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Opinion: Sony's mixed showing leaves the future up to devs Exclusive
Opinion: Sony's mixed showing leaves the future up to devs
February 21, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander

February 21, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander
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    23 comments
More: Console/PC, Programming, Art, Design, Business/Marketing, Exclusive



The promise of "bigger, better, faster, more" used to be all it took to move hardware, but the increasing costs -- and resulting consumer price tags -- have been squeezing the game industry as we know it for the past several years. This is an incredibly challenging climate for a new next-gen game console.

Sophisticated tablets, smartphones, PCs and TVs are expected to rely increasingly on cloud technology and open systems, acclimating audiences to instantaneous, direct access and frictionless interaction. Plus, there's an entire generation of children growing up playing games without a traditional controller. Where does a console go?

Many industry-watchers say that the main stumbling block to the PlayStation 3's launch was its obsession with being a living room all-rounder, an alien "entertainment device" at high cost. That stance beguiled many gamers at the time, who obviously wanted to hear only about games and who glazed off at talk of Netflix and social media. Now, this versatility is now any next-gen machine's basic obligation.

A climate of lust for tech and high-end devices has generally favored Sony, which excels at making elegant monoliths, sexy mirror-sheened lozenges. During a recession Apple got people to line up for days to buy an expensive new phone, and current consumer culture has, for better or for worse, a deep trough of appetite for the latest shiny thing, often in the face of logic.

It's not so inconceivable that Sony could healthily sell a fancy new PlayStation, so long as it demonstrates the PS4 can do things the existing arsenal many households already own cannot do. Last night, Sony summoned international tech and games journalists to a glitzy New York presentation that aimed to prove its new platform will have the chops to be relevant in a world of upheaval.

Some press and fans are sold. Some assuredly are not. But no matter what the machine promises, developers and publishers will be carefully watching the ebb and flow of sentiment, waiting for the first crystallization of demand, and the presentation has left some major questions bobbing in its wake.

Who was it for?

When you sit hundreds of people down in an enormous theatre and concuss them with massive screens and surround-sound, everyone expects an E3-style reveal. But the event began with Mark Cerny taking the stage to discuss tech specifications and architecture info in what distinctly felt like an information pitch for developers. As much as enthusiast readers love playing armchair spec-junkies, it set the tone: This presentation wasn't about making consumers want to buy a PS4 just yet. It was about selling people on the dream of one, the first salvo in an uphill culture war.

The aim, plump with physics-oriented tech demos, was clearly to convince developers they can make the kind of games they've always dreamed of -- so long as those dreams are primarily about more visual realism.

The talent

Jonathan Blow's taking the stage to discuss The Witness was intended to show Sony recognizes how crucial indies are to its platform -- developers like him wouldn't have had earnest top billing beside a hardware maker in a past generation. But is it enough alongside an exciting, even overwhelming grassroots explosion taking place on Steam, Android and the web? Most seemed pleased at the perceived cultural victory, but given the year's most mainstream awards were swept by the likes of Journey and The Walking Dead, it would have been a grievous misstep not to include an independent visionary or a small team.

It must be tough to be Media Molecule, bearing the responsibility of being so consistently delightful. The studio has always been ahead of its time, too. When LittleBigPlanet first launched, no matter how adorable it was, most people I knew wanted to play things, not make things. Now we are firmly in the age of social media and Minecraft, and numerous tools firms rush to create accessible creation and sharing systems.

For a generation of young people that cannot imagine life without the internet, this is how they prefer to play, together and with their families. You have to see Media Molecule as a jewel in Sony's relevancy crown, even if you're the sort of older player who'd rather consume, recumbent.

What else?

So far, so... okay? Sony made important concessions to the tech environment that colonized culture while console makers were waiting for the next cycle: Nobody wants to wait for downloads, they want to share, performatively and instantaneously as they do on Twitter. Most of the presentation confirms the PS4 can do what modern consumers have come to expect from the devices they already own. It has to do more.

