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Has Sony learned from its past? My take on the PS4


In the immediate aftermath of Sony's PS4 conference the internet has been awash in opinion on every tiny detail of the event. You can get expert commentary from gaming journalists and business analysts from every corner of the world. People have talked about the controller, the graphics, the social networking features and the hardware specs until the cows come home. That's all good. I'm going to do that too. But I want to address another topic as well: Sony's approach to the unveiling and how it compares to their Playstation 3 reveal in years gone by. You see the company has undergone something of a corporate attitude adjustment since then and I think it's for the best.

Anyone who was paying attention during the year between E3 2005 and 2006 will remember the insane hyperbole thrown around by the "big three" console makers. Microsoft and even Nintendo, who had by far the least to brag about in terms of graphics, got in on the act but it was Sony who really rode that train all the way into Crazytown Station. One memorable quote from Sony Entertainment president Ken Kutaragi claimed that the PS3 would run games at 120 frames per second, making 60 fps look like " a slideshow". This is especially hilarious since PS3 ports quickly became notorious for suffering from frame-rate issues. Meanwhile the console's GPU was officially dubbed the "reality synthesizer" in an act of corporate hubris all but inviting divine retribution. Eventually the console manufacturers snapped out of whatever drug-induced fever dream they were in at the time and took on an improved relationship with reality but for awhile they seemed to be setting themselves up for a very large fall.

I was very glad to see Sony take on an admirably more humble tone this time around, mostly letting the technology and games speak for themselves with a notable lack of the corporate preening and grandstanding that tends to clog up these kinds of events (I'm looking at you, Nintendo). The hardware presentation was a simple, straightforward explanation of the PS4's features that didn't resort to overblown rhetoric. We were not promised an entertainment supercomputer. No components were given names implying they have supernatural abilities. Mark Cerny even criticized some of the mistakes in hardware design that Sony made with the PS3. A large corporation admitted they made a mistake, without being prompted by lawsuits or protestors. In public. During a press conference.

I don't know what brought on this change of attitude, but I like it. This time around Sony has a lot more to be humble about, with a previous console that didn't demolish the competition like the last two did and much more competition for dominance. I'm glad to see they've recognized that.

For whatever reason Sony decided to go with an idiosyncratic design for the PS3's internal architecture focused around a propitiatory "Cell" processor designed with Toshiba and IBM. As a result the PS3 gained a reputation for being difficult to work with, resulting in most cross-platform games being developed for the Xbox 360 primarily and then ported over to the PS3, often badly. This resulted in something of a schism in the console's library, with visually impressive exclusives (look at God of War 3 and anything made by Naughty Dog) but cross-platform titles that were often considered sub-par. I don't have any direct evidence of this but I've always suspected that the difficult nature of the hardware may also explain the PS3's smaller catalogue of indie games compared to what you can find on the XBLA.

Thankfully Sony appears to have learned their lesson from all this, as the information given in the conference stressed how PC-like, and therefore probably easy to develop for, the PS4's architecture is. The 8GB of RAM was a welcome, if very unexpected, surprise. For those not in the loop, consoles use a lot less RAM than PCs since they're not running a complex OS simultaneously. 8GB of RAM in PC terms is more than is usually deemed necessary for gaming but not anything to get overly excited about, whereas for a console that's an insane amount (The PS3 has 512MB, for comparison). It's also DDR5 RAM which people who know what that means tell me is a big deal.

I remember when I got my first PS3 after having owned all of the other platforms for years that it was the little things that stood out to me. Features like rechargeable controller batteries included as standard, free online multiplayer, a neat user interface, a HDMI port, even the totally superfluous touch sensitive front buttons all combined to give a sense of quality that the other consoles lacked. It was kind of like driving an expensive sports car- fundamentally it's the same as any other vehicle, but it's got all these neat bells and whistles that sets it apart. The PS4 feature set is very similar. Nothing jumps out as being a revolutionary step up, but they've built in all these cool features like an instant start-up, a sleep mode, streaming downloads and video capture functions.

When I saw the leaked photos of controller prototypes ahead of the conference (God bless Sony and their charming inability to keep anything a secret) I worried that it looked far too chunky and bulky. Thankfully the real deal is far sleeker and more sculpted. I like the form factor a lot. The Dualshock has always been a bit cheap and plasticky compared to the Xbox 30 controller so I'm glad to see that Sony have taken some pages from their competitor's playbook by making the grips larger and more rounded and making the lower shoulder buttons into triggers. It also has a cool textured pattern on the bottom. Very nice.

