The gaming world was a different place in 2006. The iPhone was still a year away from release, and it famously launched without any form of App Store (it would come into existence in 2008 with the release of the first developer SDK for iOS). Video games were experiences tied to game-specific machines, with any and all multipurpose devices that attempted to eat into that market suffering ignominious defeat at the hands of utterly lacklustre, woeful results.
The rapid advance of technology has certainly had a large part in shaping the market as it stands today. Graphical prowess is no longer limited to powerhouse machines, particularly when the average Android or iOS device can happily run a rich version of the Unreal engine without any significant disadvantage. As well as that, the resurgence of the PC as a gaming device has seen it substantially eclipse what the current generation consoles can do, and more than likely what the next generation of consoles will be able to do.
So where does that leave Sony, or Microsoft for that matter? The one defining concept that both companies need to base their entire strategy around is innovation.
Consoles live or die by their exclusives: they give a clear sense of identity to consumers, and a way of stamping a perceived advantage over competing products. Nintendo learnt from a series of market defeats that a unique approach to hardware capabilities beyond raw power is the perfect breeding ground for innovative experiences. While the Wii’s library of titles was certifiably patchy, it strongly presented itself to consumers as a console that was different to anything else that was out there, beyond housing a cavalcade of exclusive licenses and characters.
Sony’s approach for the PlayStation 4, so far, is skewed toward its physical properties: the reveal lauded the advantages of a significant amount of system memory, and how the CPU architecture will provide an easier platform for developers to work with. The approach tied directly with the games they demonstrated as well, which were either already announced, ‘next-gen’ multi-platform titles, or exclusive titles running with amped-up visuals.
Right now, Sony’s selling their console to its fans, and they’re hitting all the right notes: the console is powerful, it has a large focus on social integration, and it directly addresses some of the PlayStation 3’s technical follies. Sony’s pitch collapses, however, when the wider gaming audience is considered. This is an audience who are not devoted to any one platform: they will simply go where the experience is compelling enough.
At the end of the day, it will come down to that perennial question: is the experience compelling enough to invest in? Personally, I’m not so sure right now, and a lot of that is down to how my own gaming habits have changed over the years. While the trend of blasÃ©, disposable games that litter the mobile market have no interest for me, the PC has proven itself to be a wonderful deliverer of variety for games, and I am certain that is not a unique scenario. For now, all eyes will be on E3 this year to see whether or not Sony, Microsoft or Nintendo for that matter (whose approach deserves a separate article) can convince us to jump on their bandwagons for another generation.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Games are what defines a console, not the hardware. The PlayStation 4 could release with the world’s best hardware and it wouldn’t mean squat if Sony don’t have the exclusives to back it up.
At this point I’m not sure what the point of the PS4 actually is. An incremental hardware upgrade just won’t cut it, and won’t improve gameplay in any way. Graphics updates are nice, but aren’t worth shelling out another few hundred bucks on a new console. The announced launch titles are nothing special, and are mostly sequels on established titles that don’t seem to offer anything new.
The only significant change (that we know of so far) the PS4 introduces is the tiny touch screen on the controller, however, considering the size and position of the screen, I can’t see it being used very often in games – and when it does get used, it’ll most likely be very annoying to control. Just play any early PS3 game that forces you to use the Sixaxis gyro – it’s incredibly frustrating, unnecessary, and tacked-on. I’d love to be proven wrong, but the PS4 doesn’t seem to introduce any new gameplay opportunities.
In fact, the only purpose the PS4 seems to be serving is to force me to buy a new console if I want to keep playing Sony’s exclusive titles. What’s worse, because it won’t be backwards compatible with my current PS3 games, I’d have to have both consoles hooked up to play any titles in my backlog that I haven’t finished yet.
Let’s compare the announcement of the PS4 to that of the Wii U. While Nintendo’s launch line-up was terrible, the hardware upgrade makes a lot more sense. First of all, it’s easy to see the enormous potential of the large touch-pad controller, especially after you look at the huge success of the DS. It’s something entirely different to the previous generation, and will introduce a whole new set of gameplay opportunities in the years to come. Don’t get me wrong – developers will still use the features to make annoying gameplay, but they can also use those features to make something that no gamer has experienced before.
Nintendo also understand the importance of backwards compatibility. Having my GBA play Game Boy titles was a very important feature. Then my first DS was able to play my GBA library. Then the 3DS played my rather large collection of DS games. The Wii allowed me to catch up on the GameCube titles from the console generation I essentially skipped. And the Wii U will allow me to catch up on the multitudes of Wii titles that I have bought but never played. Does Sony allow any of this? Well, yes, partially – but at a steep price: you need to re-purchase the games in digital format. And even then you can only buy the titles that Sony approves for re-release.
When I look at the Wii U, I don’t see a "previous generation plus one" console. I see something new, something that has a lot of potential for innovation and new gameplay experiences that nobody has ever thought of before. When I look at the PlayStation 4, I see an unjustified and forced hardware upgrade.
At some point in the future, I see myself buying a PS4. Not because I want better graphics, but because I expect that eventually the PS4 will have an exclusive game worth playing. In the end, that’s what it always comes down to.