While games consoles have always had a broad appeal, the increasingly complex controllers required for modern 3D games are not for everyone. Because of that PlayStation has long explored numerous other control methods for its consoles – such as EyeToy, Singstar, Buzz!, Wonderbook and Move.
PlayLink is the latest step in that proud tradition of innovation.
And that’s a great thing. With 60m PS4 consoles sold worldwide, now is the perfect time for the company to try and bring more players into the fold, which is exactly what PlayLink is designed to do – all via the now ubiquitous smartphone.
If you just watched Sony’s E3 conference, you wouldn’t have heard anything about PlayLink however, as that show was aimed squarely at, well, the kind of people who watch E3 press conferences. Instead, PlayLink’s appeal sits at the more casual end of the market, and Sony is hoping to use core PlayStation 4 owners as a gateway to their friends and families. It might have been omitted from the showcase, but Sony was still very keen to promote the technology at E3, with a dedicated lounge area for press demos.
In brief, each PlayLink title, of which there are five announced, has an RRP of £20 and is sold like any other PlayStation title – with physical and digital versions. Each game also has its own free-to-download app (for Android and iOS) that accompanies it, allowing multiple players – most titles support up to six – to play the game using their smartphones as controllers. This all works via the home’s Wi-Fi router, although you can connect phones or tablets directly to a PS4-created hotspot if that’s not an option.
To further explain the concept behind PlayLink, we talk to Sony’s Michael Denny, senior vice president of Worldwide Studios.
“Those of us who are passionate about console games, for whom games are a big parts of our lives, also have friends and family who are non-gamers or casual gamers, so could we find experiences that, on certain occasions, join the two together?” Denny posits. “Could we find games that join gamers and non-gamers?”
Of course, Sony has a strong history of doing precisely this, and Denny agrees: “Yes, when you look back at the PlayStation 2 era. It’s very similar to that, games like Buzz! for example. What we introduced was a controller, which had broad appeal and was very accessible: the buzzer controller.”
For those unfamiliar with Buzz!, it was a quiz game that came with four controllers, each with a big red button to buzz in and four more buttons to answer multiple-choice questions.
People come in and they get it straight away – the fun just starts
Michael Denny, Sony
“That [controller] is similar to all these games, which are controlled by a smartphone, something that everyone knows how to use, whether you’re a gamer or not. That familiarity just helps pull in so many people who might not be console gamers. It brings that knowledge and accessibility of how to play these games, making it very pick up and play. People come in and they get it straight away – the fun just starts.”
A large part of that fun revolves around interactions between the players: “They are all multiplayer experiences, [and are] in the room as well, trying to encourage a bit of banter between the players so that the experience is very different each time, depending on who you are playing with.”
The experiences themselves are varied, too: “At one end of the spectrum, [we have] That’s You!, which is very much an irreverent party game, that puts knowledge about your friends at the heart of it.
“Then we’ve got a more traditional quiz game, Knowledge is Power, but with quite a few twists to it in terms of how it plays and clever use of the smartphone device as well.
“At the other end of the spectrum, you have Hidden Agenda, a narrative-driven game by Supermassive, who did Until Dawn. When we saw Until Dawn being played, we saw groups of people getting together, despite there only being one controller for the game. The room decided which choice to make.
“So, inspired by that, each player gets to vote on which is the right choice to make in that game. There’s an app for each game. These are very feature rich in terms of each game, whether you’re going to use the screen for drawing or whether it’s just a control device. It needs to be tailored to the exact game.”
This is a great move, allowing developers far more control over how they use the smartphone and how it interacts with the TV screen.
Of course, we’ve seen plenty of ‘second screen’ mechanics before, with both Sony and Microsoft touting such functionality at the very start of this current console era. These didn’t stick with core console players, though, so what’s changed with PlayLink?
“I just had lunch with Caspar [Field] from Wish Studios,” Denny says. “We were recalling how we first started. We had to have a long gestation period. What we didn’t want it to be was just replicas of mobile games.
“You had to be able to use the PlayStation and the TV screen as the central part for the game. The prototyping was a massive part of it, to get that balance right, and then how many of the features of the smartphone you can use in an inclusive way for everyone.”
The key here seems to be that the smartphone is core to the experience, the main and only controller, rather than an optional extra, which is often unnecessary.
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PlayLink may be aimed at casual gamers, then, but it still needs a PS4 to play on. It’s here that Sony is looking at core gamers to guide their friends and family to the experience – it all sounds like a Christmas around the PS4 to us, but the key question remaining is whether the games will mainly sell to non-gamers.
“We do expect them to appeal to gamers as well,” Denny replies. “It’s interesting what you say about Christmas, as we see them as being led by occasions as well, where you might have friends and family around, and you may not all necessarily be console gamers as such. To [provide an] experience where your PS4 can come into play, I think gives the gamer real kudos in the use of their PlayStation.”
The games will be available way long before the holiday season, though. “That’s You! will launch on the July 4th and be free to PlayStation Plus owners as well [for a period],” explains Denny.
“Because it’s a new experience we want to get it out there, get people trying it, and hopefully benefit from the viral nature of that.”
At £20 a game, Sony is pitching the price just right. It’s a valid alternative to buying a movie on Blu-ray, a good evening’s worth of fun, and one that potentially provides a lot more replayability.
The future of PlayLink is exciting, then, as the pairing of a smartphone and a TV brings to mind numerous potential ideas. We’re also hoping that PlayLink gains enough initial traction to fully explore all of those ideas as well.
“That’s the goal,” replies Denny. “We’re announcing five here, and once you’ve played them, you can see how readily the concepts come to mind in terms of the use of the smartphone with the PlayStation 4. We are getting product pitches in already on it. Who knows what will happen, but it would be great if third parties join in as well.”
The idea of recognised characters from other publishers is an exciting one – an Assassin’s Creed history-quiz-turned-puzzle-game anyone? – but then that also begs the question why Sony hasn’t thrown its first-party characters into the mix already? “It’s a very good question, and you’ll notice I’m smiling, but we have nothing to announce,” says Denny.
PlayLink is looking great – the games are fun and the timing is perfect. It should be big come Christmas, and it might just be huge by 2018.
Want to know more? Then read our interview with PlayLink developer Wish Studios.