What more is there? This is a tricky one, especially given the presentation was mainly a sketch of a vision, the spiritual resucitation of the console space. The stage was clearly set for a parade of people with good track records and good ideas, not big reveals -- if anyone can be expected to do something exciting with unprecedented connectivity it's Blizzard, and still for now the studio brought only an unsurprising Diablo III announcement.

All the spectacle, the livestreaming everywhere, the fervor, nearly made people forget E3 is months off. You can't blame audiences for being disappointed they didn't see the hardware, original IP, more demos, more flashy announcements.

Audience challenge

Significantly, this console generation's hardware purchases -- with the exception of mass-aimed Wii-U, probably -- will be made primarily by lifelong gamers, not their parents. Maybe that's why it's so hard for the people that care most about last night's event to be impressed: They are adults with their own wallets now.

They want grown-up tech and media capabilities, but they also want the unprecedented library of lasting favorites they got with the PlayStation 2, or at least they think they do. No superfan watches a Sony reveal without remembering the first time they saw a Final Fantasy trailer. Yet Square Enix's brief pop-in was a note wrongly-played: We've seen that tech demo already, and hearing the publisher will support the PS4 with a new Final Fantasy is like being told the sky is blue.

This puts the Sony's PS4 in an unenviable position: It needs to be more all-encompassing, more future-proof, more competitive than anything the company's ever had to pull off before, and yet to capture the wave of enthusiasm it needs to attract storied developers, it has to appeal to traditional gaming sensibilities. Maybe it needs more time to sort that software support out, but in that case the better format for the reveal would have been a developer summit.

The staunchest console fanbase does have plenty of appetite for invention -- Watch Dogs is probably enjoying the most positive early sentiment. I watched the Killzone demo among stalwarts who blinked, unmoved. If you had asked me what franchise I was seeing, I probably couldn't have immediately told you without context. We have had enough luminous rifles and explosions to numb us for years. Even the target audience for such a thing might by now be marginally attentive, wondering, yes? And?

What else?

What else is really the most important question, now. It doesn't feel good, but the realities of the landscape now are harsh, potentially untenable. And unsettling, a little. There were a few uncomfortable notes in the presentation that suggest an ambivalent direction.

Many fans and outlets wondered why not one woman appeared on stage, one reminder that underneath all the Metric-soundtracked visionary talk about the purity of play, Sony's vision of the industry is still subliminally stuck on the same audience, the same cultural shortcomings. If acknowledging traditional gamers is important, this doesn't feel quite right yet.

And even when forward-looking, it also stumbled. David Cage presided over a demo of uncomfortably-lifelike facial technology, a staring, haunted face (Scottish comedian and games writer Rab Florence jokingly called it a "Paedophile at the Window" tech demo on Twitter, and laughing about that has made me less creeped).

Sony also showed an animation intended to be inspirational about the qualities of its device integration; the ability to start game at home and take it across multiple devices. But the desaturated blue pall, the sketchy figures shuffling through the world with their faces in screens, didn't really suggest a desirable future. It's a similar problem to Sony's Vita ad campaign that saw a man, nose to portable game system, walking into traffic unflinching to the tagline "never stop playing."

Who wants a PS4? It's too early to know yet. Clearly it's up to game developers -- which was probably the takeaway Sony most wanted from last night.


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Comments


TC Weidner
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they are trying too hard with all this social stuff. I mean 20 years ago we played games together, we directed friends through hard levels, even taking control of a game for boss fights etc, we played multi player games with no lag, the game loaded instantly ( via cartridge). We did this because gasp, friends actually gathered and hung out for real at each others houses. It seems like an awful lot of tech and work all to make sure everyone stays isolated in their own places.... I must be getting too old, cause I just dont get this need to be isolated.

Everything else in my opinion was just..meh. I just wasnt blown away by anything. I think the big winner so far is the PC, left for dead for decades, it may just be the top gaming machine of this next gen. Who would of thought it.

