Next week, Sony will start to take the wraps off its next-generation home console strategy. We already know, or at least think we know, a surprising amount about the hardware the company will unveil. Credible specifications for PlayStation 4, under the codename "Orbis", have been floating around for some time, while reports of a significantly redesigned Dual Shock controller with an integrated touchpad interface are well-established.
"We really know nothing about Sony's plans. We know what will be in the box, but never has that been so unimportant"
It's a testament to how much the games business has changed in the past decade, however, that despite having information about hardware specifications and controller design, we really know nothing about Sony's plans. We know what will be in the box, but never has that been so unimportant. Nobody sane doubts Sony's ability to competently construct a box that sits under a television and plays games that look nicer than the ones we've got now (and similarly nice to the ones that will be played on Microsoft's rival under-telly-box).
What many people do doubt - with good, if sometimes exaggerated, reasons - is Sony's ability to make that box relevant to a wide audience of consumers, to attract the very best of development talent to it and to turn it into a must-have device, if not for the mass market, then at least for the high-spending core consumers who make up the backbone of the games industry. In that regard, the PS4's specifications barely warrant a tick-box on the sheet headlined "Sony's Future". Controller design is more important, definitely, but still only a small part of the puzzle.
So what does Sony need to tell us next week in order to make that puzzle start to make sense? Firstly, it needs to demonstrate that it knows it won't build a successful new platform off the back of hardware specifications. Given the drastic changes in management and direction we've seen in the past half-decade, I very much doubt that we're going to get a repeat of the bombastic, hardware-focused announcement of the PS3 - the opening shots of a specification war that turned out to be an irrelevant sideshow, as PS3 and Xbox 360 ended up evenly matched for all intents and purposes, and Wii happily trounced the pair of them in sales anyway. If, however, next week's show really is all "look how shiny our polygons are!", it'll be cause to seriously worry about whether Sony has a future in this business at all.
Instead, next week needs to be about the rest of the puzzle. It needs to be about distribution, and platform, and pricing - not of the hardware, but of the software. Most of all, it needs to be about the business model. Sony needs to show the world that it's been paying attention as platforms like iOS, Android and Steam have torn up the rulebook and fundamentally shaken the relationship between developers, publishers and platform holders.
"Sony needs to show the world that it's been paying attention as platforms like iOS, Android and Steam have torn up the rulebook"
I'm not talking about turning PlayStation 4 into a great platform to play Angry Birds on, or stepping up to the pointless war against tablets and mobile phones that exists only in the heads of enraged internet comment posters. I'm talking about engaging with the fact that right now, as a developer working on a great new idea, you can go out and find hundreds of thousands of dollars to invest in bringing your game to market on a console - a process which will probably also strip you of ownership of your IP and of creative control of the game itself, let alone its marketing and so on - or you can release it on tablets, smartphones and PCs for a cost as close to zero as makes no odds. This isn't about Angry Birds any more; it's about Minecraft, or Thomas Was Alone, or The Room, or Dear Esther, or New Star Soccer, or Proteus, or FTL. The problem consoles face in the next generation isn't that people are playing simple casual games on phones - it's that developers of complex, interesting and engrossing games are bringing them to phones, tablets and PCs rather than jumping through the ludicrous hoops it takes to get a game onto a console.
This is, I believe, essentially the point which was being made by former Xbox engineer Nat Brown when he slammed Microsoft for its handling of the console over the past five years. The world has changed dramatically during that period of time, and consoles have, for the most part, stood still. Their hardware remains the same as it was seven years ago, during which time mobile phones, tablets and even laptops have undergone revolutions in design, power and connectivity - and if their hardware now looks dated, their business model looks nothing short of archaic.
I am not joining the crowds declaring that the $60 software era is over. It's not. That business model still works for certain titles - titles that carry a huge reputation and a huge marketing budget. I am a passionate advocate of the free-to-play business model (when it's done right - there's no question that in the wrong hands, it can be absolutely horrible and even abusive), and I think it must have a place on future consoles - but it's not the only model, nor can it be a panacea.
What Sony needs to do, rather than simply saying "yes we'll support free-to-play", is open up their business model and make it truly flexible. Put distribution and billing systems in place that allow developers to figure out the model that works best for them - whether that's free-to-play, subscription, episodic, a $10 download or a $60 download. Take a cut of all the revenue that flows through the system, but otherwise step back and allow the negotiation on pricing and business model to be one between creators and consumers, not one imposed rigidly by a corporate behemoth in the middle of it all.
"Consoles cannot just be a playground for publishers with millions to spend, because that's not where game development is headed"
I have some confidence that Sony might, against the odds, actually understand this. The firm has been more open than its rivals up until now - it has allowed some Steam integration on the PS3 (it's a pipe-dream, but imagine, for a moment, if PS4 were actually a target platform for Steam just as OSX and Linux are now?), and has allowed MMO developers to fiddle with the business model to their own ends. Moreover, the company fundamentally understands the importance of getting innovative, attention-grabbing games onto its platform - it's to Sony's great credit that in an era where the bulk of interesting indie development ends up on Steam or iOS, it accrued titles like Journey and The Unfinished Swan to its portfolio, but while occasional curated hits are important and fantastic, they aren't enough.
Consoles are, ultimately, the AAA platform. They're the platform where expensively developed games with high production values are sold at a high cost to consumers who care deeply about the pastime and are willing to devote significant disposable income to it. That's fine, and it's a lucrative corner of the industry - but it's not enough. Consoles cannot just be a playground for publishers with millions to spend, because that's not where game development is headed, as an industry. Where the indie developers have blazed a trail, more established firms are now following - recognising that, at long last, they have an option other than prostrating themselves at the gates of the platform holders' walled gardens. If Sony's announcements next week doesn't address that, its entire strategy for the next five years must be called into question.