PlayStation 4: A good start. Now the real work begins
Developer-focused PS4 shows how far Sony has come, but still has lots to prove, says Rob Fahey
It's been seven years since we had a new home console from Sony. The unveiling of the PS4 breaks a very long silence, and puts pen to paper on a new chapter for the company. The dramatic question, of course, is whether this might be the final chapter; there'll no doubt be plenty of answers offered to that question over the coming days, weeks and months, and I'll not insult your intelligence by pretending that the vital clues to Sony's survival or demise - or indeed, that of the home console as a category overall - were tucked away in Sony's New York presentation.
"Cerny is a veteran, well-respected and widely liked. His talk was full of tacit acknowledgements of mistakes made and how they're being rectified"
What was tucked away in there, though, was a glimpse of a few things that were vastly more important than any of the games - many of them little more than glorified tech demos at this early stage, and many others already confirmed as multi-platform releases. Yes, any game platform is really about the software, but software relies on the platform - and "platform" is an increasingly nebulous combination of hardware, operating system, online services and business model, interlocking into an ecosystem that's an essential framework for game developers and publishers.
So I'm going to be a bit clinical, in defiance of my own "it's about the software, stupid" instincts, and ignore Sony's game presentations - because honestly, if the company is on the right track at all we're going to see so much stuff at E3 that we'll soon barely even remember what was shown at the initial announcement. Instead, I want to think about what the presentation told us about Sony's platform and how it's going to relate both to players and to creators.
Firstly, Andrew House - who is a much more confident and likeable frontman than many others the industry has thrown up over the years, even if he constantly gave the impression that he was itching for a Powerpoint presentation full of graphs to really get his teeth into - was quick to hand over to Mark Cerny, the company's PS4 hardware lead. Cerny's position is far from being symbolic, but it is a powerful symbol. He's a veteran, well-respected and widely liked developer who's working on his own game for PS4 alongside creating the hardware. That's a vast change in approach when compared to the PS3, whose creation was led by hardware engineers - and Cerny's talk was full of tacit acknowledgements of mistakes made and how they're being rectified.
It's basically an optimised PC, Cerny told the audience, going on to outline in brief an x86-based console architecture whose only remotely exotic components were those designed to make developers' lives easier, such as the system's ultra-fast RAM. It'll stream downloads in the background. The company has focused heavily on a small but vital part of the experience - getting users into a game and having fun as quickly as possible - building in systems such as a handheld console style "suspend" function, rapid wake, a simplified and improved dashboard UI and a variety of technologies aimed at making downloadable games faster to access and play.
"Sony described a console which could, if done properly, provide a relatively open platform for developers to publish their games"
The messages were clear - PS4 is going to be an incredibly developer-friendly platform, with an architecture that's more familiar and easier to get up and running on than any console before it, and it's going to be an incredibly gamer-friendly platform, taking away barriers between the player and the game which had existed on PS3.
That's all good stuff. It speaks to a company that's learned from its mistakes and corrected them in a dramatic fashion - no more than you'd expect after seven years of ruminating on them, of course, but still perhaps more than Sony's more uncharitable detractors might have expected. The absolute basic thing which Sony needed to get right with the PS4 was this; it had to be a great platform to develop for, a great platform to discover content on, and a great platform to play content on. As consoles go, what was revealed in New York seemed to be best-of-breed on those counts (though it's worth noting that I'd be a little shocked if Microsoft isn't similarly solid).
What's more important, though, is what wasn't said outright. There were hints and implications dropped throughout the comments made by Cerny, House and others that suggested that Sony intends to make PS4 more open than ever to developers. There were mentions in the opening comments of the presentation of free-to-play and episodic business models, and of a business platform that would support wholesale experimentation. Later on, reference was made to welcoming self-publishing on PSN. It's not clear whether these comments imply a continuation of existing PSN policies (as was pointed out by many posters in comments on my column last week, Sony is far more open to small developers and self-publishing than either of its console rivals, although serious barriers to entry do remain) or a genuine opening up of the PlayStation ecosystem - I suspect something in between is the case, but even that is a big step in the right direction.
Another step in the right direction is the company's intelligent use of its Gaikai acquisition - seemingly under the continuing direction of David Perry, who has consistently been a moderate and sensible voice regarding the huge potential but genuine limitations of cloud streaming technology. Using the tech to give the PS4 access to back catalogue titles and instant-on demos is a no-brainer. Using it to give access to live-streams of games currently being played, and adapting it to build an OS-level function through which you can upload clips of any game instantly is actually quite brilliant. I suspect that the importance of this feature will be largely lost on many within the industry itself, not least because none of us is getting any younger, and the internet's "video natives" are mostly in their teens and early twenties - but be absolutely assured that video streaming, "Let's Play" video series and clips of popular games are already a huge deal for a vast swathe of the audience for games. In years to come, I suspect that PS4's integration of the tech will probably feel absolutely essential, rather than being a speculative side-feature, and that already-derided "Share" button on the controller will get far more of a workout than the social-network-phobic types decrying it on Twitter (oh, the irony!) could ever imagine.
"In three words, the core message of Sony's presentation was 'we've been listening'"
There were bum notes - PS Vita hardly impressed as the console's answer to the Wii U Gamepad, given that Vita itself has been a miserable flop - but the picture that I see building up from all of these features and tweaks to the platform model is overall a positive one. Hence my own positivity about what was, unfortunately, a rather over-long and poorly stage managed presentation. Sony announced a console that's easy for developers to get to work with, and implied that they'll hold the door open for self-publishing and business model experimentation on the platform - hopefully resulting in a much more vibrant and varied market for games than any other console has managed in the past. They announced a console that's deeply integrated with social networks at an OS level, but which actually does something useful with that integration - giving you the tools to share meaningful content (rather than pointless "Hey I finished a level!" automated status updates) and utilising the social graph as a content discovery tool. That final bit is important; Sony described a console which could, if done properly, provide a relatively open platform for developers to publish their games, while simultaneously being a great discovery platform - a crucial weakness of most existing "App Store" style platforms.
PS4 is, of course, going to be a platform that's largely sold off the back of big-budget AAA titles - and I suspect that much of Sony's effort has gone into making life easier (and cheaper) for the creators of those titles. However, the benefits of that effort will trickle down to smaller developers, and the ecosystem it creates stands to turn the PS4 into a platform that appeals beyond the audience for conventional AAA games. Nobody rational doubts Sony's ability to sell a new console to the few tens of millions who form the "traditional core"; PS4's challenge is to prove that it can have a life beyond that core, a relevance in an age of tablets and mobiles, a raison d'etre in a time when "it plays games" applies to an ever-wider range of consumer electronics with an ever-increasing level of truth.
The company didn't entirely prove its point in two slightly over-long hours in New York, but it pointed in the right direction. In three words, the core message of Sony's presentation was "we've been listening". Until the gritty details start to form around this new console and its strategy, that core message is just about enough.