‘But what did the console look like?’
That was the frequently asked question in the wake of last week’s PS4 press conference. For some critics, ten new games, a new controller, a Kinect-style camera, the full specs and an abundance of cloud services wasn’t quite enough.
“There seems to be a disproportionate amount of noise about the lack of a box and I really don’t get it,” a perplexed Jim Ryan, who heads up PlayStation in Europe, told MCV the day after the New York reveal.
“It was more important to describe what the device is capable of, rather than what it looks like.”
Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot – who revealed the Watch Dogs for PS4 live on stage – was sympathetic to Sony’s decision to hold the design back. “Sony can’t show everything on the first day or they won’t have anything else for later on,” he tells us.
But despite the omission, Sony’s New York show offered us plenty to dissect, discuss and debate.
From the off Sony pitched PS4 as a games machine. This was about the ‘future of play.’ Movie and music services were relegated to a fleeting reference. Compare that to Microsoft’s ‘entertainment’ message, where Xbox now stands for music and video, plus games.
“That was a very conscious decision,” Ryan says. “There will be a comprehensive suite of non-game services for music and video.
“But the emphasis is on PS4 as a gaming device. And that philosophy has gone into the heart of how we designed the machine.”
The more Sony’s press conference went on, the more PS4 revealed itself as more like a PC than your typical home console.
It is built using PC components, boasts indie developer support, has a wealth of cloud features and social options, and can host free-to-play and episodic games. PS4 is so much like a PC that even Blizzard is making games for it.
“PS4 has taken everything that the PC and mobile has,” says Guillemot. “Social is possible, we can update, we can have user-generated content, we can have people seeing other people playing, you can have eSports. All those elements are what we wanted to see on the new consoles, on-top of better graphics and so forth.
“But it’s more than a PC under the TV. It’s a machine that will be the same for everyone. The software is well adapted to your machine, and it’s easy to use and it won’t be too expensive.”
“It’s more than a PC under the TV. It’s a machine
that will be the same for everyone. The software is
well adapted to your machine, and it’s easy to use
and it won’t be too expensive.”
Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot
Does that mean PS4 has silenced its critics that proclaimed the console under the TV will be extinct? And that the future is all about Steam, and cloud gaming, and tablets, and mobile, and all the other devices and services that have risen to prominence over the last two years?
“I think it did,” says Ryan.
“What Andy [House, PlayStation boss], Mark [Cerny, the man behind PS4] and the rest did on stage was demonstrate the viability and importance of a premium console gaming experience.
“There’s no doubt a lot of gaming is happening on smartphones and tablets, compared with a couple of years ago. But our prize is to migrate people from having a rudimentary experience on a tablet, and get them playing Killzone on PS4.”
Guillemot adds: “People need to see what games will be created on PS4, and that will make them understand the power of this generation. You have a cycle that is eight years long, and you’re surprised that after five years it starts to decline? When you come with new machines and new possibilities, you give talent the chance to express themselves. You will see a huge surge in creativity and engagement from gamers.”
The new DualShock 4 pad features a whole host of new elements, such as a touchpad and a speaker. But perhaps the most interesting part of the controller is its Share button, which lets users share videos of their in-game exploits via Facebook.
This instantly appeals to the YouTube generation of gamers, who are watching tournaments and pro-gamers via video streams. In fact, this feature will help PS4 take part in the eSports sector.
Another key aspect of PS4 is its immediacy. Sony insists that waiting for the console to boot-up or that update to install is now a thing of the past.
“It was apparent talking to people that they really don’t like waiting for a firmware upgrade. It’s a pain, that stuff,” says Ryan, highlighting one of the biggest bugbears for current PlayStation players.
“We should probably have done away with that a long time ago. So that will happen in the background now.”
PS4 is also more open to new business models, including episodic and free-to-play. But although Ryan admits flexibility is important for next-gen devices, he’s not convinced that free-to-play will have the same role on PS4 as it does on browsers or mobile.
“It’s important for PS4 to offer the potential for customers to enjoy content in different ways,” he says.
“Something like free-to-play on a tablet or smartphone is one thing when you’ve bought the device already to read books etc and you’re just dabbling with a free gaming experience. But on PS4 you are talking about people who will have made a significant financial investment in their gaming console. It’s a different consumer. Free-to-play has an interesting role to play, but it might be a different one to what we’ve seen on other platforms.”
Also, Sony has knocked down the walls between its platforms with PS4. Cloud gaming means that titles from the PSone, PS2, PSP and PS3 can be streamed to the new device, and you can even stream PS4 games to PS Vita. “To use a crude analogy, that’s like the Berlin Wall coming down,” explains Ryan.
The PS4 press conference was heavy on digital. Social services, network features, and cloud gaming functions dominated the discussion. The console will even predict the next game consumers may want to download, and users can even play their digital games before they’ve finished downloading.
Is PS4 a further step away from physical retail?
“If you go back five years it was either a digital game, in which case the retailer had no role to play. Or it was disc in a box, in which case the digital world had no role,” says Ryan.
“But the world has changed a lot since then. We’ve had a lot of dialogue on how retailers can participate in growing the digital business.
“If you look at retail data on how people buy games, there’s an awful lot who don’t have access to a credit card. If they are going to participate in the digital business, and increasingly there’s a lot of stuff that is only available digitally, then there has to be a retail solution.”
“It was apparent talking to people that they really
don’t like waiting for a firmware upgrade. It’s a pain,
that stuff. We should probably have done away with
that a long time ago. So that will happen in the
SCEE boss Jim Ryan
The biggest part of the press event, however, was given over to the games. There were big brands, from Killzone to Diablo, but also a spate of new IP, such as Knack, DriveClub, Destiny and Watch Dogs.
“Once the consoles come we can let creative people take risks, and they feel they can because consumers are more open,” says Guillemot.
“But also there so many features that the developers can play with. It’s easier to be a creative person in these conditions, because after four years of people using all the capacity, it’s harder to be innovative. With PS4, we will be able to see completely new ways to approach gaming.”
The backlash to Sony not revealing the physical look of PS4 suggests there’s still plenty of people that need convincing. The innovations and software on show weren’t enough to persuade all of the naysayers that PlayStation has a role in the future of games.
But regardless, Sony made a bold statement of intent last week in New York that it wants to be king of the consoles once again. After seven years of apologising for PS3’s shortcomings, PlayStation appears to have its swagger back.
“Yes, maybe, but never confuse that with arrogance, which Sony has been guilty of in the past,” concludes Ryan.
“We are now at 70m PS3 units globally, and certainly in Europe we are in a strong position. Can we do better? Absolutely. We have certain markets, the UK is one, where we aspire to a stronger competitive position. But we are putting the building blocks in place to achieve that. And hopefully what you saw at our conference will take us a long way to delivering it.”