This Article Was Originally Published October 2017.
Since Sony joined the console arms race with the original PlayStation back in 1995, they’ve heavily prioritised pushing themselves to the cutting edge of technology. While this sometimes pays off, positioning their consoles as desirable and multi-functional premium products, there have also been times that their desire to be at the forefront of emerging technology has put them ahead of the curve.
There are also times Sony has introduced tech for PlayStation consoles that, while unable to take off with mass market appeal at the time, were later big successes in the gaming space for other companies. Today we’re going to look at some of the times that Sony did something first, but by waiting for the tech to improve or the price to drop other companies ended up being the ones to find success with their idea.
These are the PlayStation firsts that others made into successes.
A High-Powered Gaming Handheld, Where You Could Play Games on the TV.
PlayStation Vita & TV
The PlayStation Vita, and the PlayStation TV box which released towards the end of its life, when used in combination allowed gamers to play a game at home on their TV, then take the same game and all their progress with them when they left the house for a long commute. It’s the way I played through both the Danganronpa games on the system. It allowed players to treat a game as both a portable and a home gaming experience, as well as using a different and more comfortable controller option when you were at home.
While it’s obviously not as elegantly designed and marketed, the Vita and PS TV in combination fit into the same niche where the Switch has now found enormous success.
Why did this combination not set the world alight for Sony? Well, there’s a few reasons. The Vita was a high-powered gaming handheld a little ahead of its time, carrying a home console level price tag at launch, without being able to pull off the console quality experiences it was promising. It also wasn’t bundled with the ability to play its games on the TV from day one, and even when that option became available you had to purchase it separately.
It also wasn’t as elegant a solution practically. You had to save and close your game, remove the game cartridge and memory card, pop them into the other system, find a different controller, and then put the TV on.
It was just a few more steps than Nintendo’s pop the handheld in the dock solution, but didn’t support many of the biggest games on the system, and ultimately never brought in headlines as a potential future for games.
A Camera, So You Could Be The Controller in Games
The EyeToy, a PS2 accessory designed so that players could interact with games in a natural and direct manner, felt like it should have been a perfect sell for the system. A console with an enormous install base thanks in part to its status as a cheap early DVD player, the EyeToy was aimed at making games playable by a wide number of casual users who might not otherwise be interested in interacting with traditional video game mechanics. Move your body to play the game.
While the EyeToy sold reasonably well, around 10.5 million units across its lifespan, it never really managed the mass market appeal that it was aiming for.
The EyeToy was largely marketed alongside EyeToy branded games, most of which were smaller mini-games, and its ability to provide supplemental experiences to more traditional games was not well marketed. As a result, it was considered a passing gimmick and didn’t really leave a lasting impression on the industry.
Sony, never a company to be deterred, have been chasing the idea of the EyeToy for console generations since. The PS3 got the PlayStation Eye, the PS4 Camera featured many of the same features, if not the same marketing push, but every attempt was eclipsed by the Kinect camera for the Xbox 360.
While the Kinect only sold around twice as many units as the EyeToy, Microsoft did a much stronger job marketing the concept as an idea of their own invention. Perhaps Microsoft’s success was down to timing, releasing their solution with a big marketing push shortly after the success of the Wii to draw in a newly emerging casual gamer market looking for more ways to play games. Conversely, they may have just been better at insisting the device was valuable to all players.
By initially bundling the Xbox One with a mandatory Kinect camera, Microsoft cemented the idea that this was their concept in the heads of many, all the while Sony kept releasing camera peripherals and hoping they would live. The advent of console livestreaming and the release of PSVR both helped the PlayStation Camera find a market on PS4, but it’ll never be the camera people jump to when thinking of bodies as controllers.
Going Into The World to Catch Augmented Reality Monsters
Believe it or not, way back in the distant past of 2009, Sony tried to use the PSP to ignite a craze of kids going outside into the real world to capture invisible AR monsters. You had to go to parks, beaches, rivers and towns, point your camera at the world, and see a monster that only you knew was there. While using colour and light data rather than GPS data to select what creatures would spawn, the concept was fairly similar to the eventual worldwide phenomenon that was Pokemon Go.
Invizimals had a few things working against it by trying to create the game before the tech had caught up. By not making use of GPS, an internet connection, or a persistent in game world, Invizimals lacked the inherently social nature of Pokemon Go’s launch window. You could also easily fool the game by pointing it at pictures of different environments, which for many quickly killed the magic.
Also, and probably most importantly, Sony released the tech alongside a new franchise people did not already have an investment in. Pokemon Go succeeded largely because of its brand, as evidenced by it eclipsing the success of the mechanically similar Ingress made previously by the developer. Without already caring about the creatures, Invizimals just didn’t get its hooks in people the way Niantic did with Pokemon Go.
As far along as 2013 there were still new Invizimals games being released on the Vita, a system which was available with 3G internet access on some models. So close Sony, but not quite.
Watching and Recording TV Through your Console
The Xbox One’s TV integration was severely downplayed after launch, with key features like DVR being postponed and eventually cancelled, but the idea of watching and managing TV viewing through your console definitely feels to most people like it’s a Microsoft developed concept. In fact, Sony was doing it with the PS3 way back in 2008.
The PlayTV, released in the UK September 2008, was a twin-channel DVB-T tuner which allowed users to record TV programmes to their PS3 hard drive, or watch them through the console. It even supported remote play, so recorded programmes could be watched back remotely.
The reason the idea is generally not associated with Sony is that the system was not integrated into the console, and only ever really existed in the UK. Without a proper worldwide roll-out, it never gained traction or mindshare as a Sony concept.
In 2010 Sony tried to release a similar device called the Torne in Japan. It similarly suffered a lack of market awareness by being released in a limited market, as an optional add-on rather than an integral part of the console.
Publicly Available Development Hardware
Credit: Robert Sebo
One of the biggest unique aspects of the Xbox One revealed close to its launch was the news that, a little while after launch, an app would be released to allow any retail Xbox One to be used as a software development kit, meaning that console development tools were open to regular consumers who were not yet ready to register with the company and attempt to get access to more expensive development tools. However, Microsoft was not the first major console manufacturer to open up console development tools to public facing consumers.
The Net Yaroze was a matte black PlayStation development kit that, while fairly expensive, was made available at a consumer level for amateur game developers to work with. The system was not region locked, and you needed a computer to write and compile the code, but would allow you to test functional games on official hardware.
Many games developed using the Net Yaroze were distributed via demo discs that came with the Official Playstation Magazine in the UK, which for a specific era of gamer made the console a reference point for early independently developed software.
The Net Yaroze was however sold at a premium compared to the basic model, was only available via mail order, and it wasn’t possible to retrofit your console with development kit support, which all made it less accessible than Microsoft’s solution of allowing a simple software update to turn standard consumer Xbox One models into development kits.
And there you have it, a handful of things that Sony started, but are now associated with other companies. What Sony advancement from the past will be the next to blow up for a competitor? I’m excited to see Nintendo’s boomerang controller, or an Xbox dance mat. Sony is a company just a little ahead of its time, and for every hit there are misses — but that’s the price of being a pioneer.
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