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.

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Latest comments (18)

Brian Smith Artist 5 years ago
I think the 'Just about enough' comment sums it all up pretty well. No idea how as big an outfit as Sony can make such a clunky presentation though. You expect slick. Now I know based on previous reveals that slick is not the norm, but in this day and age, with the cost of a launch being comparable to a moon mission, it should be sickeningly slick and cool simultaneously. It was not.
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Daniel Hughes Studying PhD Literary Modernism, Bangor University5 years ago
Good article, Rob. I switched off an hour into the conference because I was getting bored, but reading around the web this morning it was a good message poorly presented.

While I've seen nothing that's convinced me I need to own a PS4--and I'm really disappointed Sony seem to have written Vita off as an extra PS4 controller/gamepad answer rather than a convincing system in its own right--there's still the hype and excitement of E3 to come, where the first wave of software will no doubt be talked about in length. I think Rob is entirely right to focus on the OS, development and social media angle of PS4 here: this is exactly the kind of information that would be out of place and easily lost at E3, but without any truly huge titles for people to get excited about, this information will find an audience. While I don't doubt there will be many skeptical punters writing PS4 off as a "Facebook machine" at this moment in time, it's a forward looking move from Sony. In a few years time, a socially connected, easy to develop for, easy to publish on (is there the potential for self-publishing here? I've heard whispers of it, it's been a revolution for authors), and crucially, easy to play. Once Sony have sold to their core audience, that final factor could be crucial in determining whether or not PS4 can find the huge audience that PS1 and PS2 eventually found, and that PS3, for all it success, hasn't quite reached.

In a way it's a shame I'm more excited about the interface, social aspects and potential of the system rather than any software on display; Destiny and Watch Dogs can be bought without the entry fee of a new console, and they were the most exciting titles there, as far as my perspective goes. It's the same thing with Wii U, which, although it does now have a number of exciting games on the horizon, they remain firmly on the horizon and not nailed down with a release date: again, it becomes about being excited because of the potential of the system and the fantastic potential of Miiverse rather than any factor that would make me purchase the system. Miiverse and Sony's social connectivity can really change the way gamers operate as communities, moving away from the Wild West insult-ground that Xbox Live became, and give developers direct access and exposure to fans for feedback. Forums, FAQS and guides don't need to printed or consulted outside of the playing experience; they can be part of the playing experience, by fans and for fans, removing the need for hand-holding on the part of developers themselves. That's the most exciting thing for me in the coming generation, we can be as connected or as isolated as we want, hopefully; everything from huge online battles and RPGS, to Dark Souls and Journey style "multiplayer", to the traditional singe player experience, to sharing our gaming experience via video, text and images instantaneously.

Sony and Nintendo have both sold me on the potential of their systems, but they haven't yet sold their systems to me. Now I know it might be unreasonable to assume that publishers can display the potential of their systems from day one, but I can't be the only person that remembers Mario 64, or Halo: Combat Evolved, can I? I eagerly await E3, and hopefully, a roster of marquee titles from Sony and Nintendo that will sell their systems to me.
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The last hour was a nice love in with Activision and Sony.
Trying to figure out how all the PS3/PS4 games launches will work whereby there will be higher fidelity for the PS4 on the same game vs PS3?
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Show all comments (18)
Adam Campbell Game Production Manager, Azoomee5 years ago

He's not the only one to have said this, even Kaz Hirai has. You run into big problems when architecture isn't being design for the people who use it in making games, or for those who buy it for that matter.

The inclusion of Blu-Ray in PS3 wasn't its big problem, it was the unusual and crusading architecture that has really that got them nowhere. We all said they would get nothing out of "investing in Cell" and we were right.

The new focus either way is refreshing and 'about time', the Playstation Vita and Playstation 4 mark the end of hardware crusades and they add to the future of console companies actually making hardware suitable for developing high peroformance games at a reasonable cost and great potential for portability (Nintendo and Microsoft are already way ahead on that from the 6th generation era).

Mistakes were made and it would be simply madness not to express that and outline how Sony are going forward with their technology strategy.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Adam Campbell on 21st February 2013 2:20pm

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Peter Dwyer Games Designer/Developer 5 years ago

Unless the PS4's expected price point is significantly above the expected 300 pound/400 dollar mark it's going to have to do soething extremely wrong between now and release to NOT outsell the PS3's launch numbers.

