Sony’s strategy with the PS4, particularly in recent times, has taken a bit of an odd turn. Back when the PS4 was announced in February of last year, Sony were looking to the future. They were discussing the incredible new technology, sharing features, and truly next generation gaming experience on show. Throughout the year, before the box was even revealed, Sony kept pushing towards that launch, dropping titbits of new information and slowly teasing us with what the future could hold.
Sure, they announced returning game franchises and Sony’s ethos remained the same as ever, making it clear that this was all about the players, but they weren’t looking too far back. It’s a strategy that worked too, with the PlayStation 4 beating the competition upon its November release thanks to some smart marketing creating an object of desire – everyone wanted this system, and the sales figures upon release showed that.
But almost a month before release, Sony teased us with a brilliant For The Players Since 1995 video which plays on nostalgia, showing the great history of PlayStation and capturing the core essence of their systems: simply having fun. Throw in plenty of non-subtle game references, and you’ve got something that gets people excited by looking into the past.
Nostalgia can be a great thing – it often evokes a sense of love and longing like nothing else can. As a species, we like to dwell on the past, and as a modern culture we just love our in-jokes and references. As PlayStation fans, we want a new Crash Bandicoot game, and every miniscule tease, every tiny but recognisable noise in a video brings us closer to that goal. Or so we think.
Sony’s strategy took a similar approach upon the US launch of the console: a video packed with fifty easter eggs referencing old games, some of which we thought signified the return of an old favourite. In reality? It’s just a cool video, again bringing up the past to get us excited about the future. This sort of thing continued throughout the marketing – remember the obsession with Vib Ribbon, which amounted to nothing but a re-release of the PS1 Classic on PSN?
With the 20th birthday of PlayStation, it’s understandable that Sony would want to look back to the past. They’ve managed this with aplomb; a beautiful de-make of the PS4 is available in limited quantities for the lucky people who have managed to buy them, and something as simple as a PS4 theme manages to take us down memory lane. Most of these celebrations have looked to PlayStation’s history for support. And while looking back, Sony have made a crucial mistake by only referencing it: there’s no punchline and ultimately very little pay-off with this facade.
If Sony are going to play on nostalgia, they should be acting on it too – we should be seeing more than just Crash music in the background of a video, or a Vib Ribbon re-release on PSN. It’s like they’re saying “remember how cool we were?” rather than showing us how cool they still are. It leaves us longing for something which, realistically, we’re not going to get, stringing us along and leaving us with false hope.
As a marketing technique, it works, but as fan service, it goes against the For The Players mantra they’ve pushed so hard.
Look at Nintendo, for example. Criticise them all you want for doing the same thing, but they’ve just released two games – Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. – which fulfil the nostalgic requirements while feeling modern and relevant; these games have evolved and adapted to fit with the times, yet take you back to the past and satisfy fans like no offbeat reference at a conference ever could. The Legend of Zelda and Star Fox are returning too, and glimpses of gameplay have shown how these have changed for the future, rather than simply retreading old ground.
With the Doctor Who 50th anniversary episode, head writer Steven Moffat made sure to not only reference the past by bringing back David Tennant, but to look to the future of the series, laying the old to rest and opening up a brand new plot thread. Since then, there have been references – as you’d expect from a show with such lineage – but the Doctor is no longer stuck looking back, and looking to where he’s going next: the show set a goal for the protagonist, and Sony need to be setting goals with the PS4 – Project Morpheus’ integration being a clear candidate.
Imagine if the new Star Wars trailer was just a trailer – we weren’t getting The Force Awakens next year – that’s effectively what Sony are doing here.
Sony don’t seem to know where they are right now; it’s all well and good to reminisce but they’ll seriously need to shed some of their past in order to evolve beyond that, and think of the now, or even better – the future. We don’t want to be looking back on PlayStation in twenty years and simply remembering references to twenty years before that, never mind the fact that these throwbacks are nothing more than passing comments with no apparent payoff.