Sunday, February 24, 2013

PS4's Encouraging Start Centers Around Sharing and Developer Friendliness

Sony's campaign to sell us on the PlayStation 4 begins.

PS4 controller
It's true, the games are ultimately what we are most concerned with when we talk about a games console. But when they are first announced, it's the systems themselves that are often the most fascinating topics. This is perhaps truer than ever before in the case of the PlayStation 4, what with the industry changing so dramatically and the current generation of systems having lasted for as long as it has. Going into today's event, I was of the belief that Sony needed to present a convincing reason for why it chose to make the decisions it would unveil and, more importantly, why it is that gamers should care about investing hundreds of dollars in a new system. At least part of Sony's answer to the latter question revolved around making the PS4 a much more social platform than other consoles, though whether that's a satisfactory justification remains to be seen.
The picture of the system's new controller that has been circulating around the web for the past week did prove to be real. The DualShock 4 uses Bluetooth and is largely the same as its predecessor, save for some tweaks (like merging the Start and Select buttons into one, and the introduction of new, concave analog sticks, which are unfortunately not offset, Xbox-style) and a few new features: a headphone jack, a Share button, a touchpad, and a light bar. The touchpad, which I figured would have received some attention during the event, was all but ignored; I had hoped to see some reason for its inclusion. Perhaps it's better that the games we saw didn't include it, as it's the sort of input that should only be used when it makes sense to do so, not simply because it's there.
The light bar was described as being a way to identify players and can be used to convey information, like your health being low. It works in conjunction with a Kinect-like camera that can sense the depth the controller is held at. It, too, was something we thankfully did not see shoehorned into games it has no place in. It was undeniably strange for these two major new forms of input to be paid no attention for the length of the event, although I'm sure those who have little interest in seeing them used are breathing a sigh of relief for the time being.
It was actually the Share button, a seemingly insubstantial addition, that was touted most heavily, and with good reason. With it, you can easily share either a screenshot or a clip of gameplay with other players. Alternatively, live gameplay can be streamed so that other players can watch, leaving you comments and even taking over control, if you allow them. (Sony said this could be handy, for instance, if you need help getting through a particularly difficult part of a game.) Sharing and streaming are the kinds of things taken for granted on PCs, but they're new concepts on consoles for anyone who doesn't have a capture card their system is hooked up to. The ability to stream to platforms other than PS4 -- including Vitas, PCs through Ustream, and iOS/Android devices through the new, cleverly titled PlayStation App -- makes this functionality all the more useful. I imagine this will all prove to be very popular for a segment of gamers that will also be pleased to hear how community-oriented it sounds like the PS4 is. The system will plug into existing social networks, and though anonymity will still be possible, real names will now be used extensively. Perhaps that's one solution to cutting down on the much-maligned immaturity that can be found in online games.
Just as the Share button reduces the barriers to sharing play experiences with others, the power button no longer functions like as much of an impediment as it once did. Similar to a handheld system, the console is capable of suspending gameplay when you turn the system off. Then, when you power the system back up, you'll be able to instantly jump right back to where you were without dealing with the long startup times of current-gen consoles. Simple as this is, it's a feature I'm particularly happy to hear is in place, as the needless waiting to start playing console games is a pet peeve of mine. I was, however, disappointed to not hear anything about an ability to suspend gameplay and jump between games, but maybe that was asking for too much.
On a similar note, digital games are also becoming a lot more accessible. Rather than having to wait through the download and installation process before being able to play, the PS4 will be capable of playing games after only a portion is downloaded; the remainder of the game is then downloaded in the background. That removes a major hurdle for downloadable games, and it could prove to be even more useful -- provided developer choose to provide support for the feature -- as the file sizes of next-gen games increase.
Seeking out games in the first place may be less of a hassle than ever before on PS4, as Sony says the system will learn what sort of games you're interested in and bring information on them to you. It may even download content to the system in anticipation of you being interested in playing it. While it's easy to imagine things going awry, either because its assumptions are wrong or because of ISP bandwidth caps, this will no doubt be optional. If it were to work, coming home to find a new game you're interested in has downloaded itself sure would be cool.
What could make sampling games even quicker than that is Gaikai. The first consequences of the cloud gaming company's acquisition by Sony last year were finally revealed tonight, as co-founder David Perry talked about creating the "fastest gaming network in the world." By navigating your way through the console's Metro UI-like dashboard to a game's page, you'll be able to immediately try it out without downloading it. It's a natural, but no less brilliant, application of Gaikai's streaming technology. That's not all it will be used for, however, as the hope is to eventually allow for PS3 (as well as PS1, PS2, and PS Mobile) games to be playable not just on PS4, but on any device. 
