What the Life Cycles of Previous PlayStations Say About the PlayStation 5

We dig into Sony’s console history, and see what we can learn about the inevitable PlayStation 5.

Buy a hot new game system, and you’ll see an even better model the next day. That’s the stuff of lazy sitcom jokes, yet there’s an undeniable rhythm to the seemingly brief lives of game consoles. Sony Interactive Entertainment CEO John Kodera recently mentioned that the PlayStation 4 is in its “final life cycle,” prompting many to point out that the system isn’t even five years old.

We may complain, but it’s all part of the process. Sony follows the time-honored practice of piping up about a new system just as the current one hits its stride and the competition gets fierce. Yet if there’s a common thread in the PlayStation family, it’s one of dignified exits for old systems and overhyped entrances for the newcomers. Here’s what the life cycles of the previous four PlayStations possible tell us about the PlayStation 5.

PLAYSTATION

  • Announced: June 1991
  • Released: December 1994
  • Time Between Launch and Launch of PS2: 5 years, 3 months
  • Discontinued: March 2006

The original PlayStation walked a treacherous path. It first took shape in 1988, when CD-based games were a new invention and the only console that played them was NEC’s pricey PC Engine expansion. Recognizing the value of this new format, Nintendo recruited Sony to co-develop a CD attachment for the upcoming Super NES. The concept rapidly evolved into the PlayStation, a system that would run CD games as well as Nintendo’s Super NES cartridges, and Sony debuted it at the Consumer Electronics Show in 1991.

Nintendo, worried that Sony had too much the upper hand in this PlayStation deal, backed out of the project and turned to Phillips in search of a new CD-ROM drive for the Super NES. The PlayStation’s initial incarnation was suddenly a dead project (a prototype was discovered in 2015), but Sony renewed its efforts even as Nintendo and Phillips never delivered on promises of a Super NES CD drive. Eager to spite Nintendo and sensing a gap in CD-based hardware, Sony turned the PlayStation into an all-original console.

SONY DSC

When this new PlayStation emerged in late 1994, it naturally had lost all compatibility with Super NES games. Yet it had gained a relatively powerful processor for 3-D graphics, a developer-friendly programming style, and a visually impressive lineup of games from the flash-in-the-pan Battle Arena Toshinden to franchise founders like Ridge Racer. With Sega’s Saturn a pricier competitor and the Nintendo 64 a no-show in 1995, the PlayStation gave Sony a sizeable chunk of the console market and made its rocky development worthwhile.

Having spent nearly six years on the original PlayStation, Sony got good mileage out of the console. It saw prominent new releases up until 2001, and even after that the system was in production for another five years.

  • What this says about PlayStation 5: Don’t expect Sony to be partnering with Nintendo, but do expect that the time from the PS5 reveal to release will be well under three and a half years.

PLAYSTATION 2

  • Announced: March 1999
  • Released: March 2000
  • Time Between Launch and Launch of PS3: 6 years, 8 months
  • Discontinued: January 2013

The PlayStation was doing quite well by 1997, successful across Japan, North America, and Europe. This was the opportune time for rumors of a PlayStation 2, one that supposedly used Sony’s brand-new DVD format for games and offered a built-in Internet connection. Sony delayed any official announcement of the PlayStation 2, however, perhaps hoping to upstage Sega’s late 1998 launch of the Dreamcast.

Sony’s PlayStation 2 unveiling in March of 1999 ushered in a now-familiar company tradition: over-promising.

Sony’s PlayStation 2 unveiling in March of 1999 ushered in a now-familiar company tradition: over-promising. Sony Computer Entertainment CEO Ken Kutaragi predicted that “a new world will be created on the basis of PlayStation 2.” The console’s central processor bore the slightly pretentious name of the Emotion Engine, and early promotional PlayStation 2 videos showcased detailed 3-D animation, including a real-time version of a rendered video cutscene of from the PlayStation’s Final Fantasy VIII. Of course, the PlayStation 2’s version had to trim down a packed ballroom so it showed only protagonists Squall and Rinoa dancing.

ps2-background

The PlayStation 2 didn’t quite burst with movie-quality graphics upon its 2000 debut, but it delivered on two vows: backward compatibility with the original PlayStation and a DVD drive that played movies as well as games. The crossover appeal enticed customers who didn’t yet own a PlayStation or a DVD player, and many pretended not to notice the PlayStation 2’s lack of online play and a launch lineup that held no real system-sellers. It hardly mattered that the Dreamcast had a built-in modem and a substantial lineup. By 2001 the PlayStation 2 rode high with blockbusters like Metal Gear Solid 2 and Grand Theft Auto III, while online games arrived the following year. The system had won its first battle in the console market.

It wouldn’t be the last victory, as the PlayStation 2 stayed in production for nearly 13 years. True, new games were in meager supply after 2009 or so, but Sony prefers to chart a system’s life by the most flattering metric.

