The Highs, the Lows, and the Legacy of PlayStation 3

By Robert Zak on at

Early 2007 was a pretty unremarkable chunk of year. In the UK, the Blair government was spluttering to an end as Gordon Brown groaned into his Prime Ministership, George Bush was throwing more troops at Iraq, and the first signs of financial meltdown were starting to show in the subprime mortgage crisis in the US. On the bright side, Martin Scorsese had just won a long-overdue Oscar for directing The Departed, and Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black was dominating the album charts, unique talents achieving mainstream success. Oh, and Twitter was ‘the next big thing’ though, from here, it's still hard to tell whether it's a good or bad one. Chaotic Neutral, maybe?

The fact that all this stuff happened a decade ago is particularly unsettling when, for me, the year 2000 still sounds sort-of space age. Thinking about most of the aforementioned people starkly drives home that we’re talking about history when we talk about 2007. And part of that history is that exactly ten years ago today, Sony’s seventh-generation console, the PlayStation 3, launched in the UK.

The 10th birthday of the PS3 is also something of an elegy. With perfect timing Sony has just announced that the console is going out of production, both fulfilling the promises of a 10-year lifecycle and making this an apt time to reflect on the glossy black sheep of the Playstation family.

I bought my PS3 several months after its release, trying to forget about a dodgy import with peeling lettering and a non-functioning disc drive I'd foolishly been tempted into the previous year. It felt like a much colder acquisition than the PS2, which I was so desperate for that I convinced my dad that £450 - with a couple of games - was a reasonable price, or my N64 that I reacted to in the traditional fashion. The PS3 was procured with a chunk of my student loan, free money basically, while the first titles I picked up that winter were the likes of Assassin’s Creed and Pro Evo 2008. Hardly earth-shattering stuff and, although I’d heard about an Indiana Jones-type adventure called Unchartered or something, little in those early days grabbed me.

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It was a rough start, exacerbated by the fact that the console war had already begun, with the Xbox 360 and, to everyone’s surprise, the Nintendo Wii, getting off to running starts. Sony had famously declared that the next generation started with them but, in reality, PS3 had a lot of catching up to do.

The PS3 landed like the obelisk from the start of 2001: A Space Odyssey - crashing to Earth and confounding us mere mortals with its undeniable but seemingly un-harnessable power. It was a big, black and rather cumbersome block of a machine that caused bemusement as much as excitement. Consumers were perplexed by its non-rumbling Sixaxis motion controller, the glossy design with that ill-advised Spiderman font that seemed to be a misguided bit of intra-promotion between the console and the Sony-produced movies (I imagine this backfired when Spiderman 3, released a couple of months later, turned out to be shit).

Developers, meanwhile, clubbed away at the arcane Cell processor, struggling to figure out how to effectively use its unfriendly development tools and theoretically impressive architecture made up of a 3.2GHz PowerPC core supplemented by 8 Synergistic Processing Elements (let’s just call them mini-processors). Meanwhile, the Xbox 360, with its more PC-like architecture and Visual Studio, became the developers’ darling. Capped off with a formidable price tag of £425, the PS3 launched in a decidedly lukewarm manner that, for a company like Sony, can only be called a flop.

Part of why the PS3 is such a great console is that these early steps forced Sony to re-think its approach, and re-learn a bit of humility. Nevertheless, at the time it felt like a long wait before the console-selling exclusives began to arrive, and the PS3 had to take wins where it found them: like the extremely high-quality integrated Blu-Ray player, which swiftly ousted the Xbox 360’s overpriced (and inexplicably external) HD-DVD Player from the market. LittleBigPlanet charmed everyone in 2008 but it was too esoteric to be a true blockbuster, Uncharted was good but not yet a global phenomenon, before in summer 2008 Metal Gear Solid 4 arrived and showed - even if the game wasn't to your taste - just what incredible things this machine could achieve.

In 2009, a breakthrough happened. It started in February with the release of a worthy exclusive shooter in Killzone 2; this simple industrial blaster fitted the inexplicable trend for grungy, murky aesthetics at the time, had an excellent online mode, and was as much a technical showcase of the PS3 as Xbox 360’s Gears of War and Halo series. Remember how incredible that Killzone 2 footage at E3 2007 seemed then?

The good times were rolling, and there was something for everyone. Open-world hero adventure Infamous a couple of months later, a spectacular year’s end with Ratchet & Clank: A Crack in Time, the mysterious Demon’s Souls which was quickly garnering a zealous following, and Uncharted 2 establishing Nathan Drake as the superstar the console so badly needed. Years in, developers were finally unlocking the PS3’s potential.

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But working in the engine room behind the success of 2009’s glamorous games line-up were Sony’s marketing and development teams. The announcement of the PS3 Slim (or, technically, the PS3 120GB) that August represented more than just Sony’s usual downsizing of its home consoles, it was an opportunity to bury the fat PS3 model - along with all its associations of overpricing, Spiderman, Yellow Lights of Death and a glossy chassis smeared in fingerprints unless you polished it twice a day.