The PS4, unsurprisingly, doesn't feature backwards compatibility, no doubt due to the cost involved with facilitating that and the potential business opportunity leaving it out presents. That is disappointing no matter how you slice it. However, the idea of a significant portion of the PlayStation family's back catalog being available by way of streaming is tantalizing. Many gamers will be taken aback by the idea of streaming games because of the way they take ownership out of our hands, but access to a wide selection of games from any device could be part of a formula for winning the public over.
Gaikai's tech also has a hand in making the Vita a more desirable system with Remote Play support, which has been "built into the architecture of PS4." Sony is hoping to make it so that, eventually, every PlayStation 4 game can be played through Remote Play on the Vita. This functionality was demonstrated with the first PS4 game announced, Knack, although it seemed to me to be less than perfect. That's perhaps to be expected, although Perry claimed the use of Gaikai would result in "dramatically reduced transmission times." Considering the less-than-perfect experience that is PS3 Remote Play on PSP and Vita, I'll remain skeptical until firsthand counts can verify this.
If it turns out to be accurate, this could work a lot like off-screen play on Wii U, albeit at a much higher cost as you'd need to own a PS4 and Vita. Because of the cost and the inability to fully replicate a PS4 controller's features on a Vita (most notably due to the absence of L2 and R2 triggers), I'm not sure this will ever be as popular as it could be. Still, for those with the necessary hardware or on the verge of buying a PS4 or Vita, it's a feature that can't hurt.
There were a lot of other great things we heard about tonight, including a streamlined architecture that should make things easier on developers and an effort to make the system more compatible with business models like free-to-play and episodic gaming. But the things we didn't hear about spoke volumes in at least one case. No mention of online play being free suggests to me that Sony does indeed plan on charging for that previously free feature, as has been heavily rumored. Should that be the case, you wouldn't have expected them to say a word about it tonight, as this was an opportunity to focus exclusively on the more positive aspects of the new system.
The same logic should have applied to used games, but it wasn't until after the event that we got word that the PS4 will not block the use of secondhand games. Sony Worldwide Studios head Shuhei Yoshida told Eurogamer, "[U]sed games can play on PS4." Although he initially seemed hesitant to commit to that without checking with his PR handler, that appears to be the bottom line, and it's great news for gamers. Presumably Microsoft, whatever it's intentions were before now, will be forced to follow suit for fear of the backlash its next-generation console would face if it were to be the lone console on the market preventing its owners from buying, selling, and trading used games.
Some of the other details we still haven't heard about are critical, but it's not in the least bit surprising that we'll have to continue to wait to find out about them. The holiday 2013 launch window gives us some sense of when the system will be available, and not seeing the console itself -- we got a look at the controller, but not the system -- is less of a big deal than some people are making it out to be. The look of the system is unlikely to play a significant role in anyone's decision of whether or not to buy it, and presumably us not getting a look at it is because it's not done. No confusion over whether this is a new console is likely to stem from its absence, the way it did when Nintendo only showed the Wii U GamePad when the system was revealed, thanks to Sony wisely choosing to stick with the established naming pattern in calling the system the PlayStation 4.
Price is the biggest question mark of all, and considering the console is eight to nine months away from launch, that, too, is not something we should have expected to hear about tonight. With Sony opting to include 8GB of DDR5 memory, the system isn't likely to be particularly cheap, in which case that's a detail Sony will want to keep under wraps -- certainly at least until it has a better idea of what Microsoft's plans are for its next-gen console. For comparison's sake, Nintendo waited until last September to announce the Wii U's price, less than two months before the system went on sale. Don't expect any official word on this subject to be right around the corner.
There are some details I would have liked to hear about tonight, like exactly what Sony is doing to do to make the platform more open to indies and alternative business models, and how the system's capabilities will lead to more than just better-looking games. But I find it difficult to be especially critical of Sony for not outlining every last bit of information we're interested in; after all, E3 is only about three-and-a-half months away, and beyond that lies Gamescom, TGS, and other opportunities to further detail the system and show us the kind of software that justifies whatever the system's price ends up being. For now, Sony has thrown down the gauntlet and established an outline for what to expect from the PS4: a powerful piece of developer-friendly hardware that makes sharing easy, is built to take advantage of the cloud, and removes barriers between players and playing games. All things considered, it could have walked away from tonight's event in much worse shape. 

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