How times have changed. In May 2006, Sony was so certain of its total dominance over console gaming that Kaz Hirai was able to take the stage at E3 and utterly dismiss Microsoft’s Xbox 360, infamously declaring, “The next generation doesn’t start until we say it does.”
After hubris, nemesis: six months later – a full year after the Xbox 360 – the PlayStation 3 launched at what could generously be described as an “exclusive” asking price, with a weak line-up of games. The system’s debut has since been marked down as one of the worst high profile product launches in the brief annals of tech history.
Sony lost ground to Microsoft in the last generation, and last week’s PlayStation 4 reveal makes it abundantly clear that it’s not about to make the same mistakes twice.
Gone is the over-engineered – and so quintessentially Sony – Cell architecture that had given so many developers so many headaches. Instead, the PlayStation 4 will feature x86 architecture, the same kind found in PCs around the world. Choosing this architecture will also have saved Sony much in research and development, no trifling matter for a company that hasn’t posted a positive financial result in years.
The market now is a very different place and Sony needs third party publishers and developers far more than they need Sony, so hardware specifications that make the lives of content creators easier is a very important step forward.
The only disappointment this change will bring for some consumers will be the lack of backwards compatibility with their current collection of PlayStation 3 games. However, Sony hopes to bypass this by making that back catalogue available on its updated PlayStation Network.
That network is to be centred on Gaikai, the cloud streaming service, and it’s something that has everyone buzzing. With Gaikai, it’s possible to stream demos of games instantly, turn the PlayStation 4 into a hub that will allow its games to be streamed to other devices such as Vita and handheld tablets, or even invite others in to play your game remotely. However, Australia lacks the Internet infrastructure and the consumer base to make this a practicality here any time soon. If the region is too small and ill equipped for local MMO servers, this is far beyond the pale in the immediate future.
The hardware highlight was the announcement of 8GB of GDDR5 RAM. As GDDR5 RAM currently only comes in expensive 512MB modules, it means Sony has stuffed 16 onto the PlayStation 4’s motherboard. Those 8GBs will open up a huge array of options for developers, and if rumours that the next Xbox will only feature 8GB of DDR3 are true, the PlayStation will have a significant technical advantage in the next generation as it’ll have substantially more bandwidth.
In light of that, the games that were revealed at the PlayStation 4 presentation were flat-out disappointing. Innovation in the operating system and hardware were not matched by innovation in development. It’s a worrying sign when the best game shown is a prequel to an already staid first-person shooter: Killzone: Shadow Fall. The game's apparent move away from a palate of brown-on-brown is encouraging, but the outsize scripted events were a little too reminiscent of recent Call of Duty titles.
Knack, a cartoonish entry about a little robot that could, apparently failed to spark the public’s imagination, and inFamous: Second Son was introduced with a non sequitur about our surveillance culture and superheroes, followed by a largely gameplay-free video introducing a new protagonist.
Driveclub doesn’t appear to bring anything new to the racing formula – or anything not possible on current tech, for that matter. The vehicle modelling looked like a step backwards from Gran Turismo 5 if such a thing were thought possible.
Finally, Media Molecule took the stage with some hyperbolic rambling about creativity and a couple of underwhelming, kitschy tech demos.
It’s clear that Sony’s first-party studios don’t currently have a single clever new idea between them that can match the potential of the technology.
But it’s also very early days. Software development tools for the PlayStation 4 will still be solidifying around its final specifications, and flaccid launch line-ups aren’t uniquely a Sony problem.
Beyond the console's form factor, most of the speculation now will be regarding its price. Sony came in far too high with the PlayStation 3 and that hurt its initial uptake, but the specs Sony has outlined will not allow it to be anywhere near something like the Wii U.
Analysts have it anywhere between US$300-$500 in the US, but we're picking Aussies can expect to pay a launch price somewhere around AUD$550-$650.
What’s important is that – even if it is a couple of years later than we would’ve liked – the next generation is finally on its way, and happily, Sony has no intention of delivering the PlayStation 3.5. What Sony showed in New York last week is a very promising piece of technology that has the ability to change the ways many of us engage with, share, and play videogames.
Your move, Microsoft.