When the launch party's over, what's in store for PlayStation 4?

Gamasutra evaluates the PlayStation 4 on the eve of its launch, speaking to developers and considering what the system has to offer. Christian Nutt weighs its potential for success.
The mood at Sony's PlayStation 4 launch event in New York City is, understandably, celebratory. The work is done; the system is launching in North America on Friday. The games are packaged and ready (we've held them). The Standard hotel, chic and in a good location, has totally been taken over by Sony. You need a Sony-supplied ID to even get in the door, and floor after floor is packed with developers showcasing their games on shiny new hardware. In other words, Sony is projecting its confidence in its latest system in an unusually big way. Do players want next-gen consoles? Shuhei Yoshida, the company's president of Worldwide Studios, put it to Gamasutra like this: "Analysts and media people tend to say that with all these mobile devices there's no future for consoles... The great thing is we have all the millions of people we can ask that question, who have preordered the PlayStation 4, and are getting it on day one." It's true that the system has had the strongest-ever preorders Sony has seen since it first launched game hardware in 1994. The real question is whether or not the PS4 will find an audience beyond those early adopters. Will console sales halt -- or at least tail off quickly -- when the group of people who care about better graphics in this year's Call of Duty and Assassin's Creed are sated? Is $400, as reasonable as it sounds for a powerful new console, only reasonable to a shrinking subset of people who implicitly understand why that sounds reasonable, while the rest will be satisfied with Steam or free-to-play tablet games? Rather than "Greatness Awaits," should Sony's slogan for PlayStation 4 be "Diminishing Returns"? Anybody who tells you that they can see the future is absolutely full of it. You just have to look at the reaction of the game industry to the Wii or iPhone to recognize that nobody really knows what's going to happen before it does. I do not feel comfortable predicting how many consoles Sony (or Microsoft, or Nintendo) will sell over the next five or 10 years, and neither should you. But we can take a look at where Sony is, and guess where it might go. Better yet, we can ask developers who've worked on the system what they think about it.

A Strategy for the Future?

Speaking of predicting the future, Sony's strategy for the PlayStation 4 is refreshingly built around the recognition that it cannot -- so its system is built on comfortable, PC-like standards tweaked for optimal long-term performance. Moreover, the system's functionality is much more expandable than its previous consoles (Yoshida says that the OS has "lots of room to grow," a lesson learned from the resource-constrained PlayStation 3 system software, which lacked the ability to add much new functionality). And while very little of what has been implemented into the PlayStation 4 OS could be termed truly forward-looking, it's at least up-to-the-minute, with social sharing tools (Twitter, Facebook) and streaming capabilities (Ustream, Twitch) that are seamlessly integrated into its interface. Sony recognizes that change will be essential. While the hardware will necessarily remain frozen in time, the system itself must evolve more than once a generation to survive: "We designed the system so that we can add any services after the fact," says Yoshida. "We really want to be able to take advantage of future technology development, whether it's sensors or devices, network features that we will be able to add."

The OS Question

In fact, a surprising emphasis has been put by Sony on the PS4's OS: "Let's make the experience of finding games, or purchasing games, or talking about games, or sharing games -- even the same games -- the best to do on PS4, so that people see the value of investing their money," Yoshida told Gamasutra. His responsibility may be to manage the company's first party software, but while moonlighting on the system team, Yoshida's goal is to make sure that even third party games are better on its system than on the alternatives like PC and Xbox One. Gamasutra spoke to Colin Creitz, a partner engineer from Facebook's Game Partnerships group who worked closely with Sony on integrating its functionality into the PS4 at a system level. When Creitz started to work with the company, his impression was, "Wow, Sony really gets social. I was really impressed." It wasn't a trivial effort on Sony's part, either, he says: "We coordinated a lot with engineers in Tokyo. Eventually, we brought in folks on their operations team from Australia, the Americas, Asia -- all over the world." Many developers I spoke to also think the robustness of the system's functionality is a competitive advantage for Sony -- like Nicholas Ruepp, senior producer for Skylanders: Swap Force at Vicarious Visions. I asked Ruepp if the PS4 appeal to gamers as much as the PS3 did. "I would actually argue even more so, with all the new tech that the OS provides -- the sharing for PS4, the Vita remote play. I think there's even more this time around -- the social space," he says. "Any time there's a core innovation that provides value, I think that's when people really respond and show up with making a purchase." Alexandre Begnoche, lead engineer on Assassin's Creed IV, looks forward to experimenting with what Sony has brought in: "The next gen is bringing more connectivity tools, more integrated things, so it's fun to try ideas on that," he says. "These things have become more dynamic boxes, and I think for us, being able to tap into that -- we've already done it in some ways... I think there will be more of that for sure," says Activision's Daniel Suarez, VP of production on the Call of Duty franchise. Having more functionality in the systems "has the potential to broaden, and get bigger and bigger, and bring more people in," says Carsten Myhill, lead content manager on Assassin's Creed IV. "Make it simple, you're going to bring more people into it. It just removes the barriers of entry."

