Weapon of Revolution
Look past the hype - Kazunori Yamauchi may have a point.
If you want to hear about the PlayStation 3, Kazunori Yamauchi is simultaneously both the best and the worst person to talk to. The creator of Gran Turismo has undoubtedly had his hands on the PS3 hardware for longer than pretty much any other developer in the world, and it's quite possible that he even had some input into the design of the system. On the other hand, the creator of Gran Turismo is also on the Sony payroll, his world-famous franchise as much a part of the PlayStation brand as the iconic PS logo itself. It doesn't exactly make for unbiased comment.
As such, Sony Computer Entertainment's latest Japanese PR wheeze - posting a ten minute video of Yamauchi waxing eloquent about the PS3 on its newly launched concept website for the console - deserves to be taken with a large enough pinch of salt to put an end to an entire barrel of slugs. However, if we look past some of the soundbites - claims that PS3 will render graphics as realistic as movies feel like leftovers from one of Ken Kutaragi's tub-thumping episodes - we do find Yamauchi saying some interesting things that are relevant not only to PS3, but to next generation gaming as a whole.
On a technical level, he talks about the level of physical simulation and graphical fidelity afforded to his team by the new hardware, implying that PS3 is finally a platform he's satisfied with on those fronts - quite a claim from a man whose games are largely famed for their obsessive attention to simulation-level detail. From a gamer's point of view, that's an interesting little nugget of information in itself - suggesting, as it does, that games which simulate real-life pursuits such as car racing could finally hit the point where the simulation is good enough to seem "real" within the current generation of hardware.
However, what's more interesting about Yamauchi's video interview are the less game- or technology-specific comments he makes about high definition and online gaming - two factors which are undoubtedly going to define much of what "next generation" gaming is, as opposed to the view of current-generation console gaming.
On those topics, Yamauchi talks about the emergence of PlayStation 3 - for which, stripped of the PR message, you can probably read "next-generation game systems" - as a driving force for media and culture in general. Games, he believes, will have more impact on the uptake and usage of high definition than movies will; a claim which may well hold water, and opens up some interesting possibilities. Many older films will not manage the upscaling to high definition with much grace, and we're not just talking about black and white classics - even films from the early part of this decade may suffer badly in the conversion. Even films which look great in high definition are not, fundamentally, a very different experience to that to which movie goers are accustomed - the highest definition pictures on a HD-DVD or Blu-Ray disc pale by comparison with a cinema screen, after all.
Games, by contrast, are making their first leap into high definition (with the obvious exception of PC games, which have been quite a discrete category in many other respects for some years anyway), and according to developers such as Yamauchi, the difference HD makes to the gaming experience is significantly more than just crisper graphics. Factors such as improved player object recognition, more natural looking worlds, more on-screen detail and so on could well combine to change games in a way that is more than the sum of its parts would suggest - and Yamauchi also believes that games are the fastest, most economic way to produce excellent high-definition content, which could provide an interesting economic swing to the whole issue.
Online functionality, too, is something which will influence gaming in a variety of new and as-yet unimagined ways - and by extension, will influence the balance of the relationship between videogames and other forms of media. Yamauchi talks about the PS3 "revolutionising" television as a whole, not just the games that are played on them, due to its online functions - and there may be a grain of truth in that, looking beyond the spin. Aside from the potential of devices like PS3 to turn TV into an on-demand experience rather than a passive, streamed experience (a slow revolution which began with VHS time-shifting in the eighties and continues to gather pace with devices such as Sky+ and TiVo), they may also make us think increasingly of our televisions as gateways to interactive, customised and crucially, social experiences. Children who have grown up playing games become adults for whom movies can sometimes seem far too passive; for those who grow up with connected, social experiences available to them in this way, this effect will be magnified greatly, and may change the role of television in our society forever.
This isn't about the PlayStation 3, at the end of the day. PlayStation 3 merely describes a collection of hardware and services; Xbox 360 will do many of the same things, some of them better, some of them worse, and a gaming and media PC will also fulfil much the same role. All of these things are "next-gen gaming", and what Yamauchi has to say applies equally to all of them.
Taking that context in mind, his later comments about "changing society" and using the PS3 as a "weapon" to effect that change sound a little less like PR hyperbole, and a little more like a call to arms from a top developer to his peers in the industry. It's worth viewing his comments in that light, on reflection; behind the spin, there lies a genuine message worth thinking about. How will the next generation of gaming technology as a whole change our society, and our perception of media? What change is desirable, and how can we effect it? Perhaps in a few years time, when PS3 is on the market and the early arguments over launch titles, sloppy ports and sales figures are put to rest, a sensible and mature debate on those issues will emerge. Now there's something worth looking forward to in the next generation.