The PS2 is dead! Can the PlayStation go fourth?

Features David Crookes Feb 4, 2013

David Crookes looks back at Sony’s second console and ahead to the much awaited PS4

We are on the verge of a new console generation. In some respects, we’re already there with Nintendo’s Wii U, but perhaps more than ever before, the desire to see a bunch of new consoles has seldom been greater. IT trade magazine MCV reported a decline in the UK videogames market of some 17.4% last year. While that still meant the sector was worth £1.598 billion, it’s a significant drop from 2011 and here we are in 2013 still awaiting the announcement of the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox 720 (or whatever it may eventually be called).

In recent weeks, though, another story has served to remind us of how slowly this seemingly dynamic market is actually moving: the announcement that the PlayStation 2 is to cease production in Japan. Yes, a the machine that was introduced in March 2000 has proved so enduringly popular that not only did it continue to outsell its replacement for three years after the PlayStation 3 became available, it was still being made six years after the PS3 first went on sale in Japan. The PS2 is also a machine that sold 150 million units, the largest number of single console ever shipped. The fact that we’re still talking about this machine now is an indication of its amazing impact.

It’s easy to see why the PS2 was so successful. It helped to popularise third-person platform adventures and stealth campaigns, building on its predecessor’s success in moving the gaming sector forward. It heralded the a shift from traditional isometric RPGs and 2D beat-’em-ups to beautiful 3D arcade conversions such as Ridge Racer. What’s more, the PS2 helped to make DVDs such a dominant medium by being the first mass market and affordable machine to include a DVD drive. Nevertheless, we’d wager that it’s surprised many of you to hear that the PS2 was still going. I suspect many people thought it had died years ago.

“Most people in North America and Europe didn’t know it was still being made,” said Blitz Games CEO Andrew Oliver. “We’ve all had six years with the shops selling the PS3, so it was natural to think that.”

However, when you have a product that was one of the fastest selling consoles of all time, you can see why Sony stuck with it for so long.

Late launch

The PS2 launched in Europe in time for Christmas on 24th November 2000. There were 500,000 consoles available for purchase (165,000 in the UK), but the vast majority of them had already been sold to gamers who had snapped them up on pre-orders. It was a pre-festive blow for the less organised shopper, but they had certainly been given time to prepare. The release had finally come after a month-long delay, due to supply shortages of the computer chips at the PS2 factory near Tokyo. You may recall that, as launches go, it was not the best.

Helping fuel the popularity of the PS2 was the incredible success of the original PlayStation, which first emerged in 1994 and, by the time the successor was released, was in 23% of UK homes. This all but ensured phenomenal demand for a successor, and Sony hyped things further by heavily pushing an advance booking scheme in the months leading up to release.

Not even the high cost of the console acted as a deterrent; in the UK, PS2 cost a whopping £300, which was considerably higher than in the United States ($299) and Japan.

The previous March had seen the PS2 launch in the Far East, when Japanese consumers snapped up an amazing 1.4 million of them in the first month alone and 3.5 million by late October when it emerged in the US. There, it quickly sold another 500,000 units - no wonder chips were hard to come by.

As always, there was more than a little controversy surrounding the new machine. In Japan, the number of consoles foreign visitors could take home was restricted after the machine was declared a ‘super computer’, and a disappointed boy who was unable to secure his console was said to have committed suicide by jumping from the top of a building in Akihabara. Another boy was robbed on his way home.

Despite these events, there was no denying that the PS2 was a game changer in terms of the technology market. It may have initially lacked an internet connection, which the company said was due to broadband not being widely available at the time, but the DVD player helped to position the console at the core of a home entertainment system. While the PS2’s rival Sega Dreamcast did have the internet connection, the advances made by the PS1 had endured long enough into its life-cycle to effectively kill off Sega’s machine. Quite simply, many consumers stuck with that machine and all the games that they had invested in for it, and waited for Sony’s next move rather than jumping ship.

