MCV editor-in-chief Michael French says Sony is changing its tune with PlayStation 4, despite some bad habits.
Bathed in the gobbledegook of a thousand suits, showered in the light of video after video of noisy shootybang games, and devoid of firm details such as price, date, and what it actually looks like…
Yep, if you’re cynical enough there was a lot at Sony’s New York PlayStation Meeting to roll your eyes at.
The lasting impression is starting to fall into two camps. Those that see the whole thing as some preposterous masquerade, upset at what wasn’t shown – and those who tolerated the spectacle and embraced what Sony did show.
The former is best summed up by this searing piece on The Next Web. "Sony introduces PlayStation 4, doesn’t actually show the product, pricing or exact availability," says the headline, adding "It was an event that began tepid, and froze by the end. […] All we know is that it has a slightly different controller than its predecessor, and that it exists. At least inetherealform." In an age of Apple’s precise unveilings and near-immediate product availability, Sony’s noisy silence last night was indeed old fashioned.
Colin Campbell on IGN sums up the other side of the story. Bemused by the barrage of "bollocks" buzzwords, he nonetheless concludes that the volume of new content and ‘thingamajigs’ were conductive to a healthy Sony business: "But yes, two hours of PlayStation 4 was a damned good return. A bunch of games. Some great ideas. Specs. Games. Services. Not just words, after all."
(Aside: One colleague, who was in the room for the announcement, is more succinct in outlining these two camps: it’s the Twitter Grumps versus the Excited Attendees, he says.)
I think what we all have to remind ourselves of is the context in which this event was held. There are good reasons why this event was the way it was, and a lot to learn from what we definitely did see.
Last night felt like the industry collectively breathing out. The punctuation lung adding a full stop to a rotten 18 months for games retail and games publishers. No one on stage uttered the ‘The next-generation starts now’ cliche, but this was designed as a fresh start for many of them.
And despite soft moments which, yes, used vague paragraphs as substitute for substance – this was a sodding press conference after all – it was on the whole a confident display. While many expected a magic bullet, this was continuity. It built on years of hard work PlayStation is not just going to walk away from.
Sony referenced those massive market changes that have taken place since the PS3 was first unveiled, but tackled them only on its own terms.
‘BUT SONY IS BECOMING IRRELEVANT!’
In the last year or so, we’ve heard a lot about the death of consoles and how businesses like Sony are doomed to failure. Outspoken developers have bent the press’ ear about plans to leave consoles, self-publish, and embrace mobile. They say this because they see a valid model they can exploit faster, at ‘internet speed’, than the big corporations. They say PCs and tablets are creating pincer movement pressure on traditional games hardware. But they also have an agenda they have to perpetuate to validate their own businesses. And they are getting pretty boring to listen to.
I’m assuming Sony must be pretty sick of all this chat, too. And it must be hearing it daily because the PS4, chief architect Mark Cerny pointed out, has been built after five years courting developers and asking them what a next-gen device needs to do.
Last night PlayStation had an answer to accusations that its business is doomed and cursed by lack of developer innovation. The answer was its track record as a games developer and partner to game developers around the world.
In short: scream about iPhone until you’re red in the face, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that 20 years of the PlayStation business, or what Cerny described as programming expertise spanning three decades, are immediately cancelled out.
Almost everyone on stage was at pains to point out their console heritage, which suggests this answer isn’t just Sony’s own spin – but a pang felt by many of the major firms under fire from critics and short-term successes amongst new rivals.
Square Enix has had a relationship with Sony for 16 years. Capcom has been with PlayStation since day one. Even PC giant Blizzard happily read from the script to point out it too started as a console developer, and that things like PS4 are "in its blood". All of them and more were there last night to commit to PlayStation 4.
Meanwhile, everything else on stage from the first-party group was there to demonstrate how strategic decisions in the past are still going to matter in the future.
Killzone is still going strong, there is a new driving game coming from Evolution, and the more daring and esoteric ideas from a clutch of indie partners and bright internal outfits like Media Molecule is a mainstay of the platform.
These weren’t just checkboxes on a new console press release. They were a message that Sony isn’t going to go down without a fight.
In fact, every single worthwhile investment Sony has ever made in the history of PlayStation was on stage last night.
For a company supposedly battling for relevancy, as its sceptics say, the volume of content on show coupled with more anecdotal stuff like hours and hours of pre-event hype and social media activity certainly suggest that Sony still does pretty well for itself when its back is up against the wall.
‘BUT THIS IS ONLY FOR CORE GAMERS!’