The biggest new addition is obviously the touch pad and to be honest I'm having a bit of trouble imagining what it's going to be used for outside of some interface applications. I can see a handful of launch titles including some superficial support for it in gameplay before developers promptly stop trying. The light bar at the top has similar problems. Despite being introduced as a way to make recognizing controller easier the bar and camera are clearly intended to carry over the functionality of the Move. Integrating the technology right into the controller instead of making consumers buy a seperate peripheral is a smart move but it will only pay off if developers actually use it. Otherwise we're going to be looking at another Sixaxis situation (remember the Sixaxis? No? Neither do I). The middle space being taken up the touch pad along with the sleep mode making traditional pausing obsolete necessitates the merging of Start and Select into one single option button, which is fine by me since I can't remember the last time I used Select for anything. The touch pad is clickable anyway, meaning that the overall button count hasn't been reduced.

The headphone jack is a feature I personally wanted, although I never imagined it would be integrated into the controller. I initially thought the speaker was actually a microphone, alleviating the need to buy headsets to yell obscenities at strangers, but apparently not. One can dream.

The share button is an a cool idea, although I have to wonder how robust the functionality actually is. Sony is correct that watching people play games is becoming increasingly popular, but mostly in the form of commentaries and Let's Plays. Simply spamming ten minute clips of your gameplay isn't really going to attract much of an audience. Now if you can take the footage you record and upload it to a PC for further editing, bypassing the need for a video capture device.... I can see that taking off in a big way.

The D pad is pretty drastically different and looks quite similar to the one used by the Vita. I've seen Vita owners praise that console's D pad to the high heavens so this is apparently a good thing.

Overall I really like the look of the new controller and how I can imagine it feeling, but the features packed into it make it seem as though Sony is throwing ideas at the wall in the hope that one of them sticks. I get the distinct feeling that the touch pad and light bar are probably going to fall by the wayside soon after launch. Still, that leaves an exceptionally pretty and well designed controller that does everything the Dualshock 3 can do and more.

The big question when any new generation kicks off is always "what are the graphics like?". Personally I think judging a console's worth solely on its graphical capability is increasingly misguided, but that's a topic for another day.

The unfortunate elephant in the room here is that Sony has a history of "enhancing the truth" when it comes to console launches. The PS3 was unveiled in 2005 with a jaw-dropping Killzone 2 trailer that later turned out to be a "target render" of what the game was going to look like, something that Jack Tretton and Phil Harrison blatantly lied about in interviews. While still very impressive in its own right, the actual game looked nowhere near that good and in many ways the target render still has yet to be matched even in high-end PC games. The take-away lesson here is that you should be skeptical around console launches. For the purposes of this post I'll give Sony the benefit of the doubt and assume that the videos they didn't explicitly identify as tech demos were at least running in-engine.

Coming full circle, one of the first big game reveals was a next-gen Killzone game. Someone actually got on stage with a controller while this footage was playing so it is apparently legit. "Current gen turned to 11" is probably the best way to describe this, along with a lot of the other games. Nothing about it obviously leaps out at you as being next-gen but upon closer examination there are a whole raft of graphical features that you wouldn't find on the PS3- sophisticated cloth physics, crisp lighting, very nice particle and smoke effects, huge draw distances (this one in particular was a common feature among many of the games shown). I'm prepared to call all of that next-gen. Keeping in mind that the first wave of titles for any new console never show off the hardware at its best I think this is a perfectly decent starting point. The same could also be said of Bungie's Destiny: You could tell me some of this footage was a PS3 game and I'd believe you; on the other hand the high level of anti-aliasing and massive draw distances are clearly more than the current generation could handle.

One other thing that stood out to me is that many of the games shown had bright, vibrant, almost cartoonish colour schemes, even the traditionally dour and ashen Killzone. I'm not sure if this represents a stylistic shift in the industry or if it's something Sony asked for, but either way I'm very happy to see it. More bright colours, please.

Watch_Dogs looked to my eye more impressive than what we saw last year, particularly in the lighting department. Whether that means it's running on PS4 hardware and wasn't before or the game has just been improved since then, I don't know. It's certainly looks impressive though, particularly for an open-world game, and should serve as an interesting comparison when we see it running on current and next-gen hardware simultaneously.

The first trailer to sail right into "too good to be true" territory was Capcom's Deep Down tech demo. Some parts of this had the jerky camera movements I always look for in genuine gameplay footage, but other parts were clearly just cut-scenes with an interface pasted over it. The trailer also switches between first and third person at one point, which doesn't inspire confidence that what we're seeing is in any way indicative of what this or any other game running on the oddly named Panta Rhei engine, which I can't hear without imagining a manta ray in women's underwear.

I'd love to be proven wrong on this but for now I'm not buying it.

