So last night saw the much hyped unveiling of the ps4. Well, of a new logo, some powerpoints, and some demos of some games running on high end pc's at least. Oh yeah, and a controller... Sony definitely unveiled a new controller, though as Nintendo has recently learned just showing off controllers is not really the same thing for most people as actually seeing a new console.
More importantly, though, we were looking at what was supposedly Sony's answer to what the future would look like for most gamers. Sadly, it seems that Sony, rather than building something truly new and exciting, has decided to double down on what has been a losing strategy this generation. Rather than tackling changing realities: the rise of the 99c game, mobile connectivity, the broadening of both the hardcore and casual gaming audiences, Sony has decided to give these realities a nod at best, and outright ignore them at worst, hoping that beefed up graphics, social connectivity, and a developer framework that developers can actually use this time around (eureka!) will somehow convince the xbox gamers out there to switch to sony (even though Microsoft clearly already has the advantage in all these areas... Anyone want to play a CoD tournament on PSN? Didnt think so).
The big question, though, is what we didn't see, and why. Having bought Gaikai, and having pioneered remote play systems with psp and Vita, you could almost taste where all of this tech was heading. And as a consumer, the prospect seemed just almost too exciting to be true. Since the days of the Game Gear, lynx and beyond, we've been waiting for that machine that could finally run a full gaming experience on the go for mobile gamers. And having glimpsed the power of vita, a lot of game journalists were understandably salivating over the promise of cinematic, high horsepower experiences on the go.
But they also were rightly worried. Having seen console maker's stranglehold on mobile gaming vanish with the rise of mobile processing power, companies like Rovio could argue that angry birds was bigger than mario, and you actually had to think about it for a second..it wasn't a totally ridiculous statement. Couple this with a totally different business model for mobile app stores, devs could now offer games for little to no money, and simply use volume and creative in-game purchasing to turn a profit, with comanies like Apple and Google laughing all the way to the bank.
So to many people, console makers had two options to stay relevant, given the fact that mobile processing power in phones and other mass market products was likely to only keep going up: open up, and embrace an app store model (allow an easily accessible experience, with cheap, new experiences constantly driving user engagement and purchasing), or finally allow users to fully, freely connect to the gaming experiences they'd expect at home, but through their mobile device.
Turns out that big comanies, like a big ship, are not flexible, and can't turn on a dime. Enter the half assed attempts. Enter Nintendo, with it's fully transferable tv to portable screen experiences, aka Wii U. Oh, except it has to be within range of your console, and oh yeah, by the way, this doesn't actually work for every game. So rather than sell this, Nintendo starts pretending that this new game pad is actually about a new sort of "asymmetrical gameplay experience" as if that's what devs and consumers had been clamoring for all along. Enter Microsoft, with it's smartglass. It works on any device that has access to an app store! Oh, except it doesn't actually play games, and no one really wants to be watching their ipad while they're watching game of thrones, and honestly, everyone kind of knows it's just a cosmetic attempt to steal some of Nintendo's thunder, since the sucess of the Wii seems to have spooked the whole industry into imitation. So Microsoft starts pretending that integrated second screen content is what we've all been waiting for, even though we all have this already... It's called the internet and it's already on my tablet / phone, and it already lets me multitask while i watch a movie, so i can text my friends, catch headlines, email, check fb, play portable games, or really do anything else i want when the tv becomes boring, or when I need more information about what I'm watching (community boards or IMDB anyone?).. I'm definitely not buying a new console just because it has a companion app.
