Who Needs a PlayStation 4 When You Can Have a ‘PS3 Slimmer’?

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If you woke to the news yesterday morning wondering why Sony chose the Tokyo Game Show to out a new slimmer-than-slim PlayStation 3, well, just do the math: The PS3 outsells the Xbox 360 in Japan roughly six to one, whereas Sony’s set-top lags behind Microsoft’s Xbox 360 in unit sales by around 15 million units this side of the Pacific.

The new slimmer, even lighter PlayStation 3 looks a little like a curvier version of the PS2 slim — almost book-sized, though with a slight bulge in the middle, giving it an elliptical appearance. At half the size of the original 2006 model and roughly a quarter smaller than the current PS3 Slim, you could slip this new “PS3 Slimmer” into a backpack comfortably and tote it around like a laptop. (Whether you would or not is another question.)

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In the U.S., it’ll be available in two configurations: a 250 GB version for $270 with Uncharted 3 (Game of the Year edition), Dust 514 (the free-to-play EVE Online-connected shooter) and a voucher for $30 of related digital content, and a 500 GB version for $300 that’ll bundle Ubisoft’s upcoming American Revolution-era sneaker, Assassin’s Creed III.

In the U.S., the 250 GB PS3 (up from 160 GB) will be available starting Sept. 25, while the 500 GB model (up from 320 GB) will be available a month later on Oct. 30 (the same day Assassin’s Creed III arrives). Sony’s also offering a white version in Japan, but it looks like the U.S. is limited to Sony’s classic “piano black” flavor.

Also: Note the ribbing across the midsection, obviously a fingerprint deterrent and, though I could be dead wrong here, possibly doubling as a thermal vent. It’s not clear from the media snaps whether the flat areas framing the ribbed section will be glossy or matte. [Update: The ribbed section is in fact a sliding cover for discs.]

Interestingly, Sony announced a version with 12 GB of flash memory for Europe that’ll sell for €229 (about $300), which makes me wonder if Sony’s take on Europe is that it’s lagging in the transition from optical to purely digital media. Unless the company’s targeting arcade players — though at €229, it’s hard to imagine how — you’ll jam less than a handful of full PS3 titles into that kind of throwback-sized space.

Why a new PS3 now, with the next PlayStation imminent? Well hold on, who said anything about a new PlayStation? Oh right, the media. And how’s that working out as we head into 2012’s closing months, with not a peep about next-gen consoles (save Nintendo, who announced the Wii U back at E3 2011)?

Sony’s Tokyo Game Show 2012 presser, with not a dash of info about its future system plans, confirms several things about its present ones.

For starters, there’s what Sony Computer Entertainment America CEO and president Jack Tretton has said repeatedly over the years — that Sony thinks in 10-year cycles. The PlayStation 2, which launched in 2000, continued to sell in the millions well after the PlayStation 3 arrived in 2006. While it’s probably stretching to think the company would wait to introduce new technology until 2016, it’s clear at this point that Sony’s in no hurry to roll out a new PlayStation.

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And why should it? If we’re playing the “who’s most powerful” game, Nintendo’s new Wii U is said to be merely on par with the PS3 and Xbox 360, so any perceived threat from Nintendo is going to be stuff like brand recognition, the appeal of Nintendo’s new controller mechanic and the company’s ability to craft compelling and can’t-get-this-anywhere-else games around the latter. And turning to the Xbox 360, while Microsoft’s outselling Sony by a comfortable spread in the U.S., tally up global console sales and the two companies are neck-and-neck.

Speaking of install base, if you had to split the market with your competition this generation, and only now, six years on, were hitting the sixty-some-million units shipped mark (where your last console had sold over twice that), you’d probably wait to split the market as long as possible. I’m sure that applies to Microsoft’s decision about “when to go,” too. In this late-stage game of chicken, where companies scheme to outwit each other at juggling developer requirements, launch windows, launch titles and platform hardware lock-in, I suspect the guiding principle for both Sony and Microsoft is “delay, delay, delay.”

I don’t think players are really clamoring for new hardware, either. That’s my subjective read, granted, poking around message boards and comments on next-gen console rumor stories, but one that’s grounded in reality: New game systems always sound exciting on paper, but almost never deliver off the block. You’re forking over the most money you’ll pay in the system’s life cycle — $400 to $600 when the PS3 launched — in trade for a handful of games, most of which play more like proof-of-concept demos than the mature, often groundbreaking titles that show up a year or three down the road.

That said, I’m not sure I follow Sony’s logic on the new PS3 model prices — $250 to $300 — but then I haven’t since the PS3 launched with 3DO pricing. Sony seems to think they’re the boutique console maker or something. I can appreciate the way the PS3’s nearly caught up to the Xbox 360 (despite the PS3’s higher price tag and year-behind launch), but judged against the PS2’s sales, the PS3 looks like it’s treading water.

Clearly Sony feels the market isn’t yet saturated, and that the PS3 remains appealing enough to charge what it’s been charging since the first slimline model showed up. The company’s going to up-sell on the extra storage and pack-in games, of course, and to be fair, it’s hard to argue with 250 GB to 500 GB of storage — or games like Uncharted 3 and what certainly looks like it could be the best Assassin’s Creed yet.

Maybe it’s all a setup. Maybe Sony takes us through 2012 and into 2013, announces its next PlayStation, then slashes the pricing on these ultra-slim models, positioning them as “the lower-end buy-in to the PlayStation Platform” (as Gamasutra’s Patrick Miller argues). Maybe Sony’s only going to tease the next PlayStation in 2013 and make us wait until 2014 or even 2015 (hey, we can hope!). Maybe, as Sony suggests, there really are people out there who’ve simply “been looking to add another PS3 to [their] household.”

We’ll see. For both Microsoft and Sony, this holiday season depends more than ever on the usual slew of trendy sequels (most of which aren’t platform exclusives). Microsoft probably has Sony outgunned on an “any one title” scale with Halo 4, but I suspect the lion’s share of this year’s revenue is going to come from multiplatform fare like Call of Duty: Black Ops II, Medal of Honor: Warfighter, Assassin’s Creed III, Far Cry 3 and Resident Evil 6.

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