Why Sony's losing to Nintendo, revisited

2009-12-27 15:14

So, I used to hang around on a video game forum devoted to the PS3. It was… interesting. Imagine a room full of people all of whom were 100% convinced that the PS3 would outsell both of its competitors, put together, and would sell more units faster than the PS2, leading to massive and total domination of the console market.

Now, if they’d thought this back in 2006, hey, that was understandable. Sony had by one means or another dominated the home console industry twice in a row. It made sense to imagine them succeeding again. By 2007, it seemed a little questionable. In 2008, it was silly. In 2009, it was completely ridiculous.

Here’s the underlying problem: Sony’s pretty good at business. They’re very good at hardware. They totally suck at usability. And it turns out, that’s gradually come to be a serious problem. The reason the Nintendo DS runs rings around the PSP in sales is that Sony focused on making powerful gaming hardware, and Nintendo worked on making a portable gaming device. Sony’s focused on things like firmware updates to add tons of new features; Nintendo’s focused on making the system easy and convenient to use.

I actually have a PSP, and the other day, I wanted to do something with it. I hooked it up to a TV (you have to go through a special menu item to enable the attached display — there’s no detection of whether you have a display attached). I went through the elaborate menu system, found “system update”, and decided to check for updates. It found one. This is where things went… wrong.

So, we download the update, which takes a few minutes. After downloading the update, I’m prompted to press “X” to continue. (Sony’s convention, in the US, is that the “X” button is usually used for OK, in direct contradiction of every other user interface I use. It’s different in Japan. The idea of adopting a single consistent convention apparently never occurred to them.) I press X. I’m informed that the update cannot be run while using an external display (???), so I’ll have to try again.

Okay, navigate back through the menu, switch to internal display, and… uhm. Where’s the update? Nothing on the system menu refers to the update I downloaded. So I go download it again, try to run it. Hit X when prompted. That gets me to the licensing agreement. Somewhere around here, there’s a screen where X doesn’t accept or enter or continue… instead, you have to notice the small right arrow on the side of the screen, hit the right button on the directional controller, and slide over to a different screen where you can click X for OK. So I do that… and it informs me that it can’t run because the battery’s low, and it’s not enough to have AC power, I have to have a fully charged battery.

Okay. So a couple of hours later, I come back. This time, I do actually figure out where the system update is. It is, of course, under the “game” menu. Because, uhm. Well, there’s no real reason for it. Run the update, etcetera, all works.

But what a giant pain.

On the DS, I navigate to the “update” menu, click okay, click “I agree” and click OK, and I’m done.

The fundamental difference here is the same one that’s plagued Windows/Mac debates for years. Microsoft, and Sony, view software as a checklist of features. Here are the twenty things it must be possible to do; verify that each of them can be done. We’re good, let’s go home. Nintendo, and Apple, view software as an experience a user has; what is it like to try to do this? Will the user be able to do it on the first try, without frustration? If not, we have more work to do.

This kind of thing is visible at every level. The array of four buttons on Nintendo’s DS that are the primary controllrs are A, B, X, and Y. A and B are the bottom two, X and Y are the top two. B is left of A, Y is left of X. Every game, and every part of Nintendo’s system, uses A for confirm/OK, and B for cancel. Sony has square, circle, triangle, and X. Experienced players often end up knowing what order those go in, but there’s no particular pattern to them. You just have to memorize them. There’s little in the way of further conventions. Some games use triangle for menu, others square. Some use X for OK, O for cancel, some use O for OK, X for cancel. Some use X for OK, square to back out of menus. One game I played used both square and triangle to open the menu, but once you were in it, there was a submenu accessed by triangle, but square would back out of the menu.

Human factors, too. The DS is a clamshell, and a fairly durable device as such go. Close the lid, it pauses itself instantly, toss it in a bag, you’re good to go. The screen is protected by the case. The PSP has no clamshell. If you want to take it somewhere without scratching it, you have to buy a separate case to keep it in. The DS gets much, much, longer battery life — probably two or three times longer. The DS’s cartridges load data nearly instantly, while the PSP’s design was originally built around optical media — meaning huge load times. The PSP is a more powerful system, certainly; it can hold more data, it can render more impressive graphics. But… It was not designed to be portable, only to be small. No thought was given to the user experience of trying to play video games for the entire duration of a long flight, without access to a wall outlet for recharging, or to anything else that would come up while actually USING the system.

The PS3 has similar issues. It’s no surprise that, even though it’s dramatically more powerful than the Wii, my PS3 hasn’t even been plugged in for close to a year, while the Wii gets played by everyone in the house on a fairly regular basis. Fundamentally, it’s about user experience, not about checklists of features. That’s why Apple is able to grow market share with devices which are, quite frankly, incredibly expensive by comparison… Because they are so much less trouble to use. More on that in a while; I have to think a bit before I can write up the story of the installer that had to download the downloader for the installer for the installer for the download. (I think I got that right.)

Peter Seebach

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