Jarod Smiley
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I think this conference was mostly for devs/PS fans already looking to support Sony versus wowing the rest of the world. In that sense, I think it was more than solid, and really put the creative powers back into developers hands. There's nothing really special about Call of Duty if you put it that way either, we've been fragging each other since Golden Eye on N64. But the execution of it with online is why it's so successful. PS4 is putting those options at the fore front, and more importantly, seems to have a more open platform.

Really, that is the largest announcement for me, that really needs some clarification. If PSN becomes open, or at least has an Open section of the store for indy guys to easily get up and running, and self publish, you could essentially be seeing Steam on consoles. I don't think there's anything too wrong with that, none at all...

TC Weidner
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I have every sony console and I'm an indie developer, and still, I'm underwhelmed by all of this. 7 years between hardware and I'm not being amazed by what is coming next. To be honest I'm more pumped about the June release of The Last of US, than anything I saw from yesterdays announcement.

Ben Rice
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TC, due to work I am moving in a months time 2,000 miles to the bay area. I love every aspect of what you mentioned - and being away from all of my friends, the PS4 seems like it has the potential to give me most of those features (passing control around, while making jokes and all that).
Granted I'm in a position most aren't, this seems like the perfect console. My only hope is that they have an SDK us indies can use to take a crack at publishing a game on PSN.

Jimmy Albright
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While I'm not an indie developer by profession, I do code professionally by day and hope to one die possibly be a successful indie. I've been moonlighting and spending a lot of time with XNA, but with the way MS dropped the ball recently I was really excited to see if we could hear about something as accessible on the playstation front. While I'm not terribly surprised they did away with the cell processor, I feel they did a horrible job of convincing me as someone who's on the fence to give them a chance.

In order for me to want to develop on a platform I need to be drawn as a consumer to the platform. I didn't feel that at all yesterday.

Call me skeptical, but I'll be VERY surprised if a company like Sony allows Indies to self publish.

Martin Zimmerman
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Twenty years ago many of us were young enough that we didn't have real jobs yet. We had plenty of time to get together, and we hadn't been geographically scattered from our friends yet. The tech isn't there to keep us isolated it is there to keep us connected to people we couldn't engage with otherwise. Even now it can be a challenge to find time with friends in other cities, states, or countries so anything that enables asynchronous interaction is welcome to me....

And to top it off streaming and remote control offers the hope that some publishers will allow us to just jump into a game with a friend without each of us having to own an individual copy. Twenty years ago the best way to demo a game was for someone to see it at a friend's place or play it with a friend.

Michael Joseph
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"Many fans and outlets wondered why not one woman appeared on stage, one reminder that underneath all the Metric-soundtracked visionary talk about the purity of play, Sony's vision of the industry is still subliminally stuck on the same audience, the same cultural shortcomings."
-----

Sure looked that way. But game developers need to step up too. Killzone Shadow Fall looks very nice, but it also seems a shame that so much energy was put into another railed shooter content thrill ride. That is definetly the old console mentality on display. But maybe that's all console players want. They don't want deep, they just want instant action, instant gratification???

It would be funny if they showed a PS4 exclusive "Minecraft : Dig Your Ass Off Edition" running on all cores and where the blocks are 50% smaller and the world sizes nearly unlimited thanks to the dedicated streaming processor.

havenisle mr jones
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"It would be funny if they showed a PS4 exclusive "Minecraft : Dig Your Ass Off Edition" running on all cores and where the blocks are 50% smaller and the world sizes nearly unlimited thanks to the dedicated streaming processor."

Make the blocks 1/4 the size, and I would probably never stop playing that game.

Dave Long
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This is an incredibly odd article - and _extremely_ glass half empty. I don't think I've seen a gaming-related 'presentation'-style conference with half the developer and publisher representatives that popped up, either on video or live, at the PS4 reveal - and we've definitely never seen as much gameplay from as many games as were at the reveal stage. And yet there's a question mark over software in the author's mind? It sounds like the author is very much of the ADHD, 'everything now' generation that Sony has made one of its target markets, and needs a dash of longer-term perspective ;). Think of the reveal for the Wii U, or the Vita, or the Ouya, or the Piston, or the Xbox 360, or the PS3, or the PS2, or the Gamecube, or the PS2 and you'll know what I mean.