Sony have gotten so much right this time around that I honestly believe they will start level with Microsoft for the public heart strings. The hardware is off the shelf with a few key tweaks so cheap to produce. However, Sony being sony, they just had to have at least one silly expense (read 8GB of DDR5) to make the price uncertain. The social gaming aspect with youtube and facebook is bang on. And crucially they made this about the games.
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Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 5 years ago
I was very impresed by this conferance. It had a very mature tone. They didnt sound like they were competing with anybody. They were just doing their thing. Even making referance to film and actually showing people how the games will be made. But i think the most satisfying part of the conference is when they said that the living room is no longer the center of the gaming space, that it is now the player. That was music to my ears. Finally THEY GOT IT!!! A machine developed and devoted completely towards the gamer and playing games. As a gamer this was all i ever wanted. Unlike Microsoft that aims to make a machine that can do everything and be the center of the living room and houshold, SONY was was more oriented towards the gamer and seem to have gotten around to know exactly how to do it with all its social integration. Like it does video streaming and stuff and its a machine capable of much more than gaming.

In the beginning I feared the Gaikai technology would be used to simply stream games online, and we would end up simply paying to play and it would be the end of retail, when i honestly like purchasing and owning my games. Even if its digitally. i just dont like the whole idea of paying a monthly fee or having everything I purchased on someone elses server. i really loved the Gaikai presentation and how they are using the technology to share live videogame broadcasts, video streaming and you can play a game as you download it. SONY really nailed the whole social thing.

I loved that it wasnt just a PS4 reveal and game demos. I liked how they went deeper and explained how the games are made, the technology behind them. I loved Yoshinori Ono's presentation of Deep Down and Capcoms next generation game engine Panta Rhei. That presentation and game blew me away. As a fan of Dragon Age, Zelda and RPG's this made my hair stand on end, knowing that games can look like that. That demo of Deep Down actually made me feel like I was there in the game expiriencing that battle with the dragon. I was also impressed with the Square Enix demo and Im very happy the Agni's philosofy will be turned into a full game. That demo blew me away simply because the character design and what was going on felt like a final fantasy game. I really hated everything about the whole final fantasy 13 titles. Too much Japanese cliche and the story and gameplay was unsatisfying. The character designs were to "wacky" and off. But yesterday Square Enix hit all the right notes.

I wasnt very impressed with Knack, however it has the potential to have a touching story and have graphics good enough to pass as a playable pixar movie. It was also nice to see not everything having realistic graphics and trying to do something differant. So thumbs up for Knack.

I didnt quite understand media molecules demo, but what ever it was seemed very cool. Its just a wait and see feeling I had with them. I was never a fan of Infamouse... but never had anything against the franchise and second son looked very good. I was also blown away by Watchdogs. it had a very good premise. I just have to wait and see if the gameplay is all its cracked up to be and not Gimmicky. But damn I have high hopes for this years E3. Quantum Theory's presentation was also cool, I liked how it presented insight on how games are made. not just a game demo.

SONY hit high notes with developer interests in mind. They seemed to have laid out a very friendly framework for indy developers and the hardware architecture seemed very developer friendly, being similar to a PC development enviroment. The hardware specs were very satisfying. I also loved ow they built the PS4 allowing integration of mobile devices and a second screen through them. Im not crazy about the social and sharing aspects, but for the people that do care at least sony has that covered. They really really had mostly everything covered. I was very very satisfied with their conference and Dying to see more.

Up till now SONY is doing a great job in this next generation. Im just waiting for a few bits of information, such as backwards compatibility, and if all my PSN account information and purchases will remain the same and if its a completely differant framework then Im hoping I can transfer it all to the new network. Im also want to know if my games can be played on different devices. Honestly Im very tired of a different version of the same game being sold for every piece of hardware. Id like to enjoy a game like HardCorps Uprising on my PS3 as well as my PSP or VITA. Why cant I enjoy a game like Journey on VITA.... It sucks OK!!! So Im hoping SONY later answers these doubts I have of there system. it will really suck if everything I purchased on PSN is on a seperate account. I like having everything in one place and If I have to make a new account on PS4 Id like to be able to transfer all my stuff I purchased from PS3 or PSN. I also dont like the idea of having a camera filming me all the time and Im hoping the playstation eye isnt a requirment to play games. As i recall its also the sensor bar. I also want to be reasurred that i dont have to be online to play games, I would like to buy a game off the retail shelf pop it in and play without need for an internet connection.

