PlayStation: An Unassuming Jack

Why is the Sony PlayStation becoming the most popular home gaming console? Joseph Szadkowski sheds light on their shrewd, and simple, business plan.

PlayStation, the gaming console dominating the U.S. market. © Sony Computer Entertainment of America.

The saga for video game platform superiority is not unlike the fairy tale of Jack and the Giant Killer - the unassuming Jack is able to topple the monster through tenacity and quick wits.

In this electronic version of the tale, there are two giants, Sega of America with the Saturn video gaming console and Nintendo with the powerful N64 console. The mightier monolith in this saga is Nintendo whose N64 is the newest, only a year old, most powerful platform to reach the video game market. Featuring a 64 bit system, in comparison to the others 32 bit, Nintendo plugged the N64 as being the quantum leap in at-home video gaming, promising better graphics, smoother game play and, as gamers call it, increased eye-candy.

After his first self-titled game sold over 1.5 million units, the character Crash Bandicoot has become something of a mascot for Sony PlayStation. Now Crash is back in Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back. © Sony Computer Entertainment

The Two Giants

All of this is possible because the N64 contains the ability to process complex images at a higher rate allowing gamers to play in virtual 3-D space environments with unrestrained interactive movement. The N64 also carries with it the ability for real-time processing of audio, 2-D and 3-D graphics, anti-aliasing features which remove jagged edges from screen images, increased color output, higher image resolution and a faster coprocessor which allows all of this to work. At least that's what Nintendo said.

Gaming statistics show that at this writing there are 2.6 million N64 consoles in gaming households, which equates to 31.71% of the overall market.

The Saturn, a 32 bit game, has since its debut in May, 1995 sold approximately 1.6 million consoles to American gamers, which is 19.51% of the overall market. Even though now the Saturn is the lowest-selling platform, Sega of America was, due to the popularity of their 16 bit Genesis system, the leader in gaming consoles.

The Saturn contains two main graphic processing units as well as an SDP math-coprocessor that aids in polygon (image) rendering. Add to this their custom sound processors that eliminate extraneous static, a whopping 16 million colors, and numerous other technical aspects and the Saturn, as many loyal gamers will tell you, is truly the better video console. Sega says the same thing, of course.

Who is Jack?

The role of Jack in this tale is played by the Sony PlayStation, th first gaming system ever produced by the multimedia conglomerate. The PlayStation has only been on the market since September, 1995, but has a solid lead on sales with over four million units in North American homes.

The PlayStation's innards consist of a 32-bit R300A main processor which offers 33MHz of speed with graphics resolution ranging from 256x224 to 640x480 with a whopping 16.7 million color palate. How did Jack do it? The N64 is clearly the better platform with increased power, speed and graphic ability. For Saturn fans, the mighty 32 bit machine contains two graphic processors that allow faster game play while providing top-end graphics with over 32,000 colors and a brand name that offers immediate consumer recognition.

Disney's Hercules Action Game, a new PlayStation title developed and published by Virgin Interactive and Disney Interactive, using Sony's third-party software license. © Disney Interactive.

Jack's Simple Plan

The Sony PlayStation's lead is due to its simple marketing and planning. A strong foundation has been built from the number of games that have been released, combined with an aggressive marketing attack and smart business practices.

Sony made it easier for license game developers to create new games for the PlayStation. Opening its licensing to multiple developers allowed for numerous advertising campaigns promoting PlayStation product. Of course, these advertising campaigns were designed to entice gaming's primarily male, adolescent demographic with extreme visual flash and the promise of previously un-experienced challenges and competition.

In addition, Sony made sure, unlike its blustering competitors, to keep the retailers happy by keeping the PlayStation on the shelf. Sega ignored secondary electronic store retailers (the mom and pop shops) when first distributing the Saturn and have been dealing with the backlash ever since.

Then in 1996 the price wars started. Sony announced the PlayStation's U.S. $200 price point to compete with the initial $249. N64 price point. Nintendo and Sega matched Sony. Then in the spring of 1997 Sony pushed Sega and Nintendo again, by reducing the PlayStation's price to $149.00. Of course, the others matched the price but it was clear that Sony was the leader and the others could only react.

Dropping the retail cost of the console helped a surge of new consumers decide to purchase the Sony PlayStation. The notation of interest here is that the cost to manufacture the consoles does widely surpass their shelf-price; or in other words, money is lost on every console sold. The theory is, though, that if you have a huge library of games, such as has been developed for the PlayStation, those dollars lost can be made up elsewhere.

Supplying the Gamers

The true key to any success in the video game market may be feeding the beast. A new gaming system can only succeed if it has enough games to make it worth buying. Looking at the number of games available for the three leading platforms, Jack is becoming stronger than his foes all the time...

There is no doubt that Nintendo rushed the N64 to market last Christmas without putting enough thought into the fact that consumers, once they had this very cool toy, would actually want to use it. The system released with only two games, Pilotwings 64 and Super Mario 64, on the shelf and, as of this writing, there are only 27 games on the market for the N64. Nintendo is promising to release an additional three games for the 1997 Christmas season.

