Yet again, a seemingly innocent press release from Sony – detailing the specification of the PAL territory PlayStation 3 – has been met with the reception you’d expect if the sky started falling in. That, as we all know, is because it revealed that PAL (why is Sony still calling them PAL, since HDMI renders the whole concept of PAL, NTSC and Secam redundant?) PS3s will have had the Emotion Engine chips surgically removed from their motherboards, so backwards compatibility with PS2 games will be achieved via software emulation. Sony’s decision to point consumers towards a website (http://faq.eu.playstation.com/bc) detailing which PS2 games will be playable on the PS3, but which won’t go live until March 23 also hardly made PlayStation enthusiasts feel any less unloved. But we have good news: we managed to snatch a quick interview with head of worldwide studios Phil Harrison, in between putting the finishing touches to his Game Developers’ Conference keynote, and what he said firmly puts the contentious issue of backwards compatibility into storm-in-a-teacup territory.
Harrison would not be drawn on specific PS2 titles which will be playable on PS3 on March 23, but it seems the only problem we will have is deciding which ones to play: “The situation is changing every day, but on March 23, we expect the list to include over 1,000 PS2 titles.” That enough for you? Even when you’ve played your way through MotorStorm, Resistance: Fall of Man, Ridge Racer 7, Virtua Tennis 3, Call of Duty 3, Rainbow Six: Vegas, Formula One Championship Edition and so on?
Harrison also dropped another bombshell which could lead to a drop in the price of the PS3 sooner than expected – although that’s not good news for those who have placed pre-orders, it’s good news for the prospects of the PS3 in general. Alex Kwiatkowski, an analyst at Datamonitor, responded to the release of the PS3’s PAL hardware specs with what initially seemed a specious argument: “The move is significant, as it will have a positive impact on the PS3’s long-term cost profile. By launching the PS3 in Europe with the new chassis, Sony has at a stroke removed one of the barriers to future price reductions.” Yes, we all scoffed, but Sony has manufactured over 100 million Emotion Engines, so economies of scale dictate it’s a chip that couldn’t possibly cost more than a few pence to manufacture. Not so, reveals Harrison: “The Emotion Engine that has previously gone into PS3s on sale elsewhere in the world is a custom component that we have now removed from the motherboard of PAL PS3s.” So it will make an impact on the PS3’s cost of manufacture, after all. Not that PS3 price-cuts are expected by any rational people at any foreseeable time in the future, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Harrison adds: “It’s very easy to over-react. We’re working to introduce a resource on the Web to detail which titles will have backwards compatibility. And as we make firmware upgrades, we will be able to add to that list.” Having upgraded the firmware of our PS3 several times, we can confirm that it is a very easy process – and one which will become something that happens automatically when you are hooked up to the PlayStation Network.
There are no issues regarding backwards compatibility of PlayStation titles, and Harrison points out that: “There will still be thousands of PlayStation and PlayStation 2 titles playable on the PS3 at launch.” And who can honestly say that they ever played a PlayStation game on their PS2s? I personally, have played one on mine: the awesome Vib-Ribbon. And surely the vast majority of PS3 purchasers already own PS2s? Not that Sony themselves would ever be so gauche as to point that out.
You might ask why Harrison didn’t surface earlier with the information that there will still be over 1,000 PS2 titles playable on the PS3 at launch, and that the chip removed from PAL PS3s was a pricey custom effort, but give the man a break – he’s about to deliver the keynote at GDC (which takes place between 5 and 9 March – we’ll be reporting on it assiduously), and is running a vast international network of studios developing the games will show the world what the PS3 is all about. Some of which, Sony hints, will be shown at GDC for the first time. Keep your eye on Three Speech for all the details.
Here is the bulk of our recent chat with Phil Harrison:
Q: What is Sony’s thinking behind leaving the Emotion Engine off the motherboards of PAL PS3s?
Phil Harrison: “Our thinking involves being able to bring the latest hardware specification of the PS3 to Europe, although that does mean an initial slight reduction in the number of PS2 components. But it’s important to put that into context: there will still be thousands of PlayStation and PlayStation 2 titles playable on the PS3 at launch. It’s very easy to over-react. We’re working to introduce a resource on the Web to detail which titles will have backwards compatibility. And as we make firmware upgrades, we will be able to add to that list.”
Q: Can you give us a ballpark figure for the number of PS2 titles which will be playable at launch on the PS3?
PH: “The situation is changing every day, but on March 23, we expect the list to include over 1,000 PS2 titles.”
Q: And presumably, you will be concentrating on the big titles?
PH: “We can’t give any information about specific titles but, clearly, that would be our policy.”
Q: It has been suggested that reducing the components on the PS3’s motherboard would pave the way for a reduction in its price to come about more quickly. Is that a fair analysis?
PH: “Price reductions are something that we wouldn’t comment on specifically. But you know the business model very well – we strive to get the cost of manufacturing down as soon as possible, and as soon as we can pass cost savings onto the consumers, we will.”
Q: Just how important is backwards-compatibility?
PH: “I think the reasons why people buy PS3s are the new games that it offers, and the HD content experiences provided by games and movies, the opportunity to access the PlayStation Network, and titles like MotorStorm and Resistance: Fall of Man – leading-edge examples of what next-generation games are all about.”
Q: The flaw in the argument that removing the Emotion Engine from PAL PS3s is that you’ve manufactured over 100 million Emotion Engines. So, surely the Emotion Engtine can’t possibly cost you more than a few pence to manufacture?
PH: “If only that was the case.”
Q: Are you shifting capacity in your wafer fabs from making PS2 components to PS3 ones, then?
PH: “It’s not as simple as that – we’re obviously continuing to make PS2s in huge volumes, so there’s no reduction in that. But the Emotion Engine that has previously gone into PS3s on sale elsewhere in the world is a custom component that we have now removed from the motherboard of PAL PS3s.”
By Steve Boxer