games / Columns

The Gamer Parent’s Strategy Guide: Sony

April 16, 2021 | Posted by Jed Shaffer
Sony Playstation 5 PS5

An unrelated note before we begin. In between this and the last column, Blade Braxton, of Wrestlecrap, passed away suddenly. I had the pleasure of writing for Wrestlecrap for ten years, and, though not nearly as much as RD did, I got to know Blade. One time, he was in Detroit, visiting his then-girlfriend, and it was Wrestlemania Sunday (WM24, to be precise). They couldn’t find a bar of restaurant playing it. We weren’t intending on watching it, but when I saw their distress, I shot him a message inviting them over. I got to know Troy Ferguson, the man behind Blade, that day. He was like a big kid, but in the best way; endless, boundless enthusiasm. We laughed when the power went out on the Playboy Lumberjill match. We almost fell off our seats with the melodrama from Shawn Michaels’ “I’m sorry, I love you”. Over the years, we’d talk about him coming up for a Lions game, and he had a standing invite to crash at our place. It never came to pass. Life got in the way. I wish it hadn’t. He was damned cool. RIP, Blade.

I’ve always been intrigued by musical acts who experience preposterous levels of success out of the blue. I have no musical talent whatsoever – I couldn’t carry a tune if I used an industrial crane – so my frame of reference is 100% assumption and going off all the complaining about success the alt-rock bands in the 90’s did, but I have to imagine it’s far more preferable to work towards one’s artistic pinnacle than start off at it. Take a band like Metallica, who plugged away for a decade before achieving insane mainstream success with their fifth album. Sure, some old school fans might sneer at the songs on the black album, and their output since has been … let’s say “varied”. But the slow climb to success guaranteed that even with a post-pinnacle decline, they’d never be considered a flash in the pan. Contrast that to Hootie & The Blowfish, whose debut album shipped almost 15 million copies, tying it for 19th on the best selling albums of all time list. I’m dead serious. The follow-up? Just scratched its way over the two million mark. I’m pretty sure used CD stores grouped together at decade’s end and pulled an Alamogordo with the millions of copies of Cracked Rear View they’d bought back.

Sudden, inexplicable success in video games, though, is a little more complex. I’m sure there’s somebody who bought Cracked Rear View for the first time last year, but I’m just as sure that the number of people who did that wouldn’t exceed the max occupancy of a Ford Focus. Video games – both the games and the consoles – can have weird, Highlander-like life cycles that other forms of media don’t. Grand Theft Auto V and Minecraft have continued to sell in respectable numbers, and even place on sales charts, despite both seeing their first release two console generations ago. The Sega Master System was still going strong thirty years after launch in Brazil, selling 150,000 units as of 2015, and is still selling to this day. An album or a movie will burn bright and then fade away. A game or a console, though, can chug along like a perpetual motion machine.

Here, you will see one of those IP’s that perpetuates, but you don’t know anybody who enjoys it. It’s called the According To Jim Paradox.

You can guess we’re talking about Sony.

It’s paradoxical how, while Sony has mostly dominated the market since their inception, it’s hard to pin down their brand’s identity. They started as a party-crashing shit-stirrer, but … what are they now? Microsoft’s image has trended towards being multiplayer-centric, due to the strength of the X-Box Live network. Nintendo is Nintendo. What is Sony? What are they to kids and to parents? Just like we did with the big N, this time around, I’m looking at Sony as a parent.

The family co—oh, who am I kidding.

I’m not gonna bullshit you. Sony’s image does not, has not, and will likely never, make families a centerpiece the way Nintendo has. I’m not saying that Sony ignores that market; there are games to be found for your young’n. The Crash Bandicoot series, Spyro, the LittleBigPlanet, and there’s at least 700 Lego games. Even the Ratchet & Clank games stopped using dick jokes in their subtitles and softened the PG edges.

Now it’s butt jokes.

