Timeline: PlayStation 3 versus the World

How inflated egos and gargantuan ambitions were hacked down to size

As the world awaits the announcement of the PlayStation 4, CVG is running a special three-part article that looks through the defining moments of in PlayStation history.

Then, today at 6pm Eastern Time (11pm UK) we will stream live video of the PlayStation Meeting right here.


March 2001: The Hard Cell

It was like an opening act to a science fiction film. Sony, after vaulting through technological generations with its PS1 and PS2 systems, Sony set its aim for PS3 far further than others could feasibly envision. It was a near-improbable ambition - a final frontier in microprocessor engineering.

On March 13 2001, Sony entered into a landmark partnership with IBM and Toshiba to co-create a revolutionary processor, codenamed 'Cell'. The idea was that this inestimably complex nine-core chip (which contained an astounding 234 million transistors) would power all future technologies, from wrist-watches to microwaves to TVs and their remotes.

Image: Gizmodo

The immensely expensive chip design project concluded in 2005. At the time, the widely respected IBM luminary Jim Kahle said designing Cell was "the most important project of my career".

It was reported at the time that Sony had invested at least $400 million in the processor, and the corporation was proud to state that the very first home device to have Cell at its heart would be PlayStation 3.

It was a profound moment in the era of the microprocessor. Everything seemed so triumphant that no one considered, or even dared to suggest, one vital caveat: the Cell processor was a terrible choice for a games console.

May 2005: The Lost Numbers

When Ken Kutaragi stood on stage at E3 2005 he ushered in a new era, but not the kind he had in mind.

His dream was to engineer the next age of microprocessors where Cell was a ubiquitous, heavenly breakthrough. But this was not to be. The real revolution was that the console numbers and specs Kutaragi had paraded on stage were no longer relevant or valuable, regardless of how enormous they had become.

From the 8-Bit era to the age of N64s and onwards, numbers were attached to consoles to provide a kind of short-hand explanation of their capabilities. The PlayStation 3's figures, however, were at odds with what was being produced by the machine and what developers were saying.

The PS3 was capable of 100 billion shader operations per second and was able to display 1080p resolution with 128-bit pixel precision. But such stats were meaningless if programmers couldn't get their heads around a new multi-thread language required to make the most of such features. And the truth: Not many programmers could or had the time to.

PlayStation 3 was far more sophisticated than any other console in the world, but its games often looked worse than those developed for the Xbox 360; an older system made from more modest parts. And in an age where multiplatform releases became a commercial necessity, it became self-evident that system power was only one part of a more complex equation. Numbers had lost their meaning.

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Even in 2013, developers are still discussing the problems with developing for PS3. Two weeks before the reveal of the PlayStation 4, Insomniac boss Ted Price said the Resistance project was "brutally difficult to work on at times" - a memory still fresh in his mind some eight years later. It's hard to imagine how he felt back then.

May 2006: Not Enough WTFs in the World

Maybe Chris Deering's departure from PlayStation, five months prior to E3 2006, should have been a warning sign. Certainly, in the months leading up to the event there had been some signs - a peculiar claim here, a spot of bravado there. But it was only on that day, in May 2006, that the world was given a full picture of how far the PlayStation business had fallen into disarray.

That infamous Sony E3 press conference was, in a sense, a sort of bizarre anti-sales pitch, perhaps destined to be studied by business and PR students. It was as if, after eleven straight years of unimaginable success, a culture of complacency had spread all the way up Sony Computer Entertainment.

All the most vital decisions regarding PS3 were handled poorly, not least that flabbergasting RRP of "five hundred and ninety nine US dollars" - a phrase repeated in gamer circles to this day as though it was a punch line.

Pitching a console for $600 wouldn't have worked even if Sony performed that E3 conference flawlessly, but of course the company didn't come close. It took two decades for Sony to reach such a dominant position in the business, and just two bleak hours of televised madness for it to lose its grip.
One journalist who attended E3 said the look on Phil Harrison's face, as he marched out the venue afterwards, said everything about the success he had fostered at Sony and the storm he was about to face. Another Mr Harrison, however, was living what he regards as one of his best days ever at Nintendo.

George Harrison and his team at Nintendo of America had sparked a craze that the games community had not experienced since the launch of the PS2. The Wii promised a completely unique way to play games and, with impeccably lucky timing as if it was all part of a wider narrative, the revolution at Nintendo coincided with the collapse of the PlayStation empire.

It was as if power was changing hands, and it could be seen almost literally, as Nintendo's Harrison explained in a recent interview with CVG.

"I'll never forget the first day on the show floor at E3. People lined up and as soon as the doors opened, you could see people literally running past the PlayStation 3 stand to get to the Wii stand. I think we caught Sony by surprise, and they felt they needed to act fast so they created the Sixaxis controller."

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"People were lining up by the hundreds to get their hands on the Wii, and that's when we knew we were onto something. It was also a time of social media too, with things like homemade YouTube videos promoting the Wii - the whole thing took on a life of its own and you really cannot manufacture that through advertising."
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One YouTube video stands out among the rest. It was a rushed five minute cut of the E3 conference that encapsulated everything about Sony's performance. With more than 1.7 million views, it could very well be the most watched anti-PR video ever. You've no doubt already seen it several times, but like iconic moments in film, there is something about it never ceases to amaze:

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