Square Enix also trotted out their Agni's Philosophy demo that they showed at last year's E3. I'll say the same thing now that I said then: I'll believe a game can look this good when I'm sitting in front of it with a controller in my hand and not a second before (I'm also mildly concerned that this video shows poverty stricken gangs of brown people besieging attractive white sorcerers from a technologically advanced wonder metropolis. Nice one, Square Enix.)

Then we had David Cage's giant CG head, which I can guarantee we'll all look back at and laugh five years from now.

As a special bonus to anyone unlucky enough to not be watching the conference, I want to talk about my two favourite moments. It's a sort of unwritten rule that no video game press conference can be complete without someone making an ass of themselves, and this one was no exception.

First up we had the guy from Evolution Studios who introduced Driveclub appearing to teeter on the very brink of orgasm when discussing the level of detail that's gone into the vehicles for his game. A lot of which, such as rendering the orientation of individual paint flecks, frankly sounds like complete bullshit. Then there was the InFamous: Second Son trailer that was pre-empted by a brief trip into the inner psyche of Sucker Punch's Nate Fox, who immediately launched into a frankly uncomfortable speech about police brutality and the erosion of personal privacy without mentioning the game at all, at one point appearing to be on the verge of tears when recounting the time he got gassed at a protest. I don't think I've ever seen so much sorrow in the eyes of a press conference speaker.

Two subjects remain: the console design and the price. The former of which I can't talk about because Sony didn't show it, much to everyone's surprise. Apparently Shuhei Yoshida told Kotaku that this was to stop people from being bored, whereas Jack Tretton recently gave the far more sensible reason that the design just isn't finalized yet. Maybe they're having trouble cramming all of the hardware into a console-sized case? It's a little surprising given that the PS3's design was unveiled a full year before we even saw any games for it. Nintendo's somewhat bungled Wii U unveiling, which focused on the controller to such a degree that many people came away with the impression it was just a peripheral for the existing console, shows that seeing the hardware is important for the average consumer.

As for the price, they didn't say anything about that either, as I pretty much expected. But we do have unsubstantiated rumours so let's not let that stop us!

At E3 2006 Kaz Hirai stepped on stage and into the annals of legend with the announcement that the premium version of the PS3 would retail in America for a wallet-shattering 599 US dollars. The memes started to flow before the conference was even over, forged in a crucible of image macros and techno remixes alongside ridge racers and giant enemy crabs. It's difficult to remember now, but at the time the price was genuinely shocking underneath all the hilarity. There was a widespread perception that Sony's hubris after the success of their last two consoles had uncoupled them from reality, not helped by arrogant statements made after the conference implying that Sony believed people would pay any price for a PS3 simply because it had the Playstation brand.

The Times reported earlier this month that at the time of writing Sony was considering a price of $449. Given the apparently powerful hardware involved I'd consider that a reasonable price, but I have to wonder if it will look as attractive to more casual gamers who already have an expensive smartphone. One advantage Sony has this time around is that the price difference between the Wii U and the PS4 isn't nearly as large as that of their predecessors, making the possibility of unexpected competition from a console Sony had largely dismissed less likely. Particularly if the Wii U's less than stellar sales continue. Whatever it ends up costing, price is going to be a problem for both the PS4 and Microsoft's console. People were willing to pay for these consoles before because a games console was still the default way to play games; that's rapidly becoming less true.

I like the Playstation 4. I like its controller, I like its features, I like its graphical capabilities. It seems to be building up a decent amount of publisher and developer support. I went into this press conference with no opinion on the console; I came out of it not ravenous for more, not desperate to get my hands on one, but feeling like I'll probably make it my next console purchase. I think that could be considered the best possible outcome for a show like this.

But more than that, I came away feeling more confident in Sony themselves. They've proven to me now that they have their head screwed on straight and aren't taking wild risks while still being willing to innovate. In many ways I (probably unfairly) still viewed Sony as the arrogant schoolyard bullies of the 2006 era. Today's Sony was the sixth year student quietly studying in the back of the class. He's probably a prefect and popular with all the teachers. Look at that kid! they all say. He's going places.

Well done, Sony. Good job.
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About PenguinFactoryone of us since 3:15 PM on 08.18.2011

Long-time game player, first-time game blogger. I'm a news junkie and quite fond of armchair analysis. Hit me up to sate your craving for uninformed opinions about the Future of The Industry.

I play all games, on any platform that's available, but I'm always looking for games that offer unique experiences. I am one of Those People who payed money for Bus Driver, a game about driving buses. This should tell you everything you need to know about my tastes.

I'm interested in the development of strong narrative in games and seeing them expand their scope and inclusiveness. Expect politically charged opinions. Polemics are a distinct possibility. Take appropriate safety measures