The Inevitability Factor

Call it inertia, brand loyalty, or enthusiasm. You might even call it the inevitability factor. Lots of people still like to play console games -- after all, the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 both crossed 80 million hardware units this year. "As time goes on, that gaming audience is going to move to next-gen," says Activision's Suarez. "They're going to adopt those systems." Begnoche put it like this: "I have PCs, but I just like consoles. I don't think I'm the only one. I think people like having a console, playing on them, so I think it will survive." And he does have a point; a journalist I spoke to at the event who reviewed Assassin's Creed IV on PS3 is eagerly anticipating playing it again on the PS4. He even plans to shell out $60 for a retail copy, rather than go for the $10 digital upgrade, since he cares that much about owning the real thing. The "shiny new toy" factor is not to be underestimated either, Suarez argues, who compared upgrading to a PS4 to stepping up to an iPhone 5S. "I think if you look at where we are today... this concept of wanting something new and saying, 'Hey, I've got this shiny new object,' I think that symptomatic concept is going to drive people to say 'Hey, I want this new box.' It's been eight years for Xbox, and I think it's seven years for the PS3. It's been a long time!" There's no denying that, for a certain audience, the tech is too enticing to pass up. Thomas Andersson, lead multiplayer designer on Battlefield 4 at DICE: "I'm looking for the first time into maybe doing gaming exclusively on console, say for at least for a few years forward. That's kind of what I did in the beginning of PS3/360, and that's one leap that I think we're seeing again. It's huge to be able to sit and play Battlefield at 60 FPS with 64 players, at home in my couch. It's something I'm excited about." In fact, Andersson scoffed when I suggested that maybe the upgrade from PS3 to PS4 was not quite as apparent as it could be. He knows; his game jumped from 24 to 64 players yet doubled its framerate in the transition. "For us, it's a big leap, I think... I'm amazed what this machine and the Xbox One can pull off," says Andersson.

But Is It Big Enough?

People who will appreciate that do exist, but in what quantity? With many of the same games shipping (for now) on both PS3 and PS4, will they notice? And if they do, how fast can they be convinced to upgrade? Battlefield 4's jump aside, the out-of-the-box PlayStation 4 experience so far sometimes feels like more of the same. At first blush (and even after a fair bit of exposure) things seem a mere refinement of what we've already been playing. Some of this stems from the fact that the launch lineup was often developed on early hardware; add in the fact that most (if not all) third party software is cross-generational, and the gains can often seem incremental at best. But developers do think that we're just seeing the tip of the next-gen iceberg. Suarez pointed out the difference between 2005's Call of Duty 2 and Call of Duty Ghosts, the implication being: We don't yet know where we'll end up, so don't jump to conclusions. "We are just beginning to understand the power of the systems," he says. "I think we're at the base of the next summit of where things are going, both in that regard [of ubiquitous online connectivity] and in terms of what the quality of the game experience is going to be." But talk to some journalists, who've already been playing next-gen games for awhile, and the glow starts to fade. One told me that the only thing that impressed him about the next-gen version of a popular car racing franchise was the increased draw distance (try using that as a bullet point on the box). Another told me he's happy enough with the PlayStation 3 version of Assassin's Creed IV because it looks good enough. "They really nailed the art direction this time," he said, so why upgrade? In today's hypercompetitive environment, the time it takes to harness the power of this system may not be enough to bring fence-sitters on board. On the other hand, there's always the next Naughty Dog game.

Something Not Conventional

To that point, the hardware in the box may actually be irrelevant, to some extent. Game systems are always first and foremost about games, and games have never been as diverse as they are in 2013. That may be the Achilles' heel of next-gen consoles. For my own part, I'm ambivalent about the idea of the PlayStation 4. I've played and enjoyed all of Sony's consoles, but I also feel that a PlayStation (or Xbox) is less essential these days. It worth pausing to consider that Gamasutra's staff had a conversation this week about whether buying these consoles is an immediate priority -- or even an eventuality -- for us. That's simply not a conversation that would have taken place in 2005 or 2006. I am decidedly not a member of the console game audience that's cowed and wowed by Call of Duty and The Last of Us. I see what they offer, and I can pretty comfortably live without it, even while respecting what their developers achieve. "We have to provide big titles to support the platform," says Sony's Yoshida. "But if we are just doing that, maybe we lose some touch with the bleeding edge of thinking." That's why Sony works with indie studios, too: "We get lots of inspiration from these guys. It's just healthy for us to work with some of those who are very aggressive creatively, who try to do something not conventional." It's clear that Sony has cast a wide net in terms of functionality and software both, and intends to continue doing it; its corporate character has been completely revamped since its last launch, to be easier to work with (at the event, developers once again quite sincerely sang the praises of Sony's third party relations).

Rubber Stamp

So you've gotten to the end of this article and you're no doubt wondering whether the PlayStation 4 gets the Gamasutra seal of approval. But I told you earlier on: predicting the future is a foolish game. Sony has successfully executed the strategy that it laid out nine months ago. It has delivered what it promised, and it squeezed a lot of potential into the box, and just as importantly has come into itself as a platform holder that knows how to work with developers and cater to its fans. Those are major points in its favor; it's hard for big companies to keep promises. The question is: Is that enough? "You cannot play this kind of game on a tablet. If you want this quality you need this machine," says Begnoche, the Assassin's Creed programmer. His livelihood depends on the idea that people really, really do want that quality. Will consumers buy the PS4? Let's close with DICE's Andersson: "I have no idea. I hope they do. I think it's worth it, but it remains to be seen. I really hope they do." Editor's note: Sony provided travel accommodations in order to facilitate interviews for this article.

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