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Opinion: Sony's mixed showing leaves the future up to devs

Some press and fans were sold on Sony's PlayStation 4 event. Some were not. But no matter what the machine promises, developers and publishers will be carefully watching the ebb and flow of sentiment.

Leigh Alexander, Contributor

February 21, 2013

7 Min Read

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.

About the Author(s)

Leigh Alexander


Leigh Alexander is Editor At Large for Gamasutra and the site's former News Director. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate, Paste, Kill Screen, GamePro and numerous other publications. She also blogs regularly about gaming and internet culture at her Sexy Videogameland site. [NOTE: Edited 10/02/2014, this feature-linked bio was outdated.]

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