Sony and Attention to Detail

Sony makes some really amazing hardware and software. That’s why it’s so frustrating when they flub the small things that can ruin what would otherwise be a tremendous experience.

A few recent news stories have reminded me of my own experiences with Sony’s inability to sweat the details.

First there was this story at Ars Technica about the frustration of the PlayStation 3’s frequent, mandatory, and slow system updates. That’s just one of many aspects of Sony’s hardware and software that indicate they either don’t pay attention to how much they are inconveniencing their customer or don’t care about inconveniencing the customer.

From these mandatory system and game updates that take upwards of 10 minutes, to mandatory game installs that take upwards of 10 minutes (and 5GB of hard drive space), to the debacle that is the PSP Go, Sony has shown over and over again that they don’t understand how to make a product that is focused on the user experience. And this is all for a product that’s supposed to be fun. Imagine if you had to wait 15 minutes for the board to update every time you wanted to play Monopoly.

Then today I was reminded of another baffling decision by Sony. In his review of the new PlayStation Move, Ben Kuchera of Ars Technica writes:

Battery life with the built-in pack is shorter than the Dual Shock 3, … and you recharge the controller using a standard USB to micro-USB cable (the same as the Dual Shocks). It’s nice, but if a controller dies it would be convenient just to slam in fresh batteries.

Remember to check the status of your charge by hitting the PlayStation button and you shouldn’t go completely dry if you plan accordingly.

It appears then that Sony is perpetuating mistakes they made with their earlier controllers. The Dual Shock 3 (and evidently the new Move controller) has built-in, user-inaccessible rechargeable batteries. This means that when your controller dies, you have to charge it. Unlike the Wii and Xbox 360, you can’t choose to just use some spare AAs for the time being and recharge later. You could argue that Sony’s design is a qualified win because, although you lose the flexibility of AAs, the controller is a better value and the built-in battery allows it to be smaller and lighter.

That would be all well and good if the Sony recharging model made a lick of sense. It doesn’t. To recharge the PS3 controller you connect the controller to the console with the provided micro-USB to USB cord. Sounds fine, right? Except that 1) the PS3 must be on and 2) the cord is three feet long. In reality this leads to one of two scenarios: either you play a game sitting uncomfortably close to the TV (and probably on the floor instead of your couch), or you leave your PS3 on (while not playing) so the controller can charge (probably overnight). Again, it’s a terrible user experience and again it seems that no one at Sony is thinking through the real-world implications of their design decisions.

Coming back to the quote from Kuchera’s article, I don’t want to “plan” my controller use. I don’t want to think about it at all. But because of the way Sony has designed their controllers, I have to think about it in order to have a decent experience.

All of this reminds me of what I wrote a while back about Nintendo. The “hardcore” gamers like to bag on Nintendo for taking the easy route by going after those mouth-breathing “casuals”. But in reality they are pursuing a market that’s much harder to crack. As I wrote then, the mainstream customer isn’t stupid, they’re busy. They have divided interest, and don’t play games for 20 hours a week, and won’t spend two hours figuring out your control scheme, and won’t give you the “benefit of the doubt.”

[Nintendo] decided to sell to, in many ways, a more discerning market, at least when it comes to accessibility and fun. And that’s scary. It takes a lot of work. You can tell Nintendo knows to what it’s committed – the executives often talk of the need to constantly strive to come up with fresh, surprising, fun products in order to keep consumer interest.

I don’t know that Sony understands what a challenge it is to sell to those that aren’t already interested and invested in their work. I’m sure that Sony is deeply concerned with creating a good product. I just think they have a different definition of what a good product is than I do and than many consumers do. Sony is famously an engineering company. I’d buy that – I think they sometimes give little thought to the customer.