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Examining the PlayStation 4 Reveal

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(Image by PlayStation Blog/Flickr)

At PlayStation Meeting 2013 from the Manhattan Center in New York City, Sony Computer Entertainment officially revealed its next generation console, simply called the PlayStation 4. Sony announced a holiday 2013 release for the system in North America. Massive hype centered around the meeting since the company announced the event on Jan. 31, inviting everyone to “see the future.” Sony did a lot right with the reveal but players should still be cautiously optimistic about the future they were shown on the PlayStation 4.

Sony faced major setbacks with the PlayStation 3, from its November 2006 $600 launch, losing its PS2 market share to Microsoft’s Xbox 360 as well as former exclusive games and franchises. The PlayStation brand is nowhere near where it was in 1998 or 2004, when it dominated the gaming landscape. During last night’s meeting Andrew House, president and Group CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment, said, “Today marks a moment of truth and a bold step forward for PlayStation as a company, as creators and innovators and as industry leaders.” With Microsoft shifting its Xbox brand towards a more entertainment-oriented approach and the Wii U already struggling after only a few months on the market, the PlayStation 4 is Sony’s chance at a genuine attempt to get back on top.

Back to the Gamers

The presentation was straight to the point. There were no appeals to reach the ultra casual market or focus on other entertainment aspects like in recent years. It was all about the gamer and the games. After years of the industry trying to capture all sorts of different markets, Sony said the gamer is the focus of the PS4. House said the PS4 will show that, “The living room is no longer the center of the PlayStation ecosystem, the gamer is.” Sony presenters repeatedly claimed the future of the PlayStation brand is consumer centric and developer inspired. Jack Tretton, president and CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment America, told AllThingsD after the conference that, “we’re first and foremost about that core gamer that eats, sleeps and drinks the gaming.”

The meeting gave off a different vibe than previous events, an acknowledgement that the company had failed in the past but made strong strides to correct those mistakes with the PS4. Not only is the PS4 for the consumers, but according to Sony the PS4 is for developers, by developers. House said the PS4 is developer led and consumer inspired. This was the problem facing the PlayStation 3 for many years. Developers had a hard time making games for the PS3 architecture. PS3 owners received many inferior third-party games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2012) because developers couldn’t figure out the system compared to the Xbox 360.

What PS3 owners got as a result were buggy games, huge day-one game updates and worse versions of online multiplayer titles like Activision’s Call of Duty. Making it easy for developers to create games on the PS4 will be one of the system’s strongest points. Moving from the perception that PS3 games are inferior to the reality that the PS4 version could be the best on the market is such an important step for the console’s longevity.

Sony teased just enough to generate interest in the new console. Lots of time was spent on the actual capabilities and potential of the hardware itself during the first part of the conference, from social connectivity to cloud abilities to the ease it works for developers. The system has plenty of memory with 8GB GDDR5, compared to the PS3′s 512 MB split RAM. This open up many doors of potential for the PS4. Sony also unveiled a new controller style with the DualShock 4. In combination with the PlayStation 4 Eye camera, Sony said the new controller will allow for new and more streamlined gaming experiences. The design shows Sony’s willingness for adaptation since the DualShock remained almost visually unchanged since its release in 1998. Now it doesn’t even have a start button, a staple on the front of the PlayStation controller for nearly two decades.

Enter the Cloud

Cloud gaming and streaming with Gaikai, which Sony bought in July 2012 for $380 million, was a big focus of last night’s event. This has the potential to put the PS4 over the edge against its competition. Sony said the technology would allow players to test new games in the PlayStation Store before they bought them. This supposed new pro-consumer focus from Sony allows content to be downloaded on the PS4 even when the system is off. Being able to download a game and play it while the rest of it finishes is an excellent and must-needed feature going forward in the digital age.

One of the worst aspects of the PS3 is the console’s long firmware updates and constant game patches, making it an extremely user unfriendly system. Sony claimed all these aspects would make it easy to connect and interact with the PS4, something the PS3 wasn’t able to accomplish. With Remote Play, Sony said the PlayStation Vita handheld system will be an important part of the PS4. The company’s goal is to stream PS4 games to the Vita as a second screen experience, something the Nintendo Wii U does with its tablet controller. This should give a much needed boost to the Vita, which struggles with the perception that it’s a “dying” console.

The announcement that the PS4 wouldn’t include any backwards compatibility because of the console’s different hardware is a major drawback to the system. Not even PlayStation Network games are playable on the PS4, as Engadget reported.. Not being able to play downloaded PSN games is a big blow and guarantees players may need to keep their PS3 system in working order for years to come, otherwise they could lose thousands of dollars in games, downloadable content and Rock Band songs. Even PlayStation discs from 15 years ago can play on the PS3, and the PlayStation Portable can play digital versions of these games too. The PS4 won’t be able to play Crash Bandicoot 2 (1996), Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004) or any of the Uncharted games.