"Many fans and outlets wondered why not one woman appeared on stage, one reminder that underneath all the Metric-soundtracked visionary talk about the purity of play, Sony's vision of the industry is still subliminally stuck on the same audience, the same cultural shortcomings. If acknowledging traditional gamers is important, this doesn't feel quite right yet." - this is a bit rough - Sony got a bunch of studio or developer leads on stage - very few of these are women (Jade Raymond is the only one that comes to mind). Which studio or developer lead that is female did Sony leave out, or is the author just trying to be politically correct without context?

"Who wants a PS4? It's too early to know yet. Clearly it's up to game developers -- which was probably the takeaway Sony most wanted from last night. " Well - I and a lot of my mates sure as hell do - we're typical mid-20s to mid-40s gamers. The only ones who were disillusioned were the diehard Killzone 2 fans who thought Shadowfall was a bit glitzy. Take to the web and there are plenty of other excited gamers who are keen on a PS4, and with the unprecedented level of developer support, I'd suggest there'll be the games to get them engaged.

"Sophisticated tablets, smartphones, PCs and TVs are expected to rely increasingly on cloud technology and open systems, acclimating audiences to instantaneous, direct access and frictionless interaction." - hang about - Windows 8 is one of the least open PC OS we've seen - that's hardly increasingly open - and PC, tablet and smartphone at the moment is anything but instantaneous, direct access. Sure, it's instantaneous, direct access to the download, but not the game. Sure, there's streaming, but streaming is still limited, and Sony's got that covered.

"Plus, there's an entire generation of children growing up playing games without a traditional controller. Where does a console go?" - Yes and no - there is a generation where nearly every child plays a bit, but there are still a _lot_ of children that game in a 'core' sense, with either a mouse/kb or controller. Just because your kids might be tablet-only, doesn't mean the whole world is by any stretch, and to suggest the core game market has evaporated (tablet and smartphone will never be core, because touch _can't_ replicate the experiences of a controller) because of this is an incredibly narrow view.

There are a bunch of other issues as well that have this as a particularly skewed view on the world. Of course, there's not to say that there weren't issues with the press conference or the approach - just that in trying so hard to find others, the author has missed many of the obvious ones (privacy and backwards compatibility being right up there).

TC Weidner
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Windows 8 is one of the least open PC OS we've seen
-----------------------------

and yet its still wide open. Windows 8 still allows the usual desktop therefore nothing, I mean nothing has changed in how open and accessible it is.

Doug Poston
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I think people are confusing Windows 8 RT (which isn't completely open) with Windows 8 which is just as open as Windows 7.

havenisle mr jones
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I have to agree with dave long on pretty much every point he made- this article seems like it was written by somebody who has recently learned what the word "jaded" means, and is trying desperately to show the rest of the world that he is just as jaded as everyone else. It's like the episode of Calvin and Hobbes where Hobbes finds Calvin leaning up against a tree with sunglasses on. He asks Calvin, "What are you doing?" Calvin replies, "Being cool." To which Hobbes notes, "Being cool must be boring."

Please know that optimism is not as uncool as you think. Although I am not a fan of the school of "Realism is Better," I do appreciate the steps that are being taken to enhance the field. Realism doesn't make the games I play any better, but one day, we'll have a completely realistic 3d VR setup, and I can't say that will be altogether horrible.

Speaking of VR, if the PS4 doesn't attempt to integrate some VR goggles, I'm probably going to skip it like I skipped the PS3. No amount of realism will satisfy me if I have to rely on a television to look at it. On the plus note, Google glass is in dev, so if they can work out a deal with Sony, I'm all in. ALL IN.

TC Weidner
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actually it sounds like it been written by someone who's been to more than a few of these PR events, and knows them to be what they are.

Keith Thomson
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While they are shooting for bigger and faster, they're doing it in a different way from last time. The launch PS3 had 3 really big chips in it, the Cell, the GSX, and the EEGS. All of that silicon was expensive. None of them were bigger than 221mm^2, but there were a bunch.

