Is Sony Playing a Dangerous Game With PS3 Customers?
The recent outage that crippled PlayStation 3 consoles for millions of gamers didn't seem to faze Sony management very much. While frustrated players tried to figure out why their systems wouldn't work -- losing time, trophies and tempers -- Sony's response was lackadaisical. Sony apparently doesn't understand that we're now living in a social universe, and the balance of power between companies and customers has shifted.
Gaming companies like Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft ask a lot of their customers. Every few years, they are encouraged by the companies to spend a few hundred bucks to upgrade to a fancy new console. But as far as I can recall, only Sony has ever asked its fans to not play those consoles.
It happened Monday, thanks to a bug that kept those with older PlayStation 3s from accessing the PlayStation Network. An item on a company blog described the glitch as a problem with the console's internal clock, which apparently thought it was a leap year and would accidentally set the system back to Jan. 1, 2000. (All those Y2K survivalists are now muttering "told you so's" under their breath).
"We hope to resolve this problem within the next 24 hours," wrote Sony spokesperson Patrick Seybold. "In the meantime, if you have a model other than the new Slim PS3, we advise that you do not use your PS3 system, as doing so may result in errors in some functionality, such as recording obtained trophies, and not being able to restore certain data."
Despite that extraordinary request, Sony might still have dodged a PR bullet if not for the fact that Seybold's item, as I mentioned, was posted on Monday -- and the bugs were affecting PlayStation 3 users worldwide on Sunday. That left a good 24 hours for gamers to think the worst about their consoles and talk about them on blogs and in social media; for the gaming and tech press to hear continued silence from Sony; and for the company to learn a valuable -- and perhaps costly -- lesson about customer service, gamer loyalty and the speed that bad news can travel in the Twitterverse.
The Bug's Status
Many users were indeed able to get back on their older-model PS3s on Monday, according to gaming media reports and a brief update by Seybold, but Phil Kollar lost every one of his trophies -- in-game accomplishments -- in the new "Heavy Rain" title.
"It might take some synching online, and I might get them back at some point. I was just near the end of the game when this happened," he told TechNewsWorld.
Kollar, an associate editor at Game Informer Magazine, went online to see if this was a problem with the game -- a bug that sneaked by final testing for a new title.
"After about a half hour, I saw that it wasn't just 'Heavy Rain,' and it's happening all over the world." So he tweeted about his problem, leading the gaming media in its quest for answers from Sony.
"What they did wrong here is that they didn't really give any information," said Kollar. "They could have done some sort of blog post earlier and said they were figuring this out and they apologize for any inconvenience. They have to get out there and let people know what's going on. People were panicking. They weren't sure if their PS3s were broken for good or not."
Kollar still doesn't know if Sony actually fixed the bug or just let the internal clock reset by itself -- which brings up the question of whether this will happen again in 2012, when we actually will see a leap year.
Sony still isn't saying much about this. Sony spokesperson Julie Han referred TechNewsWorld to the PlayStation Blog, which, as of press time, still hadn't been updated beyond Seybold's March 1st posts.
"And that's pretty much all we're commenting on," Han said.
Kollar sees some hope in the company's announcement that it has hired Sid Shuman, a former editor at GamePro, as its senior social media specialist. "That's going to help, having him there. He'll be running their official Twitter account and he'll be able to do a better job of reaching out to the community if anything like this happens again."
Does Sony Get It?
Is the gaming community willing to listen to Sony, especially as the company places more bets on the PlayStation Network, and takes the chance of suffering more outages and glitches?
Unlike Xbox Live, PSN is free to access. Like Xbox Live, you can also do other things besides download and play games -- like rent movies. Some people who had rented Netflix videos via PSN were not able to play back their movies before the expiration date because of the clock issue.
The situation doesn't rate that high on the gaming disaster scale, according to gaming industry consultant Mike Goodman of Mercury Media.
Sony simply let the internal clock reset, he guesses, and now the company has two years to work up a real leap year fix.
Sony customers will most likely be forgiving, Goodman told TechNewsWorld, although "the issue is more so a communications issue with its users than a technical issue or a fundamental customer service issue. Sony didn't step into the void, even with a simple message. Nature abhors a vacuum, and Sony created one."
The problem also managed to work its way out of the tech/gaming press and into the mainstream media, which Goodman blames on Twitter's squeaky wheels grabbing the attention of newspaper and TV station/cable network newsrooms, whose denizens are among the chief users of social media.
Shuman's hiring shows two things: Social media was already on Sony's radar, and the weekend incident is evidence that his expertise is badly needed within the company.
"Social media is a volume multiplier, and clearly newsrooms pay attention to social media and use them as mechanisms for developing stories," Goodman said. "You have to monitor the blogosphere and Twitter, simply because they are opinion-makers."
"I think that now -- because everybody knows everything within five seconds of it happening because of Twitter -- you have an instant gratification society," gaming guide author David Hodgson told TechNewsWorld.
"If you are on a PlayStation 3 and you can't play Uncharted 2, you're annoyed as all hell. But on a scale of red rings of death (the infamous Xbox technical glitch), this was a very minor problem," he said.
The "red rings of death" reverberated louder in the media echo chamber, Hodgson noted -- even before the advent of social media -- and Microsoft was able to survive that. "Xbox 360s are still flying off the shelves."