But while Nintendo actively courted the younger end of the demographic, Sony skewed older. Crash Bandicoot was pushed as a snarky punk with more 90’s attitude than Dan Cortese hosting Warped Tour. His original incarnation was the physical embodiment of “let’s piss in Nintendo’s and Sega’s cereal bowl”, and it WORKED … but it wasn’t aimed at Scooter and Susie in the 4th grade. They wanted teenagers and young adults. Sony isn’t so brash anymore – when you’re on top of the mountain, a display of that kind of attitude is kind of punching down – but they haven’t changed their target demo. Their advertising highlights mature franchises; MAYBE you could consider Spider-man a little more open in its target age, but beyond that, it’s, what, MLB: The Show? And since Crash’s time in the sun faded, Sony’s trotted out a lot of other characters used as brand identities that wouldn’t make for the best child icons; a psychotic, homicidal clown in an ice cream truck, a genocidal Spartan warrior, and an antiquities thief with as much value for human life as the tobacco industry, just to name a few. I mean, what character do they have that isn’t driven by greed or rage? Aloy, I guess?

Perhaps there’s no better example of how little effort they’ve made towards capturing the family market than the roster of PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale. Of the 23 franchises represented in the game’s roster, a whopping six are games rated below a T: Jak & Daxter, Ratchet & Clank, LittleBigPlanet, PaRappa the Rapper, Ape Escape, and Sly Cooper. There’s more jacked-up aggro males in this roster than the Alpha Beta fraternity in Revenge Of The Nerds.

LACK OF DIVERSITYYYYYYYYYYY! Also, NERRRRRRRRRRRDS!

The online *ahem* “community”

Ooh, boy.

I think, this far down the line, the first thing we need to do is bury the “Live is more stable than PSN” argument. If you still believe that, get off your knees, please, Microsoft’s getting chafed. I’ve been PlayStation owner for a long time, and the days of PSN being more delicate than lingerie made from butterfly wings are long gone. I cannot recall the last outage, for maintenance or any other reason. We’ve come a long way from the days where running the microwave at the same time as signing into PSN could tear a hole in space-time. And I’m also going to discount online toxicity, because you can find that in a game of Words With Friends. Nobody’s unique in having some online games with buttholes in them.

But in every other possible way, Sony has made the online side of gaming fall somewhere on the spectrum between “ice cream headache” and “that scene in Terrifier where the woman gets bifurcated with a handsaw starting at the groin”.

Microsoft has X-Box Live integrated into Game Pass, allowing you to game online and stream games from a huge library. Sony has PS+ and PS Now as separate subscription services (and the updates to PS Now are not exactly robust).

Made a profile name of XX_NARUTOBOI545_XX when you 11 and now you’d like to change it? Sony finally made this a possibility … in 2019 … for adults only. A child on a sub-account is stuck with SPONJBAWB010101 until they turn 18. Oh, Sony can’t promise there won’t be some kind of comparability issues with changing your name.

Want to seek out other people playing the same game? Maybe trade game tips, share cool screenshots, make new friends in an online community? They’re killing the feature this month.

You or your kid wants to run Discord and chat cross-platform with friends? Sure, if you don’t mind using the console’s *shudder* on-board browser as a workaround.

You’ll spend an hour getting a chatroom to work on your toy, but the dishwasher’s leaked for a month. The next chat you’ll have with me will be through a lawyer.

Oh, and there’s the awesome new reporting feature that allows users to record their voice chats and snitch to Sony about any little thing. Considering Sony’s own community guidelines are worded in such a way as to invite WILD interpretive differences, there is no way this could possibly be abused or misused. Provided you have the imagination of a sea sponge.

After all that, you’d think I would be wishing a pox upon Sony’s headquarters, but no. Communities were never really pushed or integrated well to begin with. I’m fine with my username, and I made sure to counsel my kids before they made theirs that whatever they chose, they were stuck with, so make it good. The reporting feature? Don’t be a dickwad, and you won’t get popped. Most of these really aren’t so bad as to be deal-breakers. But they do deserve mention, or I’d be doing a disservice to parents.

