Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Numbers Game

The gaming world has been agog after Sony's recent announcements that the European PS3 launch will be delayed and that launch figures will be lower than expected, but the numbers themselves are of more interest to me. At 400,000 units, the North American territories will be getting four times Japan's allotment of 100,000 systems. Considering Sony's usual "Japan first" modus operandi for console launches, this is curious.

There are a lot of potential reasons for their sudden change of heart, the first of which is the shift is purely a strategic move. Microsoft, the company they see as their chief competitor, is floundering in Japan, with weekly Xbox 360 sales averaging at around 1,200 units versus the PS2's comparatively strong 20,000. In the United States, however, Microsoft is doing quite well, meaning Sony will be going up against an entrenched opponent. In that case, it makes sense for Sony to attack where its opponent is strongest, while giving the bare minimum of attention to the areas where its dominance remains largely unchallenged. This is a fairly mundane theory, but it still raises some interesting questions. What will happen in Japan? It's fairly clear that Japanese gamers are just as unhappy about the PS3's price as the rest of the world. Will they respond to getting the short end of the stick by buying more 360s, or will the first shipment placate them until Sony can send more?

A second theory is that a tectonic shift in market importance. It's been said that, with shrinking video game sales in Japan, that America become their most important market. If this is the case, you have to wonder how much water the usual "Sony will win because they have the Japanese developers" argument holds now. How much sway will the Square-Enixes and Konamis of the industry have if their audience has shifted westward? Will the likes of Electronic Arts and Ubisoft take their place as Sony's most important developers?

Finally, the move could be a concession to Nintendo. Since the move into 3D, successive generations have largely offered the same games, just with better graphics. Some have theorized that the Japanese video game slump is the result of too much of the same thing, which is why Nintendo's innovative DS has been pummeling Sony's more powerful PSP. The Wii, with its unorthodox controller, is an extension of the philosophy that spawned the DS. It's unlikely, but maybe Sony isn't sure that PS3's brute force strategy can break the ennui which has gripped Japanese gamers.

It'll be interesting to see if Sony's reasoning will become more readily apparent, and what it means for the industry. No matter what the cause is, it's sure to have some interesting effects.

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