NFL Gameday `98. © Sony Computer Entertainment of America.

Another downfall for Nintendo is that they opted to use the more expensive cartridge disk to house their N64 games, versus the CD-ROM that the Saturn and PlayStation use. For the game developer, the decision as to whether to work within the parameters for Saturn and PlayStation, whose CD-ROMS cost about $2.00 per disc to replicate, or the N64 cartridge that carries a cost burden upward of $30.00 per cartridge to reproduce, left the N64 out in the cold.

Sega, which had been the leader in 16 bit gaming consoles with the original Sega Genesis system, released the Saturn with only three games to support the system. An interesting point is that co-giant, Sega of Japan, released the system in Japan with the support of over 25 games right from the start. By the time Sega could get enough games in their library it was too late. Sony PlayStation was out and aggressively putting together a library that eclipsed Sega's.

To date there are almost 200 Saturn games on the retail shelf, almost as many as the PlayStation, but the initial loss of momentum meant Sega lost customers it could never win back. Why buy two gaming systems?

Sony's PlayStation continues to put out as many games as possible, over 60 games in 1997 alone. Compare this to only 27-30 for the N64 and 20 for Sega. The total list of PlayStation games encompasses over 220 games that cover a wide spectrum of interest, including all manners of racing, sports, role playing, and fighting games. In addition, the library contains games that can be enjoyed by the cartoon aficionado, the X-treme sports dude, the male adolescent or the teenage girl.

For those developing their holiday buy list, it would seem obvious that the gaming console to buy would be the one that provides the most play options - the Sony PlayStation. Technically, the system rivals the Saturn and only the very hard core gamer is able to discuss the merits embroiled in the technical minutia anyway.

What really matters is which system is going to provide the family, from young sister through teen brother to mom and dad, the most gaming options. For no reason other than its extensive library of games and increasingly diminished price point (Sony now offers a line of classic titles in the $20.00 US price range with many new titles available for under $40.00 US), which means there are more games to rent and buy, it has to be the PlayStation.

Top Game Picks

Here's five titles in PlayStation's wide selection that I consider to take full advantage of the Sony technology.

NFL Gameday '98 (Sony Entertainment, $39.95) Yes, it is hard-edged football at its prettiest, if that's possible. Sony has spent a lot of money in building the most realistic football simulation on the market. The greatness of this game revolves around how it looks and reacts. All of the players on the field use motion-capture technology and are fully 3-D polygonal, meaning crisp numbers on jerseys and very fluid, individual movements. Gamers get a Total Control mode that allows for diving over the top of the pile, the pump fake or the one hand catch. This is one of the best of Sony's sports line.

Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee(GT Interactive, $49.95) Mixes the cartoon absurdity of MTV's Oddities with the shocking plot parallels of Soylent Green, to create a technological marvel of gaming. Our hero, Abe, discovers that his species, the Mudokons, are being turned into meat patties at his place of employment and uses intelligence, rather than extreme violence, in an epic struggle to set his people free. 2-D flip screen programming, loads of detailed characters, crisp background animation and a humorously flatulent hero make this a very hip game.

Tekken 2 (Namco, $49.95) The warriors of the Iron Fist Tournament return in a much grittier, much darker and much more sinister slam fest. Considered one of the best 3D fighting games available, the more than 15 characters are very unique because of their multiple moves and limitless play value. The graphics are very detailed offering interesting worlds and arenas. The story may not be as interesting as Star Gladiators but how many times do you get to battle the devil?

Final Fantasy VII. © Square Soft.

Nuclear Strike (Electronic Arts, $49.95) In a sequel to last year's Soviet Strike, players are plunged into the jungles of Southeast Asia in a struggle to stop a maniac. Gamers complete 25 detailed missions within five levels of play, starting behind the controls of a Super Apache helicopter. Various objectives include rescuing civilians and hostages, replenishing supplies and blasting anything resembling the enemy. As players progress, they are offered a variety of vehicles and ships in which to rampage. As a result, there are excellent full motion video sequences.

Final Fantasy VII (Square Soft, $59.99) Three immersive CD-ROMs offer fantasy adventurers more than 50 hours of game play. One of the most popular role playing series ever created, Final Fantasy tells the tale of mercenaries, heroes and scalawags in breathtaking environments giving players the ultimate gaming experience. If you like to play video games and haven't heard about the merits of this title, where have you been?

The Battle Continues

And so, the battle continues for market share and product saturation among Jack and his two rival giants. One thing is certain, however; this healthy competition is good news for consumers, as it causes an increase in product and a decrease in prices. With PlayStation in the lead, Nintendo and Sega will surely devise new ways to get attention, and may even imitate Sony's clever development strategy. Hey, this corporate competition in and of itself sounds like a great concept for a battle/combat/strategy game.... the only problem is, which company should we pitch it to?

Joseph Szadkowski writes on various aspects of popular culture and is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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