Besides, nothing Sony ever does will ever be as cumbersome, as stupid, as misguided, and as poorly implemented as Nintendo and their fucking friend codes.

Step 37 of how to play online with Nintendo: write your local Congressperson and ask them to support House bill 1398. Step 38: offer up a capybara to Anubis on the third Sunday of the month at 4 o’clock while playing Pink Floyd’s “Atom Heart Mother”.

Speaking of online and Sony, this is a fantastic segue to a real shitstorm.

The games

If Nintendo’s relationship with their past library is weird, Sony’s makes Crispin Glover look balanced. They started off embracing backwards comparability with the PS2 being able to play all of the PS1. The PS3 started off with BC for both the previous generations … until they revised the console and made the PS2 BC minimal and software-based. And then they removed that too. You could still buy PS1 and PS2 games digitally, but the selection was never very big. Then the PS4 came around and they chucked BC entirely, and ditched PS1 from the digital storefront. The PS5 can at least import your PS4 games, but anything before that? Abandoned.

And with the new generation came the news of the PS3, PSP and Vita digital stores shutting down. If you’re the kind of gamer who still plays old games, and would like to share them with your kids, this is the WORST news. The closure of these stores will abandon hundreds, perhaps even thousands of games that do not have cross-buy support to the PS4, let alone the PS1 games. And unlike Sega or Nintendo, who have spent the better part of 20 years in a weird, Cold War-style game of one-upsmanship for who can find the most ways to re-release their back catalog, Sony hasn’t been as willing to turn their back catalog into a revolving gold mine. Some marquee games get remastered for new console generations – your God Of War‘s, your The Last Of Us‘s – and they’ve done a few compilations from time to time. But there’s tons of games and franchises that are languishing in obscurity, and the closure of the store will slam the door shut on these, maybe once and for all. The last Twisted Metal game was on the PS3. The last home console Syphon Filter was on the PS2. Colony Wars had a trilogy of games on the PS1, and hasn’t been seen since. Sony has abandoned more franchises than Nintendo has active.

Think of all the historical monster fights in our planet’s history Sony is missing out on. MONEY ON THE TABLE, PEOPLE.

That doesn’t even take into account the ocean of indie games that got their start on PS3, like Retro/Grade or Big Sky Infinity. Their days are numbered. (You might find a podcast on this topic coming soon. Like, this week.)

One major positive for Sony, though, is that the development teams they’ve acquired have been, by and large, left to do their thing, and they’ve churned out a hell of a library, as deep in quality as it is in quantity. As a parent, you can have as much confidence in Sony’s first party output as you can Nintendo’s. Not everything’s a hit – The Order: 1886 springs to mind – but their ratio has been strong. And, ethical debate aside, their position as an industry leader has afforded them the opportunity to negotiate console exclusivity on some third-party games to boot. And on top of that, you have the insanely robust digital store, with a deep, deep library of indie games made by developers with a passion for the business. Again, the family-friendly side of the library may not be the deepest, but for you, the parent, or your older kids, the PlayStation is positively overflowing with quality games.

The Sony/fan relationship

Like Nintendo, Sony’s relationship with its fanbase can swing from one side of the spectrum to the other, but for entirely different reasons. When Nintendo shows hostility, it is cold and direct. When Sony does it, there’s an aloof ridiculousness to it. Nintendo cheats on you with your best friend, makes sure you catch them in the act, then sends you a video of it a few days later, just as you’ve stopped crying. Sony tries to say it was an accident, but puts in as much effort into the defense as one does when picking out socks.

