Sunday, February 24, 2013

Can PlayStation 4 Restore Our Lost Love for Sony?

We still have much to learn about PS4, but at least the company's making the proper overtures.

I used to love Sony.
The Sony I fell in love with won me over from 10 years Nintendo loyalty. I lost my faith in the N64 within six months of launch: After I'd stripped Super Mario 64 and Mario Kart 64 of every last drop of entertainment they had to offer, and I couldn't see much of interest in the near future besides Zelda, 18 months away. So I sold my N64 to a roommate and used the money to buy a PlayStation, a copy of Suikoden, and Tomb Raider. From that moment, the PlayStation never let me down. Physically, it felt wonderful in my hands -- not futuristic, exactly, but serious, with a sort of mechanical density the solid-state consoles I had been accustomed to lacked. And the software remained brilliant from day one until the bitter end.
But as with so many relationships, all the romantic overtures Sony made to woo me in the early days faded away as the company became complacent, taking my affection for granted. The PlayStation won me over for many reasons: It felt like a more adult alternative to Nintendo and Sega, for starters. Not "adult" meaning "smuttier" or "more violent," but rather more sophisticated -- like it took me seriously . The hardware offered developers great power, but also a simple architecture with great documentation, so they had little trouble producing brilliant, creative software. This made for a vast library of games across all genres, including some risky experiments like PaRapper the Rapper,Vib-Ribbon, Tail of the Sun, and Baby Universe. All of this, and yet the hardware managed to undercut the price of Sega's Saturn while the software came in $20-40 cheaper per game than Nintendo 64 software.
Flush with self-confidence, Sony didn't try as hard to win us over with PlayStation 2. That system had insane momentum going in -- enough to ensure great sales and developer support for sure -- but in some ways it triumphed despite itself. The much-vaunted "Emotion Engine" proved notoriously difficult for developers to create for, so games that truly pushed the limits of the hardware's capabilities took longer to reach the market. Its vast library seemed to include fewer risk-takers, and many of the more daring works failed to pan out in the way that their PS1 predecessors did. Many people ascribe PS2's success in large part because of the fact that it represented one of the cheapest DVD players on the market right as interest in the new video format began to swell.
But it was really with the PlayStation 3 that you could see our relationship sour. Sony wasn't even trying anymore. They offered a bloated machine with a complicated architecture -- poison to developers -- and far more features than anyone would ever need for the shocking price of $600. "It's so great you'll want to get a second job in order to afford it," they proclaimed. By the time they got their act together and lowered prices while finally offering a compelling library, the flame had died. I was already seeing someone else: Microsoft, who had begun making all the effort Sony no longer found necessary to keep our relationship strong. The love affair was over, and even the beautiful PlayStation Vita couldn't win me back over.
But I think that could change with the PlayStation 4. After attending Sony's console announcement event in New York this evening, I'm finding myself pleasantly surprised by what PS4 has to offer. This isn't just the heady intoxication of attending a corporate pep rally and being bombarded by light and sound and enthusiasm; the most bombastic portions of the press conference left me cold. No, it was the quiet moments -- of which there were far more than the loud ones -- that impressed me. It wasn't what Sony showed or bragged about that caught my attention, but rather what they explained and how they explained it.
The PS4's raw horsepower doesn't seem too far ahead of the current top-of-the line PC. Of course it'll be cheaper and modestly better than a high-end computer for a while, but we've reached a point where the visual improvements from one generation to the next can be hard to communicate. Things like sub-surface light scattering are technical marvels, but they don't catch the eye as easily as, say, going from 480i to 1080p as we did with the previous console jump.
No, the great things about PlayStation 4 are the ones that make for a less flashy public performance. I know a lot of people came away from tonight's showing unimpressed -- you can see it written all over our community blogs -- because the traditional criteria for success in a debut announcement usually involves graphical performance benchmarks, stunning proof-of-concept demos, and sizzling new software announcements. Sony offered some of those things, but not the degree most people expected. Instead, the company took a quieter approach -- but if you paid attention to what they said, they addressed a lot of their previous systems' shortcomings.
