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PS4: What Sony needs to win next-gen

Columnist Chris Morris looks at opportunities and potential pitfalls for Sony in the upcoming console battle

In just under two weeks, we'll know a lot more about the PlayStation 4 than we do right now- well, in theory.

The truth is: The leaks about the PS4 have been coming fast and furious lately. And people with knowledge of the system (but who are still abiding by the NDA) indicate that there's a lot of accuracy in the recent reports. For the sake of argument, let's assume for the moment that the whispers are right. Given what we think we know, what things about the PS4 can put it in a leadership position in the next generation - and what things could turn it into the next Vita?

First, a preemptive note. It's looking highly unlikely at this point that either the PS4 or the Next Xbox will be backwards compatible. There are fundamental hardware shifts that are expected to take place that will make it very difficult for either system to achieve that goal.

That's certain to cause some wailing and gnashing of teeth initially, but it's ultimately a non-issue. Sony and Microsoft smartly assume that the early adopters of either machine will already own the existing console. And while it's a pain in the neck to leave both systems hooked up to a TV, it's one most gamers will endure with a little grumbling.

So, while there are certain to be some parties that argue backwards compatibility could put the PS4 or any system in a leadership position, that's wishful thinking.

That said, there are a few things that could help - or hurt - Sony.

What would help...

Emphasize free - The gaming industry has changed a lot this generation. Core and casual gamers alike have found mobile games that capture their attentions. And they've learned that a good gaming experience doesn't have to cost $60 or more.

"We've seen too many DRM horror stories in the past to take any comfort in any assurances that it's better this time"

Expecting publishers - especially third-party publishers - to retreat from that price point is a fool's dream, though. But Sony has a long history of not charging for online play - and many of the extras that go with its online service.

That's a huge advantage if the company spins it right. Since non-gaming elements of modern consoles are just as important as the gaming elements, Sony could win over fence sitters by offering more free non-gaming content options. What the company has to do first, though, is dramatically improve its user interface. Today, at least, Microsoft has a big advantage in that department.

Ride the social wave - Reports that the PS4 could allow users to share gameplay footage online through a "Share" button were an interesting revelation for the system. And embracing that social aspect of gaming could be a wise move on Sony's part.

TwitchTV currently reaches more than 15 million viewers per month and has seen its month-over-month numbers climb steadily. eSports are also finally starting to break through in the U.S., so allowing gamers to show off their unbelievable kills or funny in-game bugs could make the PS4 a go-to system for people who like to boast about their gaming skills with more than achievement points.

Lead in free-to-play - There's little argument in the game publishing world that free-to-play is headed to America in a big way in the coming years. Microsoft has done some experimenting with the format on the Xbox 360, but Sony has an in-house expert in the field.

Sony Online Entertainment has been the US industry leader in the free-to-play movement - and by leaning on the knowledge John Smedley and team have accumulated, Sony could be in a powerful position with the PS4. It's a risky move for a console company to embrace free-to-play, due to the razor and razor blades model consoles typically follow, but if done right, it could be a paradigm shift that would help the company open up new areas of profitability - and regain a lead in the industry.

What might hurt...

That controller - Reports that Sony has redesigned the controller to include a touchpad made me worry a bit when I first read them. It seems reactionary to the smartphone/tablet industry - and it's a move that hasn't helped the Vita gain any sort of market share. And attempts to change the DualShock at the start of this generation were disastrous.

Whether the touch pad will be incorporated into gaming - particularly AAA gaming - is still unknown. And we may not know if it will be until E3. But to date, console gamers have shown little interest in fusing touchscreens into their existing control structure - and there doesn't seem to be any reason to think they'll reverse their position on that in the near term.

A mockup of the new controller

Overly restrictive DRM - While those reports that the PS4 will not run used games are almost certainly hogwash, the little we've heard about the digital rights management elements of the PS4 is disturbing.

There's nothing wrong, in theory, with a console that's always connected online. But the minute there's an outage and someone wants to play a game to kill time - only to find they can't - there's going to be outrage. And we've seen too many DRM horror stories in the past to take any comfort in any assurances that it's better this time.

The price tag - You might note that although we've seen plenty of chatter about the rumored specs of the PS4, one area no one has discussed is what it will cost. Again, we likely won't learn this at the unveiling later this month, but let's hope Sony learned its lesson from the PS3.

Should the PS4 carry too hefty a price tag at launch, that alone could be enough for some fence-sitters to give up on Sony, convinced that the company is only interested in its bottom line.

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Chris Morris


Chris Morris has covered the video game industry since 1996, offering analysis of news and trends and breaking several major stories. He was the author of CNNMoney’s 'Game Over' and has also written for Yahoo!, Variety, CNBC.com, Forbes.com and other publications.