Which brings us to yesterday, and Sony, with it's portable devices. Hallelujah! Finally, a device that simply remotely connects to my gaming console, easily, seamlessly, allowing me full access to and playability of my home console content. Except if ps3 is any indication, then Sony will probably make sure to build in enough inconsistencies and blocks to make sure you can never actually do the things you'd expect to. Want to play remotely? Well, it only works on specifically licensed sony games (pretty much all of which seem to be HD ports we had played ages ago regardless), and oh yeah, we've got a fifteen step process of setting up networks, ensuring your ps3 has to be set to remote sharing mode, and can only run a small set of menu items when this actually all starts clicking. Want to try a demo on your vita for a ps3 or psp game? Sorry, we've removed that sort of functionality. Oh, and we SWEAR it's all technical limitations, even though any chance we get (E3, Sony pressers,many Vita marketing material), we'll be sure to keep driving home the "play as you go" message, and demoing this very tech onscreen. Because we're Sony, and while we know we have the setup you probably want, we work by our motto: if it ain't broke, gimp it.
Which bring us to last night, and my surprise to see more game journalists lap up the vague marketing tosh that Sony has used so many times before. Vita will be the "ultimate ps4 companion." It will play some random games, like "knickers" or whatever generic, non threatening demo they could muster.
I say nonthreatening, but I don't mean to us consumers. I mean nonthreatening to Sony, to developers, and to Sony's bottom line, at least as they see it.
The reason for all this gimping, is the simple puzzle that Sony decided to simply sidestep in their tofu, superfically "safe" presentation from yesterday. If they allowed all games to be playable on the vita's screen (assuming they included this simple capability as a hardware feature, and took it off the shoulders of generally cash strapped devs), you'd effectively kill a huge chunk of the "made for Vita" market offhand. After all, if we can all play God of War 15 on an internet-connected vita, then why develop a vita-only gow game to begin with? And Sony, like Nintendo, and like MS seems to be mimicking, are stuck in a hardware business model that says that the goal is to sell the box, so having god of war vita makes sense, as this will help sell more vitas.
But this is missing the obvious reality... Sony, Nintendo, and even MS to some extent now, are, or risk becoming, dinosaurs in a world where content, and experience, is king. Sony thinks that people like me don't mind the gimping, the invasion of privacy in the name of antipiracy, or the constant efforts to keep me away from my content. But what they're all forgetting is that we don't need to put up with it anymore.
Imagine Sony had used the chance last night to give us an honest to goodness, unrestricted cross and remote play experience. Or imagine that they allowed this as a premium service, something we could pay a netflix-like fee to use month in or month out. Imagine that Sony used it's time to pitch a new "sony app store" interface to developers, that would allow them to produce one piece of content for a target machine, say a platformer for vita, which subscribers could then demo through the hardware of their choice, whether mobile or in their living room, powered by Gaikai, and play outright through any ps4-paired sony device (phone or vita). They could allow devs to decide on free to play, cheap, discounted promotional pricing, or basically any other sort of distribution or play model currently available on the google play or apple app stores. For me, this sort of thinking would have opened a new, exciting, relevant opportunity (at least in the home console space) for innovative play and revenue models that would bring the devs roaring back to Sony. It would have said "we're the Apple of consoles" rather than, we're Sony, we'll always be Sony, and we're a dinosaur that makes shiny boxes.
Yes, it's a new, and potentially risky business model, but one that had all the ingredients to become the new, social and central gaming hub/brand across platforms that Sony seems to want to be. But once again, Sony seems to be behaving like it's winning, when it's not. So riskiness and safety might be relative terms for it right now. And playing it "safe," by simply dropping the cell chip (which is really the essence of Sony's presentation yesterday), might not be as safe as it sounds, as future ipads (and apple tvs), full gaming tablet pc's (easily connectable to a tv), and steamboxes are all in the cards during the ps4 generation. Not to mention the potential return of virtual reality and potentially unheard of technologies which could disrupt the whole market. So Sony better come into E3 with cross/remote/integrated play fully open and realized, the only way in my book that they can make buying a vita (or a ps4 for that matter) an exciting prospect these days. They'd better, because if not, someone else will... Or will simply do what Sony thinks they do well better. And I'm not sure that's the kind of blow that Sony gaming could survive for yet another generation.