The PS4 has 1 really big chip in it, the 8-core Jaguar APU with 7970m gpu. Some back of the envelope calculations say it's only a 270mm^2 die sized chip. While that one chip will be slightly expensive, it'll be much cheaper than 3 separate large chips.

Not only that, but the PS4 is based on high end gaming Laptop chips rather than supercomputing tech. Much lower clock speeds than desktop chips. The power budget will be quite a bit lower than the PS3, and thus the power supply, heat sink, and fan will all similarly be smaller and less expensive. The 7970m only uses 65 watts of power, and the Jaguar cores are said to use 15 watts or less per compute module, so less than 100 watts for all of the major system components...

A W
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I agree with the context of this article. Not much has changed between the creation of the PS3 and the unveiling of the PS4. Just more power, more graphics, more connectivity, same controller... I guess it was mostly a letdown because leaking spoiled the surprises to the point that nothing felt new. I surmise that this is why Nintendo remains a controversial point. Next to nothing was know about their next console until media was able to report on it. Then next to nothing was known about the specs until Nintendo spoke about them leaving much data off the record, and then even after the console debuted we still got people spending money just to break down the insides of a GPU to reveal what is really there, only to just say well it defiantly is customized to the point that we don't really know what we could be looking at. I would just say that Sony was bad at keeping secrets, and just wanted to get out ahead of everybody before the speculation went too far. That was the just of this reveal.

Dave Long
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Given the history of Sony's previous console reveals, which have generally gone into a decent amount of detail about power and the like, your response seems oddly parochial and misinformed. Given the huge number of devs that got a look at this thing early, I'm surprised we didn't know a lot more before it launched. Yes, we knew a fair bit (like we've got some pretty good guesses about the next Xbox, although there might be some revisions after the PS4 showing), but there was plenty that was new.

The Le
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The biggest take I got from the press release? Sony is using the PS4 to drive VITA sales. (A bad idea)

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Dave Long
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You're insane - I personally know tens of gamers that want the PS4! Sure, it's got its limits, but it looks like it will be an exceptional platform for core gaming. A lot of the things you talk about, above, would be too expensive to be successful in the mass market at this stage in the technology. Patience and perspective.

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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Dave Long
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I've been gaming on PC and console for decades, and the thing that consoles still have over PC is useability and reliability. When I went to play Mass Effect on PC, it took me three hours of searching through forums to find the 3 steps I had to make so it would run. Not so it would have the best framerate, or whatever, but so that it would run, period. In console, when I played Mass Effect 2, it ran straight away. In my experience, PC games are far more likely to hang and have CTDs because of hardware conflicts. I'm very happy living without all of that. The golden age of PC gaming was before Windows 3.1 - games back on PC DOS and MS DOS ran incredibly reliably - we've been on a downhill trajectory ever since.

Mass Effect 2 it also looked just as good as Mass Effect 1 or Metro 2033 did on my mid-range PC with a GTX550, 16GB of Ram and an 8-core processor, and that's where consoles have another edge - continued optimisation means that even at the end of the console generation that look as good as they would on PCs that cost twice as much - it'll be just the same as when the PS4 launches. To get my PC to play games that look as good as the PS4, it'll likely cost the same as the PS4 or more - but if I get a PS4 I get something that'll play games reliably, not have to deal with rubbish Microsoft OS (although fortunately more games are coming out on Linux - Steambox could potentially do something special there).

Yes, it's not groundbreaking, but really neither were the last generation of consoles, and combined they've sold over 200 million and brought more revenue to game developers than PCs have by a huge margin - writing them off just yet would be a brave thing to do!

Dave Smith
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PCs have always been more powerful than consoles. People dont by consoles for the power, they buy it for the convenience. Thats the problem with this generation of consoles. They got too complex. Sony especially. What I want to see is a streamlined UI and content delivery and a decline in the ridiculous forced updates. be the best living room game box and you will win this gen.

Dave Long
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Well said - and it sounds from the event like they're addressing those concerns.


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