Sony made a brilliant move by opening up the show by bringing Mark Cerny onto the stage. Cerny is one of the industry's smartest veterans, a man whose background makes him equal parts game designer and technician. The fact that Sony has given him no less a role than the lead architect of its new console speaks volumes for their intentions: They aim to make PS4 a system that developers want to use. The best way to make sure you're serving a given audience's needs is to bring a member of that group into the creative process. Cerny's presence in the development process ensures Sony's engineers won't fall into the trap of making the system's innards too arcane in pursuit of some will-o-the-wisp of technical potential.
You can see Cerny's influence in the nature of the system's guts. PS4 runs on a standard X86 chip and pushes visuals with a normal PC GPU. The memory is impressively fast and works as a unified whole -- something that notoriously wasn't true with the PS3 (just ask Bethesda). The visuals we saw tonight looked great, but are they better than a beefy Windows box? Not significantly. What PS4 offers is an environment that should offer a friendly development environment for programmers, meaning they can create great-looking titles with less trouble and expense than they could on PS3, and whose social features have hooks into the software at multiple levels.
We've known streaming service providers Gaikai would be involved in PS4 for quite a while, but the extent to which they appear to be involved in the console nevertheless surprises. I was particularly taken by the notion that they hope to have the full archives of the PlayStation family (all the way back to PS1) available to play on PS4 via streaming -- a bold promise that they may not be able to fulfill. Still, the fact that the PS4 could become, essentially, a conduit for software streaming answers the question of what role the traditional console could hope to play in the evolving living room.
The PlayStation 4 is being pitched as the latest take on the digital entertainment hub, not only bringing in content but also broadcasting it in potentially interactive forms. But Gaikai's plans lay the groundwork for PS4 -- and PlayStation at large -- to become nothing more than an abstract service. Sony has the hardware standard and a controller concept, but perhaps eventually they won't actually need to sell you the hardware to give you PS4 games. Maybe you'll just need to buy a TV or Blu-ray player with PS4 streaming (via Gaikai) and DualShock 4 connectivity and you can play PS4 (or PS3, or PS1, or PSP) games on your digital device of choice for a fixed monthly price. Gaikai gives Sony tremendous flexibility to adapt to the future, whatever it may bring, and that more than anything may be the most important asset for any modern console to possess. The market for dedicated game devices looks pretty harsh, and the fluidity that PS4 brings to Sony's strategy may be the edge the company needs to respond to even the worst dips the market can bring.
Of course, the other part of that equation comes in the form of software, and I'm not really sure what to make of that yet. Some games shown tonight (especially Killzone: Shadow Zone) feel like more of the same, but prettier. Meanwhile, I have no idea what was going on with Media Molecule's adorable but abstractly conceptual presentation -- something about creating shapes and rocking out with marionettes -- and the conceptual overlap between InFamous: Second Son and Watch_Dogs makes us wonder if political statements will prove to be to the next generation what zombies were to the past gen. On the other hand, you can some unique ideas beginning to take form, as in Evolution'sDrive Club. For all that the demo dwelt overlong on slightly too-breathless car porn, the prospect of team-based head-to-head racing competitions could reinvent the genre by matching Gran Turismo fetishism with revolutionary social features. Still, the promise of a cloud-based, connected, futuristic console is somewhat undermined when a game like Destiny promises to make use of multiplatform social connectivity features... on both PS4 and PS3.
Who knows what the PS4's true potential and value will turn out to be? Heck, we don't even know what it looks like yet.
Still, Sony has always been at best when the PlayStation family has attempted to provide an answer to others' shortcomings, whether that's Nintendo's pricing and childishness, Sega's conservatism, or the aimlessness of 3DO and CDi. It's always been at its worst when it loses sight of its strengths or, worse yet, misunderstands the nature of its successes and tries to repeat them ineptly. On many levels, PlayStation 4 looks to provide a response to Sony's biggest danger to date: Itself. And that is exactly the threat the company needs to overcome -- and exactly why this whole PS4 just might be the thing to patch things up between us.

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