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PlayStation at 23: What’s not grown-up about playing video games?

PlayStation’s secret schezwan sauce was to understand that young adults who grew up playing video games still wanted more

opinion Updated: Dec 02, 2017 14:21 IST
A mural on a shop front shows a PlayStation 3 in Hamarweyne district, Mogadishu, Somalia
A mural on a shop front shows a PlayStation 3 in Hamarweyne district, Mogadishu, Somalia(REUTERS)

Here’s a fun fact about PlayStation. The now iconic brand was born in part out of vengeance that resulted from a very public humiliation meted out by Nintendo to Sony back on June 1, 1991. At the Consumer Electronics Show, Sony announced a partnership deal with Nintendo to build the next big gaming console. The very next day Nintendo backed out of the partnership and struck a deal with Philips. Enraged by this very public embarrassment, the then-president of Sony, Norio Ohga, appointed Ken Kutaragi to head Sony’s gaming division to develop a rival to deliver a mighty blow to the then king of the gaming ring, Nintendo. Sony’s friendship ended with Nintendo, indeed.

Kutaragi went on to head the development of Sony’s first gaming console, which was launched on December 3, 1994. Sunday marks 23 years since PlayStation was launched.

Growing up, PlayStation was the prodigal child of the world of gaming. It disrupted the consumer gaming market with new innovations, such as replacing cartridges with CDs, and introducing the extra analog stick on the PlayStation controller. They backed up their robust hardware with quality software; some of the most iconic video game brands call PlayStation their home. They even brought the gaming console out from the dingy depths of your cousin’s bedroom to spacious living rooms, by adding in the functionality to play DVDs.

My first experience with the console was way back in 2007 with the PlayStation 2 (PS2). After spending years prowling the nooks and crannies of Palika Bazaar for pirated games that would struggle to run on my woefully outdated computer, I finally picked up the PS2 and God of War. God of War gave PlayStation one of its most iconic mascots—Kratos, a perennially angry Spartan captain who goes on to defeat (and mercilessly kill) Ares and take up the mantle of the God of War. Then he proceeds to murder the entire Greek Pantheon. Mercilessly, of course. It was a game the likes of which many had never seen or experienced before. A lot of people would knowingly nod their heads. If not God of War, then it was Assassin’s Creed, or Uncharted. PlayStation’s secret schezwan sauce was understanding that the young adults who grew up playing video games still wanted more. They pushed for better graphics and more mature themes for an older audience. And for many years, they reaped their rewards.

Since then, PlayStation has had its own share of ups and down. PlayStation 2 became a massive success, followed by a lukewarm response to PlayStation 3, and a recovery with PlayStation 4. Microsoft has since entered the foray, Nintendo has rediscovered its mojo with their offbeat consoles and quirky titles, and Sega has disappeared.

However, their foray into the portable gaming was not as successful, probably reflecting how difficult industry was finding it to read the complex codes within gamers’ mind.

The lack of a high-quality library and the rise of the smartphones changed gaming, with far reaching implications. Thanks to smartphones, the default gaming experience of many people, which was mostly restricted to playing Contra or Battle Tanks, has been somewhat expanded. Over-enthusiastic industry stalwarts even predict the slow death of home consoles and PC gaming due to the rise in mobile gaming, though that is a far stretch. That said, both mobile gaming and console gaming sit at roughly 30% each of the overall consumption of video games (by device). Considering that mobile gaming did not exist 10 years back, that is quite a feat. In fact, the 2017 forecast for revenue generation from mobile games ($46 billion) is higher than the consoles ($33.5 billion). Digital media is fast encroaching upon the mind space that was exclusive to television and films. Devices are getting cheaper and better, and people are spending more time with their phones that they should be.

While the plethora of free games that greets you every time you open your phone’s app store may seem like a great idea in theory, most of these games are designed around using the Skinner box experiment to entice people into spending lots of money in the game. There’s even a fancy corporate term for it — coercive monetisation.

That is not to say that Sony is not susceptible to the evils of the modern gaming business. They’ve seen their share of missteps, and many of their partners end up using the same coercive monetisation techniques that many gamers have come to deeply loathe.

But then there’s the other side of it. Sony’s in-house development companies such as Santa Monica, Naughty Dog and Guerrilla Games work hard to bring experiences that are simply impossible to be had outside of the PlayStation. To live in a post-apocalyptic world populated by machines that resemble dinosaurs. To hunt them, knowing one misstep is the difference between victory and defeat. To go on your own Indiana Jonesesque adventure with Nathan Drake, hunting down lost legends like Shambhala and El Dorado. To explore the ideas propounded by Friedrich Nietzsche in a world where humanity is now ancient history. All this is possible and more.

In my mid-20s, my continued love for video games was a great mystery to my relatives. If I had a penny for every time someone asked me when I will grow up, I’d be a millionaire. I’ve often wondered what’s not grown-up about playing video games? I got to know PlayStation in 2007. It’s 2017 now. We’ve both grown up, and continue to enjoy each other’s company.

Gaming is going to new places. Mobile is its most popular home today, and augmented reality and virtual reality are set to push even more immersive experience. As is the case with technology, brands will transform by using it or become irrelevant by ignoring it.

But then there’s the good old feeling of turning on the television and entering a make believe world where what you do is the most important thing that will happen to it. There are stories to move us, and delight us and push us to the edge. For 23 years, and hopefully for many more to come.

Amit Goyal is co-founder of Supersike Games

The views expressed are personal