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Sony and the PlayStation 4 – Opinion Piece

16:2501/03/2013Posted by Raymond Webster5 Comments

The announcement of Sony’s new home console to great fanfare in February 2013 is arguably the start of the “core gamers’” next generation; while the Wii U was the first true successor to a current generation console in terms of computing power it was not a significant step forward from the current top tier. The reveal, however, was not met with unequivocal support from potential buyers. Notably, Sony’s lack of a physical product and instead reliance on feature lists and upcoming software seemed out of place in a world where new product announcements are generally accompanied by some physical proof of concept.

This, combined with the lack of an actual price per unit, or any information about possible SKUs, leads to the argument that Sony were not truly ready to reveal anything; what the event comprised was essentially a lengthy advertisement for upcoming software tied to a list of features a putative new console would have. Furthermore, the software announcements seemed underwhelming; a mixture of rough concepts such as Media Molecule’s Move presentation, games which are already known such as Destiny and arguably Square’s technical demo, and some trailers which did not offer much beyond speculation. The most fleshed-out announcements were the latest Killzone sequel, a series which while popular in its own way still has yet to truly exceed its FPS competitors (despite technically competent multiplayer, especially in Killzone 2, it never really troubled the player-base of Call of Duty), and Watchdogs, the cyberpunk open-world game which promises unprecedented levels of detail in its environments and NPCs.

Ultimately the reliance on gaming staples such as these, a driving game and a 3D puzzle platform game, led to accusations that the new generation of consoles apparently had little to offer. In terms of visuals, the added computing power offers little visible improvement. In terms of game design the products do not seem to be significantly different to what has gone before and what is popular now. In itself this is not a bad thing; if a strong foundation of core game types can be laid down at launch, as well as more innovative ideas such as puzzle game The Witness and whatever Media Molecule were proposing with their own proof of concept, then the new PlayStation will cover all the potential gaming bases and have something for everyone. The initial post-launch period of NPD drives a console’s future success; fail to keep a momentum of releases and support dies off as with the PS Vita and arguably the 3DS (although sales of the latter have revived with a better release schedule) and in some ways the lack of concrete dates for the games announced at this event – with the effective promise of more software reveals at the E3 exposition later this year, will hopefully be proof that the new console has a strong line up not only of launch-day releases but also those critical early games. Indeed, the reliance on core game types is a sound decision, and while there is growing demand for more innovative and genre-challenging titles, the majority of game sales are popular sports, action and racing titles because their appeal is universal and it is within these that the “language” of gaming is clearest as little must be relearnt between titles within a genre.

However, the new PlayStation is seeming not to be aimed specifically at the traditional core market – it comes with an increased emphasis on social media, streaming and connectivity that is quite anathema to the traditional “core gamer” demographic as it identifies itself. Feedback from the event from these older gamers – those who currently self-identify as “gamers” and take an avid interest in console developments – was strongly against these social features. The concept of sharing videos of progress, maintaining chat during single-player games to promote co-operation and competition towards arbitrary goals and an interface built around connectivity with existing social networks is an alien one to game players who might get in touch with each other to play together in a private party on a regular basis – it is a step outside their comfort zone. Yet by embracing this development in the mode of consuming games (whereby the act of simply playing the game is not the end product at all, but rather the creation of a culture around being a game player is) Sony are forward-looking. The existing game fans will ignore this functionality, even if they decide to take the plunge with the new console.

However, if Sony proves better than Microsoft in courting the newer generation of self-defined “gamers” – the ones who watch videos like Yogscast, Zero Punctuation, Run Button and WTF Is… – whose favourite pundits and celebrities are usernames like Yahtzee, Total Halibut and so on – then they stand to profit significantly. In recent years there has been a veritable explosion in this creation of an entire media culture around the pastime of playing computer games; it arguably began with the Let’s Play phenomenon of commentated walkthroughs of classic games, and then developed with live-streaming of multiplayer games and the creation of gaming video blogs where the actual games being played are simply a vehicle for this new generation of household name to talk and share their opinions online. It would be foolish to understate the power these people have on the new generation of game-players. They frame themselves as an alternate, anarchic, independent gaming media free from the commercialism and corruption of the magazines and major news sites and it is their reviews – things like Giant Bomb’s Quick Looks – which I would say have a far greater influence on purchasing patterns than print media or big-name gaming press websites.

It is a brave move for Sony to do this, however; the independent and ad hoc nature of this new online culture is based around frankness and vitriol in its own way. Unpopular games are lambasted and there is none of the caution or hype that drives the traditional gaming press. It may be a good thing when Minecraft videos or Call of Duty headshots are the most popular entries on your video / social service, but less so when it is a one-hour dissection of Mass Effect’s narrative and thematic inconsistencies intended to deter people from buying it. What is more, this entire spirit of connectivity and collaboration cannot be forced. Ubisoft representative Yves Guillemot talked about a future where out-of-game puzzle solving can be shared on a transmedia basis with tablets, social media and so on – clearly indebted to games like the stunningly popular Fez – but this in its own way invites cynicism. Fez and its ilk (to use a more mainstream example, consider Demon’s Souls) built their communities of collaboration naturally, via a shared love of the game and the game’s strong design. Trying to artificially create that via some manipulative social media campaign – perhaps with hashtags made to go viral, or some such – is like trying to make a “viral video” for YouTube – it will be found out and criticised. While the move into embracing this new generation of gaming stands to be hugely beneficial to both Sony and game developers, the corporate hand must touch only lightly because the more proscriptive and present it is, the less chance there is for the users to get the most out of the services offered.

Ultimately it is far too early, and there is inadequate information, to say whether the new PlayStation will be a good console or worth buying. Considered on its own, it seems a strong contender; there is also the promise of more information come E3. However, its main competitor – Microsoft – has yet to announce anything, there is no physical product on show, only the promise of one, and similarly no price. Withholding this information is perhaps shrewd business sense (keeping cagey about price prevents being undercut) but at the same time it makes it impossible to make a truly informed decision about whether or not it will be worth buying.

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