PlayStation 4: the important bits
Posted at 23:12 on 22nd February 2013 - permalink

This week’s PlayStation 4 announcement has provoked a wide range of responses, from cautious optimism to proclamations of doom for Sony and consoles in general. Business as usual then. Among the legitimate journalism there have been some sensationalist interpretations that have omitted key details and twisted what’s left to fit one of several discredited, over-simplistic and snobbish fantasy narratives:

1. Increased console power means nobody will be able to afford to make games any more. (Nonsense in 2006, nonsense today.)
2. Because mobile, social and web games have expanded the bottom tier of the pyramid, there’s no longer a role for any other kind of experiences. (Destroyed by Rob Fahey here.)
3. Games as good as the very best console offerings will spontaneously emerge on the PC, or on Apple TV, because free market. (It just hasn’t happened in the last 30 years for some reason…)
4. There are millions of children who are going to ask their parents for a microconsole for Christmas, because they’re definitely going head to head with the mainstream platforms rather than being a hacker niche.
5. Increased hardware specs just mean imperceptibly better graphics these days, what’s all the fuss about? (If I need to explain why this is dumb, stop reading now.)

I’ve argued for most of the current console generation that there shouldn’t be a PS4 or Xbox3, and that Sony and Microsoft should adapt their proprietary hardware platforms into fully software-based ‘networks’ that can run on commodity hardware. (I’ve left Nintendo out of this argument as their vertical business model is different to the others’.)

Later developments have changed my mind about this. The proliferation of laptops and tablets has meant that relatively few people have high-end desktop or living-room PCs, which are still seen as being complicated and expensive compared to walking into a supermarket and buying a single cheap, standardised gaming box.

Furthermore, the platform holders are finally starting to embrace digital distribution, eroding their reliance of the unsustainable physical retail market and allowing smaller and indie games (and games with different revenue models) that previously would only be viable on PC or mobile to have a presence on consoles. It’s clear to me now that Sony couldn’t just discontinue the PS3 and email every PSN user a link to their online service – there needs to be a transitional platform, that is architecturally close to a PC and supports farming out functionality to the cloud.

So there’s a reason for this forthcoming console generation to exist, beyond pure inertia. (Although it should definitely be the last one – or one that just trails off forever into PC-like incremental upgrades on the same network back-end.)

So what about Wednesday night’s event?

Anyone who has watched previous Sony press conferences knows that their approach is to reassure commercial partners and provide some detail-light, generic fireworks for mainstream press and gamers. This event was about making it clear that the PS4 wouldn’t be weird or difficult to develop for, and that they were fully committing to another console cycle (which was by no means a given, considering their financial worries and the struggling Vita).

The selection of games that were shown was largely underwhelming. Killzone: Shadow Fall looked technically impressive and The Witness, MediaMolecule’s game and Deep Down looked fun, but the lack of new, insanely ambitious IP was a disappointment. Hopefully E3 and TGS will spring some surprises.

The well-worn idea of lots of players interacting in the same game through different devices and contexts was talked about a lot. While this has long been considered a holy grail by some developers, I’ve yet to see a convincing case for it improving a game to such a fundamental degree as to justify tackling the (possibly intractable) design problems it would entail.

Hardware-wise, they seem to have finally slain the problems that dogged the PS3. Blu-Ray drives are now cheap. Gone are the weird architecture and unfocused online strategy. It seems very unlikely the machine will have to launch at a silly price or suffer years of sloppy multiplatform ports. However it’s a shame that they didn’t seem to want to push the boat out – I’m told the CPU/GPU are fairly pedestrian in PC terms, and the system-level integration of streaming, suspend mode and multitasking are all fairly unglamourous fixtures and fittings. Automatic preloading of games the service thinks you’ll like is a potentially cool feature, and one that iOS could really benefit from too (assuming iOS ever gets a recommendation engine that isn’t rubbish).

I think a lot of people have overlooked two very strong positives in the machine’s standard spec: 8GB of DDR5 RAM, and Move being integrated in the standard controller. These will translate to much richer, more persistent environments (with fewer dead-stop loading pauses), and the potential for much finer-grained interaction (being able to point/shoot/grab in the world with a 3D cursor). Combined with a decent resolution and frame rate, this could represent a similar jump as from playing GoldenEye 007 on an N64 to playing a modern first person game with mouse and keyboard. Not just eye candy – the degree of immersion and agency the player has in the world.

Sony are an engineering company. Their approach has always been to make ‘Big Science’ investments in technology to extend the versatility of their platforms (and let the developers figure out how to use them): Machine vision, DVD and Blu Ray, the Cell processor and now Gaikai. With the PS4 they seem to want to make the console completely blend into the background (the lack of a hardware reveal carried more meaning than just wanting to hold off committing to a case design) and let the games do the talking.

The question now is whether they can make their destination attractive in any or all of the three major markets. The other deciding factor may be whether the Xbox 360’s current aimless drift towards being a media centre with an increasingly neglected digital storefront is simply a result of resources being wound down at the end of it’s cycle, or is part of a wider malaise at Microsoft.

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