The design changed, as did the branding and - crucially - the price dropped to $299 (£209 in the UK). The minimal new PS3 logo was a curvier take on the fondly-remembered PS2 font, and along with the return of a DualShock controller, brought the PS3 closer in line with PlayStation’s esteemed history (seeing as the PS2 was still outselling its successor at this point, its branding straddled the line between current and nostalgic - such was the transcendent power of the PS2).

The other trick Sony pulled in 2009 has since come to define console gaming - for better or worse. You see, one of the bigwigs realised that, what with having scrapped backwards compatibility a couple of years prior, the company could ease the pressure off of having to commission brilliant new games all the bloody time by simply upscaling and remastering some of the finer offerings of the previous generation. The God of War Collection, featuring the perpetually-pissed Spartan’s first two outings from the PS2 era, launched in October 2009 to excellent sales and critical acclaim. At a buttery 60fps, and with brighter colours and none of that SD anti-aliasing-free raggedness, the collection was of course welcomed as the ultimate way to play these revered classics, and any previous-gen classics for that matter. It set a precedent, and thus dawned the era of the remaster, with Jak and Daxter, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Killzone, Okami, Kingdom Hearts and plenty of others getting the treatment.

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Along with the Xbox 360, the PS3 inverted the landscape of multiplayer gaming. The Dreamcast may have got there first, but these were the first truly online-dependent consoles, and local multiplayer was largely abandoned in favour of hooked-up and headsetted online sessions. Opening up online gaming to the console masses was a monumental and inevitable step, but in so doing we lost some of that intimate, friends-huddled-on-a-couch joy that was such a core part of console gaming’s identity up to that point. For a child of the split-screen generation like me, it was bittersweet witnessing the mass migration online, which along with facilitating epic online games (most audaciously exhibited in flawed 256-player PS3 exclusive, MAG) and connecting global gaming audiences on an unprecedented scale, also exposed us to the ugly side of the internet on a daily basis: the trolling, the rage-quits, the bad sportsmanship and the abuse. It felt like this generation lost some of the innocence of older consoles, where multiplayer had meant friends, arguments, drinking games, and corporeal high-fives.

That might just be me but, if you want a symbol writ large, April 2011 was a stark illustration of what online dependence meant, as the Playstation Network when it was hit by one of the largest cyberattacks in history. The data of over 77 million PlayStation users was stolen including email addresses, passwords and possibly credit card information. From a gamer’s point of view it’s hard to tell whether the worst part of this was the stolen information, or the fact that PlayStation Network was out of action for 23 days, but it's surely no coincidence that, in the year following, Xbox 360 saw a huge surge in sales, outselling both the PS3 (and Wii) for the first time. The PS3's sales remained steady (2011 saw 14.1 million sold, to the 360's 14.9 million), but after Sony had worked so hard to claw its way back this was a cruel blow.

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But in a world where consumer concerns tend to be fleeting (there were no confirmed reports of cards being stolen nor individual accounts hacked after the PSN outage) the PS3 got back on track in 2012. Despite offering no notable exclusives save for several notable remasters (and the niche but beautiful Journey - an example of the growing importance of indie games to consoles), it regained momentum, and had outsold the Xbox 360 by over 1.5 million units by the year’s end. By May 2013, the PS3 had overtaken the Xbox 360 in total global sales for the first time.

If the PS3’s introduction to the world could have gone better, then it atoned with possibly the greatest Indian summer in console history. With the PS4 announced in February 2013 the gaming world inevitably began looking to the future, but just a couple of months later - defying all marketing wisdom and convention - a new IP was released in the PS3’s twilight hour, fittingly from a developer that had represented the console at its very best. Naughty Dog’s post-apocalyptic adventure The Last of Us came out in June to critical acclaim, providing the ultimate showcase of the PS3’s labyrinthine architecture. Even Naughty Dog admitted that the PS3 “was as difficult to develop for as it was reputed to be”, but with each successive title they tapped a little more power, and it ended in one of the greatest and most technically-accomplished narrative adventures ever made.

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After all the bullshit, the terrible executive decisions and the tribulations of its early years, the PS3 passed the baton to PS4 with style. Though really, it secretly stuffed the baton with fireworks, then just as it was about to hand over the PS4, lit the fuse and gave us a real show.

The crowd goes wild, standing ovation, and the PS3 leaves the field with a twinkle in its eye.

For all its success in clawing its way back into a console war, will there ever be a time when we look back fondly on the ‘PS3 days’ like we do on the SNES, PS2 or N64 days? Possibly not, due to its strange place in gaming history. It’s the generation in which consoles lost some of their purity, becoming online-dependent multimedia centres on which unfashionable terms like DRM, DLC, Day One patches, Season Passes and firmware updates (some of which clamped down on such freedoms as installing Linux on your PS3) grew in prominence. The technological leap was remarkable, but this also led to tighter, more restrictive control from both Sony and publishers about how you play your games and use your console. Hardly the stuff of wistful nostalgia.

Ironically, the PS3’s legacy may be a victim of the very trends it began. With many of the its greatest titles arriving in their ultimate remastered form on the PS4, history could portray Sony’s Third Coming as a kind of palimpsest, with its successor eventually overwriting the seventh generation. The PS3 felt more like it embodied a transition in console history, rather than the glamourous leaps of its predecessors. But it was still a great ride, a dramatic one, and proved that a disastrous start can eventually become a resounding success.