Now that we know more about the PS5, it is evident that it is actually a remarkably designed machine. It does not have the graphics processing grunt that the Series X has, but the work done on the custom SSD, especially, is notable, and may have far reaching implications for game design if leveraged properly.
However, as good as the PS5 appears to be right now, Sony seems to have done everything in its power to make it seem like anything but. The PS5, by all accounts, looks to be an exciting machine – and yet Sony’s messaging regarding it has been absolutely awful, terrible, creating a lot of doubt and confusion, all of which have coalesced to create a pretty bad first impression – and if there is one company that should understand the value of first impressions, it should be Sony.
Now, before I proceed any further, let me be clear: I think Sony’s handling of the PS5 reveal so far has been terrible. I do not think that the PS5 itself is bad (as I have said multiple times, it looks to be an exciting machine). I don’t think the PS5 is doomed to do poorly either – it’s too early to tell right now anyway. But if Sony doesn’t pick up the slack on the marketing and messaging front soon, then they will be facing a far more troubled console cycle with the PS5 than they did with the PS4.
The hugest issue has been the bizarre way in which Sony has communicated information about the upcoming console. In contrast to Microsoft’s sharp, clear, concise messaging about what the Xbox Series X is, what it can do, and how powerful it is, Sony seems to be groping around blindly in a dark room, while blindfolded. Microsoft, probably haunted by the specter of 2013, when the Xbox One got associated with a stigma that it never got rid of, thanks to negative early impressions, have done everything in their power to ensure there is no room for uncertainty and doubt. They state everything about the console as is, clearly, upfront, with no embellishment or marketing speak. And when there are doubts or uncertainties – such as when fans realized Xbox technically hasn’t promised full backward compatibility for Series X – they address the questions right away (and always with the best possible answer).
There has been a steady drip of information about the Series X we have received since its unveil last December. We’ve been getting information on its services, capabilities, games, controller, and specs regularly since. This has created a slow build of hype and anticipation, while Microsoft has deftly controlled the message to create the illusion of them launching the ultimate console.
Sony’s approach to their rollout of the PS5, in contrast, is positively amateurish. After a couple of articles detailing some of their technical aspirations for the PS5 in Wired Magazine last year, Sony went radio silent about the console. I mean, they’ve had a bit of a communication problem with their fans in general (to wit: cancelling PSX, pulling out of E3, and so on), but it got especially aggravating with the PS5, because even when Sony talked, they refused to acknowledge the upcoming console at all. And all this time, Microsoft kept releasing information about the Series X, more and more reveals that made it look great. Uncertainties surrounding PlayStation, thanks to the departure of some high ranking corporate executives in the last few years, as well as the broader uncertainty globally thanks to the coronavirus, have only served to exacerbate those fears.
After making their fans wait for as long as they did, in the circumstances they did, Sony’s first official front-facing look at the PS5 should have been a slam dunk home run. It was not.
To be very clear: Mark Cerny is hugely talented, and a gifted orator. The PS5 deep dive talk that Sony aired, originally intended as a GDC panel (GDC itself got cancelled earlier this year, also because of the coronavirus pandemic) was fine for what it was. The issue was, the surrounding context means it wasn’t what it was, it was more.
Remember: this was the first time Sony was communicating about the PS5. Fans around the world were waiting for this. Mainstream news outlets would report on this. The PS5 needed to look impressive. And it… didn’t?
Again, this is less about the specs of the machine (which are great), and more about the presentation. A dry, technology focused deep dive, that doesn’t have a hint of the kind of information people would want: what the console looks like, what the controller looks like, what the services on it will be like, what the OS is like, or a look at the games it plays, none of that was present in this talk. The closest acknowledgement of a feature of public interest we got in this talk was the segment on backward compatibility… which was also the worst handled part of the entire show, allowing a narrative of the PS5 being compatible with less than 100 PS4 games at launch to take hold, and mainstream sites such as Yahoo, to report on it. And in all that time, Sony said nothing, it took them 48 hours to issue a clarification (in contrast, it took Microsoft less than 2 hours to clear the air on Series X’s backward compatibility functionality).
The GDC talk would have been great if it had come after a more consumer-centric reveal. Maybe a short video that showed off the console, and some games (similar to the NX reveal in 2016); at that point, the technical deep dive would be giving us more information on an exciting and tangible console we were already aware of, rather than speaking words and jargon into the air, with nothing for us to actually apply any of it to.This technical deep dive being the first official communication from Sony about the PS5 (unless for some reason you count the logo announcement as an official communication) was a grave misstep.
The worst part of all of this is that on paper, if you were to just look at the specs, the PS5 looks inferior to the competition. The Xbox Series X seems to best it on every level, except for the SSD. And the PS5’s SSD is truly special! It could have benefits and advantages that could nullify the lead Xbox Series X seems to have over the PS5 on paper – except that’s something you have to show. When you are trying to promote unique value for your product that cannot translate to conventional messaging, you show, don’t tell. Mark Cerny giving me a 25 minute excruciating lecture on the nuances of solid state drives (which, for the record, have been commonplace for over a half decade now), and me then getting a spec-sheet that shows the Series X to be superior in all conventional ways, does not instill confidence in the PS5 as a product.
Those who are informed (or fanboys desperate to not cede ground to the competition) would of course look more into things and understand the nuances – but most people in the world will not do that. For them, the initial word they hear sticks with them. It’s why so many people still believe the Xbox One won’t let you play games offline, or why the Wii U was mistaken as an accessory for the Wii for its entire life. First impressions matter – and for the PS5, first impressions appear to be a console that is less powerful than the competition, and has nothing to show for any of it, and can’t even promise backward compatibility, even as the competition makes it a selling point. It almost feels like a less extreme reversal of 2013.
Those people are the people who comprise the bulk of the ~200 million who buy consoles every generation. And most of them do not have a good impression of the PS5 right now. Sony can very well change that in the coming weeks and months – we haven’t even seen the console or controller yet – and if they do, the next generation promises to be the most evenly matched one we have seen in a while. But in the here and now, they have completely dropped the ball on their messaging surrounding the PS5.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.