This isn’t a consumer friendly decision, but Sony is limited by its bad choices for the PS3 hardware. After this news, why would someone keep buying games and other content on the PSN Store for their PS3? The company hinted in the future it could use the cloud to play these PSN games, reported Polygon. However the PS4 won’t have the back library of purchases and investments put in by all PS3 owners for some time, if ever. This sets a terrible precedent for the future of PlayStation 4′s digital content and the system isn’t even out yet.

David Perry, CEO of Gaikai, talked about the future ability of the PS4 to stream PS1, PS2 and PS3 games. This isn’t the best solution to backwards compatibility, especially for downloadable games. There weren’t details on how this would actually work, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to believe Sony will somehow charge people to play the games and content they already bought. Sony’s future goal of “everything, everywhere” is a big dream. Lots of these cloud-based features seem almost too good to be true and probably won’t be ready for launch. Instead they seem way off into the future. Who knows when PS4 owners will actually be able to stream all their games to Vita like Sony highlighted at the conference?

Another problem is that millions of people across the U.S. simply don’t have access to high-speed internet required for some of the PS4 features because of where they live. Being continually socially connected, uploading videos, streaming games and downloading huge titles will pose a challenge. This may cost users a lot financially and could even cause problems with their Internet provider in regards to bandwidth caps.

Social Evolution

Social networking combining with the PlayStation Network was also a key feature driven by Sony. Most noticeably with the Share button on the DualShock 4 controller, allowing players to upload gameplay footage and connect with their friends. Sony aims to create their own social network based around the PlayStation brand, which is is going to be a huge undertaking. The importance of more social interactivity on the PS4 is ironic considering how isolated gaming had become this generation, with so much focus shifted to online multiplayer and the exclusion of local co-op in many different titles.

The underlining aspect of the socially evolving system is data mining in the gaming realm, where the PS4 interface will change according to the player and the information collected on the console. Mark Cerny, a key figure behind the PS4′s design, said the thought behind the console is, “The concept that the system can get to know you and brings you closer to the games and other experiences that you’re seeking.”

Crazy potential ideas like the ability for one of your online friends to jump into your game to help you get past a challenging section or beat a boss fight could really change gaming’s dynamics. Instead of coming to your home, your friends can also spectate your game playing online. Bundling a headset with the system is also a brilliant move, which was always the knock against the PS3 online community.

Since the graphical leap isn’t there as it was in the past, the PS4 needs something to separate itself from the Wii U and next Xbox system. The future of society, whether you care for it or not, is rooted in these social and sharing concepts. With them though the PS4 does have the potential to transform the way people interact with their games and play them with others around the world.

The Games

The PlayStation 4 isn’t a huge leap in terms of graphics and visuals like it was from the PS2 to PS3, but the games do look fantastic. Killzone: Shadow Fall looked absolutely incredible. Guerrilla Games revealed on the PlayStation Blog that the game would be a launch title for the PS4. A game like Shadow Fall, similar to PS3 launch titles like Genji: Days of the Blade or Resistance: Fall of Man, are only a glimpse of what the PS4 could be capable of. The PS4 will also have a good mix of indie developers such as Braid creator Jonathan Blow, much like the PS3 has with games like Journey. This is a strength that Microsoft and Nintendo can’t match Sony in.

Sony also boasted a strong list of developers from around the world, with more reported by Joystiq. Square Enix announced at the meeting it would have a further announcement of a Final Fantasy game at E3, which was one of the low points of the conference. Square Enix doesn’t hold much weight anymore because of how diluted the Final Fantasy brand has become. The series isn’t the juggernaut it once was under the original PlayStation.

Rebranding its current franchises in Killzone and inFAMOUS is a smart move by Sony. Players can jump right in without feeling they missed out on previous games and it fends off the staleness surrounding a numbered game in the third or fourth release. New titles like Knack from Mark Cerny show a game style that made the PlayStation brand strong in the first place. However there wasn’t one killer game that separated itself on the PS4 from a gameplay standpoint. Collectively everything looked good, but nothing shown yet has that true wow factor you’d expect from a next generation game.

While PS4-exclusive games were revealed, many shown are also going to be available for the PS3. Sony might run into trouble with people wondering why they should invest in a several hundred dollar new system to play the same games the PS3 can, like the console version of Diablo III, Ubisoft’s Watch_Dogs and Bungie’s Destiny. For a holiday 2013 release, where does that leave blockbuster titles like Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto V, launching in September on the PS3? Why would users feel compelled to upgrade this holiday season if they can still play the newest Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto V on the old console, especially since the PS4 won’t be able to play PS3 games?