If there was a stroke of genius in Sony’s marketing of the PlayStation and its entrance into the console market, it was to make gaming cool. The PSOnes in nightclubs and the shift from bedroom to living room had paid off. For all of its excellence, the Dreamcast was shunned for the chic of Sony. The Dreamcast was to be Sega’s last ever console.

Gaming’s finest year?

By 23rd March 2001, Sony had shipped more than ten million PlayStation 2 consoles worldwide, despite the launch line-up of games being widely panned. While titles like Midnight Club, Ridge Racer V, Tekken Tag Tournament and TimeSplitters hardly set the world alight, things picked up rapidly with Gran Turismo 3 launching in April, heralding an exciting second generation of PS2 games, and effectively placing it as a real gaming powerhouse. Suddenly, PS1s were looking old hat and were consigned to people’s cupboards. The PS2 had truly arrived.

As if to underline just how great 2001 was, on 25th October Grand Theft Auto III was released, and it was huge. Taking the ethos of the previous two games and giving it a 3D spin, it put gamers into a realistic and violent environment. It quickly became a flagship title, instigating a second wave of Christmas purchases. By the time GTA: Vice City was released in 2002, Sony had passed 40 million PS2 sales worldwide (17.94m in North America, 12.6m in Europe, and 10.98m in Japan). It was a console at the top of its game, winning an ardent following of gamers and developers.

“The PlayStation 2 was incredibly influential in the global games industry,” former Rockstar Games developer Brian Baglow told Micro Mart. “It capitalised on the success of the original PlayStation and popularised a number of key features including broadband connectivity and high capacity disk formats, which enabled developers to push the console and create entirely new forms of gaming.”

Keep on running

As the years rolled by, there were many incentives to keep playing. By 2004, a network adaptor allowed more than 2.6 million PlayStation 2 gamers to connect online, forming the largest online console community in North America. Those gamers represented 10% of the total PlayStation 2 installed base. In 2004, Sony Computer Entertainment America introduced an internal hard disk drive too, offering consumers an extended gaming world by providing a dynamic experience through expanded applications and downloadable entertainment content. It came with Final Fantasy XI pre-installed and ready to play.

These advances helped interest in the PS2 to continue, and by the mid-2000s the mature platform was really hitting its stride. Some of its finest games (such as Okami, God of War 2, Canis Canem Edit, God Hand, Final Fantasy XII) were being released, despite attentions turning to the PS3.

They were produced by developers who had spent years getting to know the console inside and out, building up a repertoire of skills that meant every nook and cranny had been explored and exploited to get the very best out of what some would tell you was an ageing console. It finally became evident that, as Sony had predicted at its launch, the power of the PS2 was such that it could power on for years to come. Not that it was easy to program for.

“While I was at Kuju, I worked on Reign Of Fire, the game of that dragon movie you may or may not remember, and Fire Warrior, a Warhammer 40k FPS, both for PS2,” said programmer Ben Deane. “At EALA I worked on Goldeneye: Rogue Agent. I wouldn’t say the PS2 was a very nice machine to develop for - I remember quirky hardware, odd APIs and spotty documentation. But it was in the right place at the right time, so developers went where the money was. It did last for an amazingly long time, so perhaps it bridged a gaming generation. And we started to see games growing up a bit and pushing genres in that era. I’m not sure how much of the impact can be attributed to the PS2, and how much of it was just that 80s gamers were growing up and having kids.”

The X factor

The beginning of the end, though, came when Microsoft - which had seen its original 2001 Xbox pretty much trounced by the PS2 - speeded things up with the launch of the Xbox 360 in 2005. This fired the first next-gen salvo, and suddenly Sony had to catch up. Thus, the move to the PS3 in 2006 shifted Sony’s attention to a fresh battleground, though some developers felt it was too soon.
“It certainly takes a number of years into a console cycle before developers really begin to get the best out of new hardware,” said Chris Lee, former commercial director of Buzz! developer FreeStyleGames, who went on to co-launch smartphone games company Music In Colour.

