Sony’s November 16, 2006 North American launch of a mere 400,000 PlayStation 3 consoles indisputably provoked at least two shootings, riots and multiple armed robberies. A Wal-Mart manager in Milwaukee forced waiting PS3 customers to play musical chairs, causing several injuries. The Medialoper blog catalogued the mayhem, though most of its news links are now dead – like the mania for the console itself and like community college student Peyton Strickland of Durham, North Carolina.

It’s arguable whether to count Strickland’s December 1 killing toward the PS3 launch’s increment of human misery. On launch day, a University of North Carolina college freshman filed an armed robbery report with the New Hanover county sheriff’s office. He had waited in line for three days at Wal-Mart to get two PS3s, but two guys in a Pontiac drove up, beat him up and stole the consoles. Investigating, police identified Strickland and an accomplice. The police looked up Strickland’s page on an online social network, a Facebook clone called Campus Blender; he, like 50,000 other 18-year-old suburban white boys on Facebook and its clones, had posted a photo of his friends posing with (legally owned and licensed) firearms. Assuming from this that Strickland was armed and dangerous, the sheriff’s office sent its Emergency Response Team – 16 heavily armed officers, including Sheriff’s Corporal Christopher M. Long – to Strickland’s home with a search warrant. They used a battering ram to break down the unlocked front door. Strickland was inside, unarmed and playing Tiger Woods PGA Tour with a friend on one of the stolen PS3s. Corporal Long, mistaking the sound of the ram for a gunshot – that’s right, his own team’s battering ram – panicked and fired, blowing out Strickland’s brains and thereby sparing the public a trial to determine his guilt. Long also killed Strickland’s dog, Blaze, who had not been involved in the robbery.

Ordinarily, this would be just another day defending the peace in North Carolina. Unfortunately for Long, Strickland’s father is a lawyer. Long was fired; the district attorney charged him with second-degree murder, but a grand jury declined to indict. The New Hanover sheriff’s office later admonished several deputies who sold raffle tickets to raise money for Long’s family, calling it “most inappropriate” to offer as a prize the season’s hot new must-have gift item, a brand-new Sony PlayStation 3.

Not to trivialize these grim episodes, the most dramatic casualty of the PS3 launch is the console’s godfather, Sony legend Ken Kutaragi. As engineer of the original PlayStation and mastermind of its successors, Kutaragi had guided the line from strength to strength. Its success vaulted him to the top of Sony Computer Entertainment International, where, as chairman and CEO, he made SCEI, for a time, the sprawling megacorp’s most profitable division.

Live by PlayStation, die by PlayStation. The PS3’s six-month production delay and launch supply difficulties, among many factors, contributed to Kutaragi’s sudden removal from day-to-day operations in November 2006. His replacement as CEO was Sony veep Kazuo Hirai, who ran Sony Computer Entertainment America; Hirai’s replacement was Jack Tretton, co-Chief Operating Officer of SCE America. Both are Sony marketing veterans, both stoutly champion the PS3 and in public interviews both dismiss, as trivial carping, complaints about the PS3 launch.

Meanwhile, partisans in the console war passionately debate whether the next casualty of the PS3 launch will be the PS3 itself.

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Some call the PS3 launch “disastrous,” but even with the body count to date, it’s not a genuine disaster – yet. Sales are sluggish, but a genuinely terrible product launch scorches the earth, annihilating hope of recovery. This hasn’t happened to the PS3 – yet. In contrast to past launch disasters – the Ford Edsel, the Susan B. Anthony dollar – the PS3, as a product, has earned from neutral parties a measure of respect, if not enthusiasm. The New York Times called the console “over-engineered,” not the worst insult imaginable.

Yet incessant news coverage chronicles the continuing aggrieved outcry over the PS3’s $599 price, quirky high-def support and sub-optimal backward compatibility, plus a number of smaller technical glitches. Hundreds of stories fan the flames of a high-definition religious war between supporters of the PS3’s new disk format, Blu-ray, and fans of the Xbox 360’s HD-DVD.

