Gamers are slow to forgive. Many own a PlayStation 3 today because they were angry at Microsoft for letting them down when the Xbox 360 suffered from a huge number of breakdowns due to a manufacturing flaw that led to overheating.

Microsoft’s consumer-unfriendly handling of the Xbox 360’s defects helped Sony recover from a poor launch of the PS 3, which went on sale for far too much money — $599 compared to the $399 Xbox 360 and the $250 Nintendo Wii. Microsoft had to work long and hard to get back its momentum in the market.

Now the shoe is on the other foot. Sony’s expected two-week outage for the PlayStation Network could potentially derail the PS 3’s future. So far, Sony has shared precious little information, except that hackers brought down the network and may have stolen the identities and credit card numbers for the PlayStation Network’s 77 million registered users.

Sony executives — game and network services head Kaz Hirai and chief executive Howard Stringer himself — should hold a press conference where they publicly apologize for potentially exposing their users to identity theft by failing to protect their credit card numbers and other personal information. They should do it now, not wait until their investigation is complete or wait until they bring the service back online. Every day of silence is a day when consumers will stew and grow angrier. When the head of the company apologizes, gamers will feel their problems are being taken seriously.

If there’s any debate inside Sony about what it should do now, it should end. Cost should not be a worry. Sony has to win trust back and do it fast. It has to be generous and offer to compensate users for their losses. It has to make up for their lost time and entice them to come back, since they are likely considering the competition, if our poll results from yesterday are any indication. It has to beef up its security and reassure consumers that their data will be safe. (In our poll, 62 percent of voters, or 2,597 users, say they would consider switching from the PS 3 to the Xbox 360 because of the outage).

Whatever Sony does, it shouldn’t argue with consumers about what they are entitled to have. Microsoft made that mistake, telling users they didn’t need replacement machines. And Intel made that mistake back in 1994, telling consumers they didn’t need to replace its Pentium microprocessor, which had a rare mathematical flaw. In each case, it was silly to enrage consumers further.

The apology should be the first thing out of Sony executives’ mouths and the last thing. Amazon just made a mistake by trying to explain what went wrong with its web services business, which crashed and brought down many consumer web sites with it. The Seattle company talked about what brought down its Elastic Cloud Computing service last week, but it took 5,700 words before it finally apologized to consumers.

Sony should also consider giving out credits for various kinds of digital goods to customers who come back to it after the service comes back online. That could take the form of a simple trophy that says, “I survived the PSN hack attack.” Such digital trinkets could cost nothing to distribute, but they could show that the company has a sense of humor and a sense of honor about how customers should be treated.