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PlayStation 4 versus PlayStation 3: How Sony regrouped after its arrogant PS3 launch

The messaging

Coming off of the PlayStation 3, Sony looks like it has learned something valuable: the need to sell to its base of early adopters first and go after the average consumer later. That means understanding that early adopters are gamers — and gamers want you to woo them.

In the lead-up to the PS3′s launch, Sony did not act like it needed gamers.

“The PS3 is not a game machine,” PlayStation creator Ken Kutaragi said before releasing the console. “We’ve never once called it a game machine. With the PS3, our intentions have been to create a machine with supercomputer calculation capabilities for home entertainment.”

On the price of the PS3, which at launch was $500 to $600, Kutaragi was out of touch.

“It’s probably too cheap,” he once said. “If you can have an amazing experience, we believe price is not a problem.”

Another time, Kutaragi infamously suggested that fans would want to “work more hours” just to buy a PS3.

“We want people to feel that they want it, irrespective of anything else,” he said.

The pre-PlayStation 3 Sony at least appeared like it didn’t respect people’s time and didn’t really care if gamers liked the system. With the PlayStation 4, under the leadership of chief executive officer Kaz Hirai, the attitude was completely different.

“I think that Kaz Hirai’s vision is to maintain leadership with technophiles — and hardcore gamers,” IDC Research manager Lewis Ward told GamesBeat. “They want to position the Sony brand as a premium brand. In the context of gaming, that means going after the [core gamer].”

Instead of “it’s not a game machine,” Sony positioned the PlayStation 4 as the ultimate system for people who love games. It even adopted the slogan “PlayStation 4: For the gamers.”

Naturally, fans loved this. They saw it as proof that Sony had their best interests at heart. That type of messaging extended from the marketing campaign all of the way to the top of the corporate ladder. Kuturagi retired in 2007 after a shaky start for the PlayStation 3. The new management team not only avoided embarrassing gaffes like the ones Kutaragi was famous for, but they were also responsible for some of the biggest positive moments for the PS4 prior to its November debut.

Sony’s on-point messaging culminated in a video that it debuted during the Electronic Entertainment Expo trade show in June.

Earlier in the week, Microsoft attempted to explain the confusing digital-rights management for the Xbox One (which it later got rid of) in a series of announcements. One of the major sticking points with fans was that the Xbox One (as Microsoft had originally planned it) would make sharing games difficult if not impossible. On June 10, when Microsoft and Sony were both scheduled to give their pre-E3 presentations, Sony Worldwide Studios boss Shuhei Yoshida and PlayStation third-party manager Adam Boyes released a video designed specifically to highlight just how consumer friendly the PS4 is:

The video postures like it is going to give a long-winded explanation regarding how gamers can share software on PS4. Instead, Yoshida hands the game to Boyes and the video ends. The joke is that the process only has one step and is familiar to anyone who has ever lent anything to a friend.

The joke was one of the most-viewed videos on YouTube for all of 2013, and it seemed to cement in consumers’ minds that Sony was on their side. That’s a narrative that stuck with the console through launch, and it’s something the company did not have in 2006.

The price

Finally, when comparing PlayStation 3 to PlayStation 4, you have to consider the price.

The PlayStation 4 costs $400. It’s simple. It’s relatively inexpensive. When the PlayStation 3 launched, it retailed for $500 … or $600. Less simple. Much more expensive. In fact, adjusted for inflation, $600 in 2006 is worth about $695 today.

“The PS3 launched at $600, which you could say was hubris on Sony’s part,”  Ward. “It was too expensive.”

Again, Sony seems like it learned a lesson from the PS3. It designed a simpler console that is cheaper to make. It passed the savings on, and that is likely encouraging more people to pick up the device.

“Pricing, especially for PS4, is very competitive,” Eilers Research managing director Adam Krejcik told GamesBeat. “We believe consumers do see the perceived value in [the console] — perhaps more so than last generation.”

“The big reason PS4 is performing so well out of the game is the price,” said Ward. “It’s $200 less than its predecessor and $100 less than the Xbox One. In our survey of the reasons why people were leaning toward one system or the other, price was the deciding factor along with the games catalog.”

The future of the PlayStation 4

The PS4′s launch will only represent a fraction of its eventual life. Things could change. Sony could announce that the console will require a subscription to its new Jelly of the Month service in order for games to work offline, but that doesn’t negate the success the PS4 has had so far.

Looking back again, we can see that the PS3 didn’t get off to a great start. Sure, it had a better first holiday than the Xbox 360 (which sold 1.5 million in its first November and December), but the Xbox 360 had a years head start. And yes, the PlayStation 3 was sold out in stores, but that was because of supply constraints.

The fact is that the PS3 didn’t have a “bad launch.” It was just slower than it could have been, and the system struggled over the next seven years to catch up. In the U.S., it never did. From January 2011 through September 2013 — a 32 month period — Xbox 360 outsold the PlayStation 3 in the U.S.

The PS4 is much better positioned to change that up. At 4.2 million units sold in less than two months, the console has already sold better than the PlayStation 3 did in its first nine months. The company can use this as a foundation to launch into 2014 and beyond.

 

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