Turning casual gamers into frustrated gamers with a PS3

Ars Technica talks about how the fast pace of firmware releases for the Playstation 3 adds to the frustration of casual gamers. Being forced to update your system once per week or so makes people pissed off, and it’s worse for those who only play once in a while because it’s more likely that they will need to go through that every single time. I had a PS3 and I sold it for different reasons — I only used it as a Blu-ray player, as I prefer playing on the Xbox 360 — but I can talk about another, even worse, frustrating thing about Sony’s console: forced installation.

I used to work at a small video game store. Like any other video game store, people often brought in used games. As an employee, I had a nice benefit: I could take them home and try them for a day or two, and then either bring them back, or purchase them. While that’s perfect for the Xbox 360, and in fact that’s how I fell utterly and hopelessly in love with Burnout Paradise, I only managed to try PS3 games over the weekend. If you have a PS3, forget about popping the disc in and checking the game out. It doesn’t work like that.

You pop the disc into the console. You try to start it, and it says it needs to be installed on the hard drive. This is because the Blu-ray reader is slower than DVD readers, and it would probably be unable to keep up with real-time loading, or it would just make the loading screens stay up longer. The obvious solution is: let’s use that hard drive space! That’s true of every single PS3 game, and you can confirm this by peeking at the back of any game when you happen to be at a retail store; and we’re not talking a few megabytes, oftentimes it’s in the gigabyte range.

After a while, it’s finally installed. You start it, and before you can do anything, you’re told that there’s an upgrade. So you let it install it, otherwise it just won’t play, unless you disconnect from the network. This is extremely silly, and defies any logic: if I am not planning to play online, why do you want me to upgrade it? Just let me play with the older version, but let me play now! After all, that’s what happens if I’m off the network, so why not let me do it anyway? Incidentally, the Xbox 360 gets it right: if an update is available, it offers to download and install it. If you say no, you just won’t be able to play that game online until you update. It makes sense, as it enforces version consistency among online players. The PS3, however, forces you to go through the painful process of downloading and then installing the update. And it takes time, lots of time. My PS3 was connected directly to the router using an ethernet cable, and my DSL is 8 megabits down / 512 kilobits up. Either the updates were huge, or the servers were slow.

Finally, after well over half an hour if you’re lucky, you are ready to play. Too bad it’s late and you have to get up early tomorrow. Ah well. And all of this doesn’t include any system updates, which, as Ars Technica points out, happens fairly often.

It is worth to note that the Xbox 360 only recently (as in: a year and a half ago or so) gained the ability to install games on its hard drive. It’s still usually not mandatory but it can be good to speed up the loading times, to reduce the wear on the discs, and to make the whole thing quieter. A few games do require a mandatory installation when the data spans more than one disc and needs to be available at all times (Forza Motorsport 3 comes to mind), but it’s a small minority, and that’s a very good thing because changing hard drives on an Xbox 360 is essentially a huge and messy hack. The PS3, on the other hand, gets it perfectly right: one screw, and a standard 2.5-inch SATA disk and you’re ready to go. You even get the option to back up your data to an external unit before the surgery and then copy it back to the new disk after it.

Now if only Sony gave up the 16-year-old design of its controllers and accepted that Microsoft got the ergonomics just right…