Too Much Information

As much as how cool the new social networking aspects of the PS4 looked, there are alarming concerns about the system’s social connectivity and adaptation to the user’s experience. Many questions surrounding privacy and personal information will need to be answered, like what control the player has over their own data. The system potentially tracks everything a person does on the PS4. Cerny said the system might even be able to predict what a player will buy and have the game downloaded before they even look for it in the PlayStation Store.

Sony also said people’s real names could be used on the console, and draw in friends from existing social networks like Facebook. Players should feel uneasy giving this much access and information to a multinational, billion dollar corporation, regardless if they think Sony has their best interest in mind. It’s concerning considering Sony’s problem with data security in the past and social network king Facebook’s continual disregard for privacy. There aren’t good precedents set for this type of vision on a game console.

If the system is as consumer centric as Sony claims, will players be bogged down with more unintelligible terms of services, targeted for advertisements and be forced to give up their privacy and personal data just to play a video game?

Another ironic aspect of the Sony conference were two titles heavily shown during the presentation. inFAMOUS: Second Son and Watch_Dogs are two games whose stories and philosophies warn of the exact dangers of what Sony plans to do with the PS4. Watch_Dogs shows that everyone and everything is connected. Jonathan Morin, creative director for the game, boasted that players can feel what it’s like “to invade everyone’s privacy without them knowing.” Will consumers want their game console doing the same thing to them?

Being Consumer Friendly

Although no price was revealed last night, there’s simply no way Sony can charge close to $600 for a console launch again. Even a $500 price point might turn off many consumers. The PS4 is packing quite a lot under the hood, especially with its memory capacity, so the launch price could be a concern. Sony also needs to be careful and not be tempted by greed. The company can’t do something like charging the cost it does for memory cards on the Vita, which is killing the system, for a feature or service on the PS4. Service changes to the PlayStation Network and PlayStation Plus weren’t concrete so we don’t know what will be added on to improve these systems.

The PS4 console itself wasn’t revealed either, but that’s not a huge deal as some might think. It’s not the same misstep Nintendo made with the Wii U reveal, where there’s brand confusion concerning what the company’s next generation console actually is and what it does. Sony needs to keep people’s interest until E3 in June and against the eventual Microsoft reveal looming around the corner. Giving away everything last night would’ve been foolish. Without revealing the actual console, Sony was still able to show what the PS4 was about and what the system could offer players with the company’s short and long term goals.

Unconfirmed rumors of Sony charging for online play, or the next Xbox having always-online restrictions or no used games floated around in recent weeks, alarming players about the possibly anti-consumer future of next generation consoles. Shuhei Yoshida, president of Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios, told Eurogamer last night the PS4 would play used games and won’t need a constant internet connection. Sony repeatedly mentioned that the PS4 would be consumer and gamer focused. Prohibiting used games in any way doesn’t fit with that goal. Of course publishers like Electronic Arts could still set their own mandate on the console, like it did this generation with Online Passes.

Charging for online multiplayer or to use entertainment applications like Netflix much like Microsoft doesn’t align with the PS4′s consumer focus either. From a business standpoint it would be foolish of Sony to not charge for online multiplayer the way Microsoft does, losing out on potentially hundreds of millions in profits. From the consumer-focused branding of last night’s conference however, it hurts Sony to say it cares about the gamer first, and then go charge for basic features you can use for free on other devices.

Momentum Shift

In the next several months more will be heard about the system, but right now there’s a lot of positives. It feels like Sony learned its lessons from the PlayStation 3′s struggles and turned that into the driving force of its next console. Addressing major negatives of the PS3 from a consumer and developer standpoint with the PS4 can help Sony begin to win back the goodwill it lost this console generation. The system will face an evolving home console market though as the industry takes on incredible new challenges and changes.

Sony can definitely attract the Xbox 360 player who wants a new console with the PS4. The PS4 has the potential to draw in Xbox Live users who are looking for deeper social interactions with their console and gaming friends. Sony just needs to market the system right, something the company typically performs abysmally at. Sony’s meeting gave new life not only to the PlayStation brand, but also energy to the struggling game industry facing a longer than usual console cycle.

From what was shown, Sony appears to be back on the right path, with a focus on gamers and making life easy for developers. After years of being in the dumps, the PlayStation brand has its momentum back. Players should still be skeptical if the PS4 can deliver on all its promises and potential, but there are plenty of reasons to be excited about the future.

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