The Console Wars Claims Its First Victim?

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground/And tell sad stories of the death of kings; How some have been deposed; some slain in war…Richard II

Pardon the college sophomore Shakespeare citation, but the latest news in the next gen console wars brings out my sense of the tragic. (As it did last week.) “The Father of the Playstation” and the “Gutenberg of Video Games”, Ken Kutaragi, has just been nudged from his position as president of Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. (SCEI), hereby replaced by Kaz Hirai of SCEI’s US wing.

In one of those lovably surreal corporate moves, Kutaragi is actually being promoted, while losing day-to-day control over Playstation development.

(Moving up while moving out?) According to KBC analyst Hiroshi Kamide, bringing Harai into the position is a way to repair relations with all-important third party developers of Playstation games, since Harai is better equipped to communicate with them. (While Kutaragi, according to Newsweek’s N’Gai Croal, was slow to return their phonecalls.) Another Japanese analyst even goes so far to speculate that this move means the end of Sony’s days as a console maker; no Playstation 4, in other words, with the company instead shifting to become, like Sega before it, a mere game developer.

Once a rising star, last year Kutaragi was demoted, with the Playstation 3 seen as his chance to redeem himself. This latest move almost certainly confirms that this redemption has failed, and that Sony is acknowledging (belatedly, or perhaps far too late) that their status as console king is in grave peril.

“For a while, Kutaragi seemed untouchable at Sony,” a former Sony executive in digital music and entertainment tells me. “In fact, we all heard he was on the shortlist for head of the company (if a bit of a bad-boy darkhorse), before [Howard] Stringer was confirmed. This seems like quite a fall, becoming emeritus and what seems like minister without portfolio (i.e., no direct ownership or control of Playstation that isn’t vetted by the board)… unless I’m reading too much between the lines.”

Almost surely not. So let us sit on the ground and recall the days when Kutaragi was king, for God’s sake. For all the grand mistakes and missed opportunities made in bringing the PS3 to market, let us remember the time when Kutaragi ruled. His Playstation 2 ranks as one of last great technologies of the 20th century (or if you prefer, the first great device of the 21st), a console that helped make great gaming a true mass market phenomenon. An elegant, beautiful piece of hardware, it finally made videogames seem grown-up, cool, even sexy, and I will remember Sony’s legendary E3 parties of yesteryear (thousands of Los Angeles’ most gorgeous in attendance, some of the greatest rock bands from Sony’s labels performing live, all lit up in the company’s trademark electric neon blue) as emblematic of the Kutaragi era. With Microsoft’s ascension to the console throne, those golden days may never come again, but never forget that Kutaragi was the man who helped create this worldwide empire of gaming we all live in now.

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