potentially devastating) development core that was actually the basis for the consoles name!

The name 'Xbox' was derived from the contraction of Microsoft's original secret name for the game console project, which was 'DirectX Box,' getting a nod from the development kit for Microsoft's graphics API, DirectX.

As the project progressed through the engineering and design phase -- even before it emerged from the planning stage mind you -- the engineers had been calling it the 'Xbox' and the name stuck.

Posted: 11th Feb 2014 by CMBF