“The second or third iteration of a franchise really begins to exploit the full potential. We certainly saw this on PlayStation 2 and I expect the same curve to exist on the current consoles. I would say the industry always seems to move to the latest shiny toy too soon. Once the tool chains and engines are fully mature on a platform, the art teams can really attack the system and we saw awesome results from games like Burnout, Call of Duty, God of War 2 and Shadow of the Colossus. By moving to the latest consoles, the industry leaves behind lots of opportunity to deliver innovative and compelling content using tried and tested technology.”

The purple patch experienced by the PS2 had really shown the power of the console. Shadow Of The Colossus was a stand-out PS2 title - a next-gen title on last-gen hardware. Some of the techniques used, including bloom lighting (where bright backlight can produce fringes around an object) were techniques that were being implemented on the PS3.

There was extra power in the toolsets for the artists too. Studios have their own map-building tools, and the second revision on PS2 saw features such as multi-texture materials and streaming being implemented. These were unlikely goals for games launched in the first year or so, and their presence in later games helped to keep the mass-market audience built on the PS2 faithful coming back to their consoles.

Hits don’t lie

By 2011, a staggering 1.52 billion PS2 games had been sold worldwide and the PS2’s software library consisted of around 11,000 titles. As if to show the strength of the console, it only launched in Brazil in 2009, some nine years after the initial unveiling.

“The mind-blowing thing is just how many PS2s they sold this past year in emerging territories,” Oddworld creator Lorne Lanning told Micro Mart. “It’s an incredible installed base that continued to saturate long after the PS3 came into play. I was not a huge part of the development environment in the day, but there’s no doubting the impact of the PS2.”

Now while the machine refuses to die among fans (the forthcoming PS2 instalment of the Final Fantasy series, Seekers of Adoulin, due to be released in March 2013, is testament to that), wider attention is switching inevitably towards the PS4, but is the death of the PS2 an indication of an imminent next-gen arrival?

“We’ve always talked about our consoles having a ten-year life-cycle,” said Michael Denny, executive vice president of SCE Worldwide Studios Europe. However, it would appear that 12 years is more the case. The PSOne was introduced in 1994 and discontinued in 2006. The PS2 was released in 2000 and discontinued in Japan in 2012.

Then we come to the PS3, which was launched in 2006. Previous patterns would suggest this machine not being discontinued until 2018, but some pundits are saying the discontinuation in Japan of the PS2 is to free up resources for the much-anticipated PS4, and we can expect this far sooner. Looking at the patterns, we’ve seen a new PlayStation around every six years, making the PS4 rather overdue.

One of the likely reasons for the ‘delay’ of the PS4 is the state of the world economy. While Mr Denny sees videogaming as an industry perhaps more insulated to fluctuations in the economy than some, he adds that the “reality is that we have to be aware of economic times and we have to make sure we have our cost structures and base fitting accordingly to our plans.” That said, he talks about the need to innovate and try to give the consumer something new.

As for what that will be, Denny refused to give anything away, saying only that “the hardware has to differentiate from the competition, it has to have new feature sets and innovation that helps with usability and the consumer’s experience.” He added that, “we have to have genuinely great new games, great new software experiences that again feel like a true next-gen experience - experiences that they, the consumers, have not had before. So all those things are always going to be relevant.”

The end is nigh

The PS2 continues to sell, despite the lack of production in Japan, but the gaming world is moving towards a connected future ruled by digital downloads. Reaching the wider markets often means infrastructure and logistics issues kick in. Sony now wants to sell consoles so it can sell games directly, because if all games are disc-based and you don’t have enough penetration, then it’s difficult to get shops to stock the games.

“It is no surprise that Sony has made great strides in manufacturing the PS3,” said Andrew Oliver of Blitz!. “The latest slimline version is cheaper to make and therefore to sell, takes less power than ever and is now far more attractive to these emerging markets in terms of traditional logistics, but Sony has been working hard in the different regions with online stores and associated services.

“It’s always good to look forward and what most people are expecting to hear is that Sony is starting to look to the next generation. It makes sense that as a new console comes online, the old one falls off the other end, but the PS2 has had a brilliant 12-year run and sold in excess of 150m units. It will be very fondly remembered by so many gamers.”