So sensitized is the audience, even measured statements draw flames. The February 23, 2007 installment of David Carnoy’s “Fully Equipped” column on CNet is provocatively titled “Ten Things I Hate About the PS3,” though he immediately backpedals: “I think the PS3 is a very nice piece of gear – but it also has some issues that need to be addressed.” His mild-mannered list would seem to reflect pure consensus: price, high-def support, smaller tech glitches. Yet apparently the mere act of writing “PS3” summons the fanatics, for the column’s comment thread is as bloodthirsty as any on Kotaku or Joystiq. An early comment is titled “Hope your house falls off in a gigantic mudslide.”

You could speculate on the reasons for this passion – assuming you’ve never owned a video console. You might wonder if the anti-PS3 faction is reacting to, say, Sony’s criminal mistreatment of its customers in the 2005 rootkit debacle. Or maybe they’re annoyed by Sony executives’ relentlessly specious yet oddly ungrounded spin; see, for example, GameDaily’s February 2007 talk with SCE Worldwide Studios president Phil Harrison, where he claimed the PS3s that sit unsold on store shelves, even as Nintendo’s Wii continues to sell out, simply prove Sony manages its supply chain better.

You might wonder in this way – unless you know. Unless you spent your formative years playing a PlayStation or PS2 hours every day. That long affinity, more familiar and intense, in a way more intimate, than your relationships with most of your friends … it left strong feelings. To see its successor so strangely handled, to wonder whether you can continue that relationship, or whether it will be destroyed by senseless decisions beyond your control … it feels almost like betrayal.

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Is the PlayStation 3, so soon after launch, already in trouble? Despite all the noise, it’s still too early to tell.

The launch shortages are now history, which is good (no playing musical chairs for Wal-Mart managers) and bad (weak sales). According to sales data tracked by the NPD Group, the PS3 is the poorest-selling of the new consoles, moving only 244,000 units in North America in January 2007, compared to 294,000 for the Xbox 360 and 436,000 for the Wii. In Japan, according to Media Create, the PS3 is selling only 20-30,000 units weekly, compared to about 50-100,000 for the PS2 at the same point in its life cycle. In fact, in both regions, the venerable PlayStation 2 still tops the charts.

From October to December 2006, Sony’s game division posted a loss of 54.2 billion yen ($460 million), way down from the year-ago quarterly profit of 67.8 billion yen. Sony blamed PS3 startup costs and the decision to sell the console below manufacturing cost.

Obviously, demand will improve once Sony drops the price. But Sony faces other challenges, such as the dearth of world-beating exclusive PS3 games. True, there’s no shortage of mere product; Gamestop’s “Coming Soon” pages list about 80 PS3 games scheduled for release through the end of 2007, compared with about 90 for the Xbox 360 and 46 for the Wii. But as blogger Bill Harris observes, “In the U.S., through the end of May, there’s one non-Sony-developed exclusive: Coded Arms Assault by Konami. The only other Coded Arms game came out on the PSP and has a 60.7% average review score at Game Rankings. Ouch.”

The longer Sony waits to cut the price, says the common wisdom, the more developer exclusives they will lose. The PS3’s installed base grows by the week, yet it falls ever farther behind the Xbox 360 and, especially, the Wii. If the gap widens too far, and if Blu-ray doesn’t win big, the PS3 might never gain dominion to match the PS2. For a console so expensive, so (what was the word?) over-engineered, even middling-good sales could constitute failure.

If the console does need rescue, Sony can still pull that off. The PS3 sells fewer units than the cheaper Xbox 360, but not much fewer; this may indicate pent-up demand from legions of buyers waiting only for a price drop. Though it may cost Sony over $800 to build each PS3, the company can nonetheless afford to drop the price at any time – this summer in particular, after the release of Spider-Man 3 makes Sony rich.

Meanwhile, even now, the ongoing PS3 launch still makes waves. The March 23, 2007 European release (weeks in the future, at this writing) excited early condemnation when Sony removed PS2 hardware compatibility from the European PS3 – the “Emotion Engine” – in favor of software emulation. Sony seems committed to reducing the madness and fatality rate of the PS3’s European launch in comparison to North America’s, through a curious yet, nowadays, increasingly Sony-like tactic: They make customers less eager to buy it.

Allen Varney designed the PARANOIA paper-and-dice roleplaying game (2004 edition) and has contributed to computer games from Sony Online, Origin, Interplay and Looking Glass.

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