That said I am not sold on motion gaming, I actually hate it. Except on Wii SPorts. The Demo's of Microsofts Illumi room have Irked me. The need for a projector and dark envirmoent and huge room to play games are killing it. As a gamer Im not interested in a machine that can do everything. i just want a game that can play games, more efficiantly and thats whats SONY presented. Im very happy with SONY right now.

However they need to get the price right. If They dont Im afraid thats gonna kill everything for me.

Nintendo sold me on the potential of there system however, they have not yet made me buy there system, Im just waiting and seeing how it all pans out. Im gonna do the same with SONY and Microsoft.

Honestly SONY raised the bar, lets see how microsoft fires back.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Rick Lopez on 21st February 2013 4:41pm

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John Bye Lead Designer, Future Games of London5 years ago
I have to say, I think Sony missed a golden opportunity here. PlayStation Move has been such a flop they could easily have cut their losses, ditched the camera and glowing controller back plate, and kept the entry level price a bit lower. Whereas Microsoft had so much early success with Kinect they're apparently chaining their next console to it, despite poor software sales post-launch, third party support seeming to evaporate, and the lack of success so far in making core games for Kinect of the kind that might appeal to early adopters.

Personally I think the real value for both Sony and the customer would have been to drop the camera in favour of a slightly cheaper base SKU (ideally undercutting Microsoft), and release a premium SKU priced say 100 higher bundling a Vita with the PS4. That would give you a package that would do everything the Wii U can do (probably better) and let you take the Vita out of the home and play stand-alone games on it or stream media content to it over the internet from your home console.

To me at least that package would be an instant buy. Whereas forcing me to pay for a camera I'll probably hardly ever use is a bit galling, especially as I already have an Eye and Move controllers from the PS3 that I suspect would work perfectly well (even if slightly less accurately and at a much lower resolution) for most things. Give me the option to upgrade by all means, but don't bundle it with the core hardware at launch.
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Caspar Field CEO & Co Founder, Wish Studios Ltd5 years ago
@ John I'd imagine it's about a) marketplace differentiation and b) enabling new types of game experience for 100% of the userbase.
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John Bye Lead Designer, Future Games of London5 years ago
It doesn't really differentiate the PS4 though, as the next Xbox will come bundled with a (probably very similar looking) camera, which reportedly has higher specs and will (probably) have better SDKs behind it. If anything this makes them look like copycats, and the next gen Eye like a poor man's Kinect, much like everyone (somewhat unfairly) ridiculed the Move as a Wii Remote knock-off. If anything, not having a camera bundled with the console at launch would have differentiated them from the competition, and probably in a positive way amongst core gamers, especially if it meant a lower price point and/or better core hardware than the competition.

It's hard to see what "new types of game experience" it would allow either. Developers have been using EyeToy, Eye and most recently Kinect for many years now, and this doesn't seem to offer anything new. That's not to say that it doesn't have its uses, just that it's unlikely to lead to anything revolutionary that we haven't already seen. Also, I could be wrong, but I somehow doubt the light on the back of the new DualShock will be as intuitive a pointing device as a dedicated controller like the Move or Wii Remote.
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Anthony Chan5 years ago
I didn't think they mentioned that PS Eye would be bundled in... I don't think any bundles have been officially announced actually. Either way, I do hope if they do make bundles to make different price points as you have said. A good market saturation technique would be cross selling with its other products.

This year is definitely going to be a big year for tech. The first 4K LED TVs are coming out this year. An awesome pre-holiday promotion would be buy a 10,000 USD 4K TV, get a "free' PS4. Another would be bundling Bravia TVs with PS4 for the holiday season, like they did with PS3 last fall (higher end TVs got thrown in with a free PS3).
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Having ingested most of the information now, I still don't know how I feel about this.

Its obviously a very powerful machine, and that's good (essential really). But its also a PC. Does it also run Linux? Is there an API you have to use (aka DirectX-like), or is it really a bare-metal machine?

Sony have had a reputation for creating very powerful, balanced pieces of hardware (PS1/PS2). This *was* their game, their strength. Its like they have thrown this away, and just adopted PC - this is the Playstation PC.