But, like I did with Nintendo, all the foibles can be set aside, because most of them aren’t going to matter to you and I as parents. Does it suck that the PlayStation Classic was an absolute shitshow, with mistakes like using the inferior PAL versions of some games? Sure. But I can go to any flea market or garage sale in the country and they’ll pay me to take their twenty-ninth copy of Ridge Racer or Cool Boarders off their hands. Does it suck that their parental controls don’t actually match the age ranges on the ESRB ratings? Oh, does it. I loved coming downstairs once and seeing my 10 year old son was somehow playing a T-rated game on his account. Somehow, in fifteen years, they still haven’t mastered a concept Microsoft had damned near from day one: make the rating and the age match! How revolutionary! 11 isn’t a teenager? 14 doesn’t qualify for M? WHAT WIZARDRY IS THIS?!?

Fun for the whole (Manson) family, right, Sony?

But when Sony gets it right, they nail it. I love Nintendo’s quirky spirit. But I also can’t find a single game from them that has the emotional weight of 2018’s God Of War, or the opening 30 minutes of The Last Of Us. Sony’s let their studios, like Insomniac, Naughty Dog, and Santa Monica, develop projects at their pace and to their desires, to the point where seeing their name in the production credits is just as good as seeing Pixar or Marvel in front of a movie. Hell, did Microsoft or Nintendo do anything like Sony’s Play At Home program? Not that I could tell. Sony gave away games for free, forever, just to inspire people to stay at home during the height of the pandemic … and they’re doing it again right now. They just dropped ten indie games for free (a certain writer of this column may have reviewed the majority of these games on a podcast he hosts, which you should totally check out), and Horizon Zero Dawn will be for free by month’s end. I know someone is out there saying “they’re all older games, it’s easy to take a loss on them since they’re not selling”, and that’s missing the point entirely. Sony, and those indie developers, don’t have to do this AT ALL. They’re doing it, and yeah, it’s a blatant publicity stunt designed to inspire brand loyalty … but it’s also a good thing. When I told my older boys about the program and the games offered, and how I’d played the six non-VR games, they wanted to know more about them, and they downloaded a few as a result. My oldest, who is the kind of kid that would be happy if MCU movies would cut the chatter and show all fighting all the time, actually got interested in Abzu, which is basically Journey, but scuba diving. Sony and I helped expand his horizons. That matters to me.

Over the console generations, the word “PlayStation” has become one of those brand-name-for-a-common-noun things, like Band-Aid or Kleenex, where the brand itself becomes a synonym for its industry. It achieved that through a series of consoles with outstanding libraries of games. Even at their shakiest – the launch and early days of the PS3 looked like Sony had been possessed by post-16-bit Sega – they kept up their reputation by consistently delivering solid games. Their library isn’t perfect by any stretch; after all, DDI unleashed Ninjabread Man and its clones on PlayStation 2 before poisoning the Wii with it. And the library for younger kids just isn’t there the way Nintendo is. But they’ve never tried to be anything but the gaming system for the more mature gamer, so, how am I supposed to fault them for that? You don’t get mad at Ferrari for not making a station wagon, do you? As a gamer, I know what to expect from a Sony console when they release a new one (provided I can get one, HINT HINT). And I know which of my kids are good to have one, and which ones need to be steered in another direction.

Dammit, Atari, I thought I made myself clear last time.

And in closing …

Don’t know if you’re aware of it, but I host a podcast with the very same name as this column. I’ve been subtle about it, I know. Anyway, it’d mean the world to me, if you haven’t yet, to go give it a listen. My latest episode, as I mentioned above, looks at the six indie games released for free that don’t require VR. I’ve working on some good guests lined up for future episodes, and this week, I should have a new episode about the closure of the PS3 store, and some great games you can get for you and your kids. Episodes aren’t more than an hour. Give it a listen, and if you can leave a five-star review on Apple Podcasts, that’d be IMMENSELY helpful. I got my eye on some big guests, but I need to make it worth their time, which means a successful podcast. You can help me out on that one by listening, reviewing, and sharing.

Me on Twitter! And an email as well: [email protected].

That’s good enough for now. Considering I did Nintendo and Sony back to back, you can guess what the next one will be. See you in 2.