  • What this says about PlayStation 5: Definitely don’t expect Sony to stagger the launch of the PS5. There’s no doubt it’ll be a simultaneously world-wide release.

PLAYSTATION 3

  • Announced: May 2005
  • Released: November 2006
  • Time Between Launch and Launch of PS4: 7 years
  • Discontinued: May 2017

The PlayStation 2 spent its first few years reigning handily. Despite good competition from Nintendo’s GameCube and Microsoft’s Xbox, Sony held undeniable sway over much of the console market.  The original PlayStation, reissued as the PSone in 2000, held on for a while, and the PSP, Sony’s first portable system, launched in 2005.

If Sony had seemed hubristic about the PlayStation 2, their buildup for the PlayStation 3 proved a bridge too far. Initial footage of PlayStation 3 games looked impressive at E3 in 2005, and the console itself had a sleeker look next to the boxy PlayStation 2. The controller, however, was perhaps too sleek, and its boomerang design inspired more joking than awe.

Sony fared worse a year later. The PlayStation 3 had taken shape nicely on paper, boasting thorough internet connections, a conventional controller, Sony’s new Blu-Ray disc format, and compatibility with PlayStation and PlayStation 2 games. Yet the company’s E3 presentation was an unintended farce as Sony representatives gestured through a pedestrian lineup of games, and audiences were unimpressed. Previous PlayStations had launched in more innocent times, but rise of YouTube spawned an online culture where game geeks could share and mock E3 flubs with abandon, and they savaged everything from the PlayStation 3’s $599.99 price tag to  the giant crabs of Genji: Days of the Blade’s allegedly historical battles.

Reflecting an industry rapidly discarding physical media, the PlayStation 4 seemed posed for a digital future.

Sony might’ve had the last laugh with a spectacular PlayStation 3 launch. This was not the case, as the system launched with an undernourished assortment of games and a few of its features trimmed, including fewer HDMI and USB ports. Some of the PlayStation 3’s initial wave went missing: Gran Turismo 5 wouldn’t be seen for five years, and games like Killing Day and Fifth Phantom Saga were never seen beyond early highlight reels. The PlayStation 3 even lost features after it was on the market. Later models couldn’t run PlayStation 2 discs, and the console’s touted OtherOS feature, which let users install custom software, disappeared after a certain software update and let to a lawsuit by PlayStation 3 owners.

To its credit, the PlayStation 3 delivered a Blu-Ray drive, and it tipped an industry-wide format war toward Blu-Rays instead of HD-DVDs. Yet the established Xbox 360 and Nintendo’s mainstream Wii success were tough competition for the PlayStation 3 setbacks, as were PlayStation 2 owners who saw their consoles enjoy decent support throughout 2007. It took years for the PlayStation 3 to regain lost ground, and it just managed to live up to Sony CEO Kaz Hirai’s promise of a 10-year lifespan, ceasing  production in Japan in 2017. Ending on a positive note, it did give us the birth of iconic PlayStation franchises like Uncharted, Infamous, and The Last of Us.

  • What this says about PlayStation 5: Sony is currently in a similar place now as they were nearing the end of the PS2’s life. That is to say, first place. But unlike the hubris-filled reveal of the PS3, don’t expect Sony to make that same mistake this time around. 

PLAYSTATION 4

  • Announced: February 2013
  • Released: November 2013
  • Time Between Launch and Launch of PS5 (currently): 4 years, 7 months
  • Discontinued: N/A

It was an altogether more cautious Sony that announced the PlayStation 4. The system boasted powerful hardware and a closely integrated online gaming system, but it was the first PlayStation that didn’t back a fledgling media format. The PlayStation formed around the CD, the PlayStation 2 the DVD, and the PlayStation 3 the Blu-Ray. Reflecting an industry rapidly discarding physical media, the PlayStation 4 seemed posed for a digital future, right down to a controller button built for sharing screencaps and video clips.

Not that Sony didn’t promise a little too much. The PlayStation 4 took a while to embrace hyped features like suspending and resuming games, and the system’s launch lineup was predictably unexciting. Even so, it’s been a much smoother ride for the PlayStation 4, with incredible exclusives like Bloodborne, Uncharted 4, Horizon: Zero Dawn, and God of War, and Sony was confident enough to issue an upgraded system with the PS4 Pro. The industry hasn’t been as kind to the accompanying Vita handheld, but even Sony’s most deprived system has lasted five years.

This brings us to Sony’s hints about a successor in the wings. The company stated that a PlayStation 5 is some three years away, so it’s doubtful we’ll see any solid details until the PlayStation 4 passes its five-year mark. PlayStation history suggests a well-supported PS4 until decade’s end, with a few more years of niche releases and lingering support. But the big wildcard here is PSVR. Will Sony create a PS5 that works much-more closely with the VR technology, or can we expect our fancy hats to go the way of our Vitas? Regardless, while the game industry may change, PlayStations don’t disappear overnight.

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