For a long time I have been wondering if we'll ever see convergence in gaming hardware platforms. Assuming MS release something similar, then we have 3 competing "platforms" which will be virtually identical - plus competing PC boxes (Steambox, etc). And then its likely we'll see the same games on all 3 platforms - bar exclusives, which will become more important than ever. As do services I guess.

The danger with this strategy is that the barriers to entry are very low. You are sharing the same market with the other providers. Assuming the hardware will be sold at a loss (otherwise PCs can undercut them) Sony has to make their money from licensing... but then the same games can be cheaper sold directly by the publishers.

And of course, there was a lot of "promise" in this (something Sony have a reputation not delivering on). What is the price? How reliable is the box? How big is it? What is the launch schedule, the bundles, etc?

And finally, watching the games make me think that developers are going to struggle to use this extra power - for "gaming". Its easy to throw more polys and textures at something, but so what? I didn't see anything that couldn't be done on a 360, let alone a WiiU. I think the Killzone demo was a perfect example of this. Its going to take a while before we see any REAL next-gen games.
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Adam Campbell Game Production Manager, Azoomee5 years ago
My comment deleted itself.

I was just saying Michael, the architecture is like a PC but it isn't a PC just like the Vita isn't a smartphone, not at all.

It will still be the size of a usual console, it will still have a proprietary Sony OS and interface and it will still have a proprietary 'LibGCM' API to expose the features of the GPU.

The architecture is less proprietary but it doesn't change the fact that in practice, its a console and will look, behave and perform just like you would expect one to.
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John Bye Lead Designer, Future Games of London5 years ago
Hm, you could be right, Anthony. The stream was breaking up a lot in places while I was watching it, but the implication seemed to be that the camera would come with the console as standard, from what I remember, and the controllers all having the Move-style coloured light on the back would seem to support that, although apparently the coloured light does do other stuff as well. Guess we'll have to wait for E3 to know for sure.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by John Bye on 21st February 2013 9:35pm

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Mark Friedler VP Sales, Cubeyou.com5 years ago
Question is what will be more popular? PS4 or Samsung Galaxy S4? (Now which is the more important platform?)
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Curt Sampson Sofware Developer 5 years ago
Peter, the bump up to 8 GB of RAM is not a "silly expense," it's the smartest thing they did in the time leading up to this announcement fixing the specs.

Lack of RAM is something the PS3 started suffering for very badly long before the end of the generation started approaching. It's contributed both to the PS3 being annoyingly slow in some areas and to being unable to implement features present in the Xbox 360 (cross-game voice chat being the most notorious example). RAM is also something that is almost never upgraded once it's fixed and, even if it is upgraded (such as in the PSP), leaves behind existing customers for the new features it enables.

If Sony's aiming to have for the PS4 the speed and smoothness of the Xbox 360 UI, they're certainly doing the right thing. I worry about whether or not they can pull it off on the software side, however. Their recent rewrite of the PlayStation Store has made it clunkier and considerably slower, to the point where I dislike logging in even to download my free PS Plus games. They've also managed to create a web store that flat-out refuses to load if your browser (Firefox or Chrome) is running on Linux. These sorts of things are not indicative of a company that knows how to write software.

I think that the inclusion of a camera is probably a good idea, too; cameras are not particularly expensive these days and it's always best to have hardware on a console be standard, not optional, if at all possible. That opens up yet more opportunities for video sharing and the like. Once the camera's there, throwing in a light on the controller for some support of Move-style motion control is something it would just be silly not to do, given that it costs almost nothing.

Rick, given that the Vita uses the same PSN account as you use for your PS3, and even products such as PS Plus carry across, I can't see why there would be any doubt that the PS4 will be the same.
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Andreia Quinta Photographer, Studio52 London5 years ago
My only comment for now is how do they do a presentation for the Playstation 4 without actually showing the bloody thing.
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Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 5 years ago
@ Andreia - I dont know, but they pulled it off quite nicely :)
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Emily Knox Associate Designer, CCP Games5 years ago
I'm ashamed to admit this is the first time I've made the effort to watch anything like this before, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I struggle to get any excitement out of specs, but listening to Mark Cerny enthuse about the PS4 was wonderful to hear, that genuine passion came across so well, and as you mentioned, acknowledging the PS3's weaknesses and how these are going to be addressed was promising - just getting past those slow downloads and getting into the game efficiently will be very welcome indeed.

Other developer's excitement for the console and glowing pride in their up and coming titles has really rubbed off on me, I'm looking forward to seeing and hearing more!
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