Even if Sony is operating in a shrinking games console market, you could read between the lines last night and see that PlayStation is happy to jump on with a land grab to reassert control over whatever is left of the ‘games console market’.
Wii U is drowning, not waving right now. And although market leader in this generation, Xbox is expanding into a set of multimedia services that actually remove its potency as a games platform. Microsoft proudly boasted most recently that it has hit a tipping point on usage, and failed to see the irony in owners spending more time on things like Xbox Music or Netflix than they do games.
So there’s an argument to be made for corralling the core gamers that are left onto a new platform that has all the sexy HD games they want and is first to commit to the next-gen.
Admittedly, everything on show last night seemed to be designed by a certain kind of man, presented by a certain kind of man, and targeted at another certain kind of man.
But that ‘certain kind of man’ market (i.e. mainstream mature-ish adult content, either hi-tech shooter or fantasy-based) has been a bit starved in the generational shift that everyone says has threatened Sony itself. It’s the one demographic that has stopped spending on games as the mid-size games dried up and the casual and mainstream folks fled to mobile.
Did the alpha males start spending on F2P in lieu of that, as the digital divas keep saying? Yeah, probably – but Sony wants them to start spending on consoles again. That’s why it offered 12 lengthy spotlights on games, eight of them new IP, and said 70 other companies were signed as PS4 developers already.
"BUT SONY IGNORED ALL THE BIG QUESTIONS!"
I also find it futile to bemoan the lack of details. We’ve been around the block on this stuff so many times to know that the PR-happy games industry will always string these things out. We’ve got GDC, E3, Gamescom and TGS to come between today and the release day. Things are being left to talk about later on. Sony’s got a new platform to build, remember.
Just imagine what things are like inside Sony when they sit down to plan out the content of these first unveilings. These events come with loads of baggage. Sony has tripped itself up before in saying too much or the wrong thing in the past.
And that’s before answering questions like ‘Where do we hold the event?’ (Do you go for a big show at E3, and risk being drowned out by the cacophony of everyone else talking around you, or a bespoke event of your design?)
Or ‘When do we start talking publicly?’ (Way before your rivals have announced their plan? How long do you wait until after you’ve spoken to developers? Do you respond to leaks? Do you leak stuff yourself?)
Or even ‘What content can we show? (How many tech demos are out there? How many friends have you got in the industry right now? Who is sexy and will score some headlines? Who do you need to have on board to show people you are adapting? What hardware do you show? Do you give it all away, and risk having nothing for later? What if you want to stagger the info for maximum PR exposure?)
Taking all that into account and last night likely seems like the best case scenario. Or a good compromise at least.
‘BUT SONY DIDN’T SHOW US A BOX!’
In fact, maybe the qualms about not getting to see a chassis is a red herring.
With the swing to services and cloud functions, the truth is that what the box looks like has become irrelevant. It’s what is getting pumped into it that matters – be that from a disc, from a web connection, from your mobile, from your new ‘light bar’ peripheral. We saw lots of games content last night and the controller to play them on. Why isn’t that enough?
And there’s probably a deeper, more future-thinking strategy at play here. Although Cerny was on first to talk PS4 hardware specs, the Dave Perry cloud gaming chat after him was potentially the bigger picture of PlayStation.
You don’t just spend close to $400m on a company like Perry’s just to create some pseudo Netflix of games and beef up the already existing Remote Play function. No, you buy that kind of business because you see which way the wind is blowing.
At some point, a PlayStation console will come that doesn’t have a disc drive. It could theoretically be as soon as this year: a cheap Gaikai device that downloads or streams games, with the big brother device that boasts a disc drive and more, and a 200 price difference.
The switch won’t be that fast in reality, but over time the migration of PlayStation away from just one console seems inevitable (as the anti-console pundits say, yes). Sony has already made plays to unify mobile, and has experimented with CrossBuy on Vita and PS3. This stuff is only going to ramp up. Eventually, the Vita will likely get superseded by the investment in PlayStation Mobile and it’ll be tablets connected to PlayStation set top boxes, then after that rival tablets and PCs connected to a PlayStation cloud infrastructure.
But infrastructure in video games is meaningless without actual games to run on it. That’s why last night dwelled on content. That why there was a very broad and hyperbolic description of social and sharing elements. That’s why we saw a detailed look at video sharing in a rising eSports and YouTube climate. That’s why the specs do live up to the ‘it’s a PC’ claim. And that’s why it doesn’t matter one bit if we saw the box or not.
Sony really did give us a glimpse into its future yesterday: and not showing a console at all was a hat-tip to a world without consoles, but where console games still rule.