As expected, Sony’s Manhattan-staged PlayStation media event was the sort of hype-lathered spectacle we’ve come to expect from companies that bet the farm on overlong, action-packed game teasers whose crowning achievements involve moments where tricked-out environments pop with dazzling granularity.
For the better part of a somewhat erratic two hours, Sony turned its official PlayStation 4 announcement into exactly that: a collage of developers dragging millions of live-stream viewers through hypothetical exhibitions of the PS4′s prowess, capsulized in money shots of gleaming race cars, blaze-filled iron sights, exploding buildings and impressive (if still not entirely human-looking) faces. It’s as if Sony expected gamers to exhale in collective elation as it rang the old Pavlovian graphics bell. It was, in short, precisely what I’d been hoping the company wouldn’t do: deploy breathless presenters who wound up showing way too much of much too little.
To be fair, we probably won’t lay eyes or hands on the PS4 until E3 this June, and we won’t be able to actually buy the thing until late this year (probably in November), which means the system specs, console housing and pricing are still in flux, to say nothing of the launch games — always a crazy, last-minute affair, a situation doubtless complicated by soaring production costs associated with creating better than passable content for a console that’s undergone a complete architectural reboot.
Speaking of architecture, let’s talk about the PS4′s specs for a moment. We don’t know much: an eight-core x86 AMD CPU paired with a “highly advanced” AMD-based graphics processor capable of 1.84 TFLOPS (both processors on the same die), a respectable 8GB of GDDR5 system memory (“capable of moving data at 176 gigabytes per second,” boasted Sony) and of course a hard drive (size unspecified, though Sony at one point referred to it as “massive”). It’ll also sport a secondary processor dedicated to “background processing,” which Sony hyped by referencing the ability to start playing a digitally delivered game before it’s done downloading.
That said, the event raised more questions than it answered. Like: Will this PlayStation still have an integrated Blu-ray player? (Less of an issue for games, since we know the PS4 isn’t backward compatible with the PS3, but think of all the Blu-ray film buffs.) If so, will it be slot-loading or a clunky noisemaker like the recent super-slim PS3 revision? Will the PS4, as rumored, support 4K Ultra HD games out of the box? Will the almost certainly spindle-driven hard drive be user-replaceable? How big will this thing actually be (and how noisy, assuming active fan cooling)?
It was telling and a bit surprising to hear Sony refer to the PS4 as a “supercharged PC.” Not that it’s really news. It may offend console wonks to hear this, but game consoles have long been…if not exactly supercharged PCs, at least recognizably PC-like. The distinction we make between computers and game consoles, while relevant when we’re talking about how we interact with these things (desks vs. couches, gamepads vs. mice/keyboards), is arbitrary in the end. The looming war for our living rooms (and beyond) won’t be fought between PCs and consoles — two sides of the same coin — but against other devices and cross-platform technologies entirely.
(WATCH: Sony Unveils PlayStation 4)
In any event, Sony’s initial emphasis on developer accessibility was intriguing. Forget specs, a system’s output depends at least as much on how easily developers can make programming headway. Developers have to hit the ground running these days with production demands soaring. Add grappling with a convoluted SDK and you’re piling insult on injury — a complaint often leveled at the PS3′s powerful but proprietary design. That the PS4 will employ parts derived from industry standards like the x86 architecture suggests the developmental learning curve will be far less cliff-like.
But this all assumes we’re talking about a future the world wants video games to live in. I won’t rehash my warnings about Apple suddenly taking gaming seriously and challenging Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony on their own turf (you can read more about that here). But it was more than a little disturbing that Sony’s only hat-tip to the tablet/smartphone crowd Wednesday night involved some vague references to browsing game videos on mobile devices. Instead of boldly upending the industry, Nintendo Wii-style, Sony’s initial play seems straight from the PlayStation 3 playbook: Spiff up the visuals, fold in some trendy “social” gameplay features, add buzzwords like “synergy” and “reconceptualizing” as frosting and presto, a PlayStation 3 + 1! Even the PS4′s vaunted instant suspend and resume feature sounds more like Sony playing catchup: tablets and smartphones have had that technology for years.
I’m also more than a little concerned about Sony’s streaming backward-compatibility angle. Gaikai isn’t doing anything OnLive wasn’t, and I was never a fan of OnLive for serious gaming because of its latency and visual degradation issues. While the prospect of playing older PS1, PS2 and PS3 games on the PS4 sounds enticing, will gamers playing whatever first-person shooter tolerate lag? How about the sort of graphical artifacts that plague uncontrollable streaming hiccups? The fact that streaming rules out offline play entirely? On the other hand, the idea that players might use game streaming to test-drive full versions of titles before unburdening their wallets, while again not new — take another bow OnLive — sounds like the technology’s sweet spot.
Let’s circle back to a positive: I’d like to know more about this one-button video sharing feature, designed to let gamers watch each other play, comment in real-time and — say the friend you’re observing can’t get past some challenge you’ve already mastered — seamlessly slip into the driver’s seat to help them through. Letting gamers watch each other play has enormous educational potential, too. Fold in social network hooks to Facebook and YouTube and the possibilities snowball. This is where I’m hoping Sony has more up its sleeve. Everyone has better graphics, everyone has a more or less unique interface angle, but not everyone has a social-focused, games-angled backend that’s as compulsive as Facebook or Twitter and tailored to gamers in the act of gaming.
That Sony would try to work viewers into a froth by pumping out sizzle reels for over an hour is understandable given the presumed lack of sufficiently complete games or ready-to-talk developers eight or nine months from launch. I just wish the company had pared back Wednesday’s event time by half and devoted more space to the PS4′s more interesting innovations. Think about all the questions Sony left on the table: What’s it really up to with that touch strip on the DualShock 4? The player-recognizing gamepad sensor? The gamepad’s enhanced motion controls (and Move support)? The new PS4 version of Sony’s PlayStation Eye?
But the most important question is probably going to be: Can dedicated set-top game boxes thrive with Apple and Google at the gates? Can Sony compete against a market space that pumps out new devices by the dozens annually — devices with access to hundreds of thousands of apps that cost a fraction of what console gamers pay? Any bets on how long it takes smartphones or tablets to catch up with or even surpass locked-down consoles, power-wise? And here’s the more important question: Do they even have to?