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PlayStation Meeting 2013: an amazing act of sleight of hand

21 February on Blogs, Editorial  

Right after the launch of my book, I came back home eager to watch Sony's conference. One thing I can say: I was very surprised to see something completely different from what I expected from Sony. I started genuinely excited, but after thinking about the matter for a while, some details concern me - several blanks were left... blanks that seem innocent at first, but that is mostly because Sony expects journalists and consumers to fill them in with "the usual". And I think therein lies the trick.

For now, let's review some elements of the presentation.

Thumbs Up: Mark Cerny

DualShock 4

DualShock 4

The three preceding PlayStation were all conceived by Ken Kutaragi and Teiyu Goto. Nothing against them, but the conceptual nature of the previous platforms was the cause of a lot of headache for many. I think watching the E3 from the year before the PS3 unveiling, when Kutaragi spent minutes talking about distributed computing, illustrates exactly what I mean. Likewise, the hurdles in programming for the last two consoles, added to the last minute inclusion of dedicated 3D crunching silicon is a sign of Kutaragi's disconnection with reality. And in comes Mark Cerny. It's a name many are not familiar with, but it's one of the people in this industry I most respect. And I am not alone. It's worth checking his work, but it should also be mentioned that he may be the person most credited under "Special Thanks" in games. Even without the fame of a Miyamoto ou Molyneux, he is a non-celebrated force in this industry and I think he may just be THE best person to put in charge of plataform development. I just can't praise him enough. And after two generations with Sony Japan handling hardware and Sony Europe handling network, I think this new paradigm is just what the brand needed for the future. Short version: PlayStation 4 has shown a focus in platform as a product, instead of being an exercise in petting engineer's egos.

Thumbs Down: Promises

I remember well during the PS3's unveiling how an integrated storefront inside each game was shown, respecting their art style - something we have barely seen happen on the PS3 - and when it's there, it's even more cumbersome than the not-so-great PSN Store. Sony betrayed our trust way too many times to be given a blank check.

I truly loved Cerny's concerns and ideas, and his promises excited me to no end... yet he spoke almost exclusively in abstract terms and using screen mock-ups. The only functionality we saw in action was video upload. All the talk about streaming, social functions, hardware specifications, controllers news... was explained in abstract terms. Our imagination does wonders when filling those gaps - but reality doesn't always correspond. It's easy to mention things like "Nothing between you and the game" and "Fluidly connect to a larger world" or "Harnessing the power of developers"... but these don't translate to concrete things so simply. So it becomes hard to trust Sony to not deliver on those. It's very nice to promise a game that can be restarted instantly from where you left of, or playing games while downloading them... but without seeing it at work, imagination can do wonders that reality can't compete with.

I love the concepts behind the PlayStation 4. They really excite me. But without seeing them at work, it will be hard to correspond to expectations. Likewise, the promises of Gaikai servers on a global scale require copious amount of good faith - especially for a company in Sony's financial situation. One thing is clear: Sony is betting the house on the console.

A small detail: when showing developer testimonials, it seems like the omitted Randy Pitchford's name, who just went through a huge controversy on the launch of Aliens: Colonial Marines. I don't think that was a coincidence - I think they were hard pressed to completely edit him out, so they pushed the animation segment earlier to when his credits were to be shown. This attention to PERCEPTION in the presentation worries me - overall it was more important that factual capabilities. The quality of slides was amazing, enough to make Apple envious. But I feel like Media Molecule's demo summarizes my opinion: an incredible demo of what is possible... but I cannot begin to figure out how that works or was controlled. They say it was captured in one take, but it was not possible to understand how it operated, and the action was shown in 3 separate screens... exciting imagination, but failing in delivering something that can be achieved at home.

Thumbs Up: Focus on gaming platform

Color me surprised: I could barely believe that Sony did not try to shove Bravias and 4k resolutions down our throat, or Sony phone integration... the old business of locking in consumers in their own products and technologies. But the direction was exactly the opposite: focus on a digital, Internet-based platform. They went as far as mentioning iOS and Android support, going beyond Sony products. It may seem stupid, but this freedom is not only very consumer-friendly, but encourages incredible possibilities that were impossible due to their stubbornness and short-sightedness.

Thumbs Down: Games

Killzone: Shadow Fall

Killzone: Shadow Fall

Do the math. Out of the shown demo, how many were true game experiences? A little Knack, which wasn't particularly impressive; a little Killzone, which already lost their credibility and demoed a gameplay scenario so controlled that it was little more than an Uncharted set piece; Destiny ran some segments, probably in gameplay, but with no real action; the rest was mostly tech demos (including a months-old showing by Square Enix) and non-interactive cutscenes (InFamous SS). Who's left? Watch Dogs, probably the night's most significant example of an actual product... but also one of the least impressive - and I could swear I saw tearing during the demo.

Strangely enough, Sony's past betrayed them here. The public's expectation was that of the announcement of Final Fantasy, Metal Gear and Grand Theft Auto. None of these were shown or confirmed as exclusive.Even knowing some surprises are being left for E3 soon, with less than 10 months until launch, it's hard not to worry about the race against time they have ahead of them.

The trick: sleight of hand

I saw some people discussing the no-show of the console case, with some pointing it as a surprise lefr for E3. Eurogamer asked the question on everyone's lips: "Will it run used games?" After a weird exchange with PR, all we got was "Used games will run on PS4". Note that he is a bit vague, and needed help to answer. I think those two correlate to a third bit of information: optical media was largely ignored during the presentation. The press release mentions a Blu-ray drive, but is vague on media details.

With backwards compatibility restricted to Gaikai streaming, a giant focus in download capabilities (talking about intelligent self-download based on consumer habits and gameplay while downloading), not to mention film and music streaming, I see no need for an optical drive. If it was not for the fact that Shuhei Yoshida mentioned that the console would not require a constant Internet connection, I would not be surprised with an announcement that it would be a platform similar to Onlive: with the new traditional x86 structure, it wouldn't be hard to distribute the computing in a cloud service, given that you had the servers Sony promised (but probably won't be able to deliver on a short or medium term).

Comparação entre o PS3 revelado inicialmente e o produto final

Comparison between the unveiled PS3 and the final unit

Boxed games aren't bound to disappear any time soon. Sony can't buy a fight with brick and mortar stores because it still needs to sell the hardware. But I believe the PS4 could very well follow the PSP and offer cases with a download code. My original theory was that the unit would not have an optical drive at all (which, by te way, was the original plan Kutaragi had for the PS2. No, you did not read that wrong, he wanted PS2 games to be downloaded when he started working on the system). Sony has previously changed specs before launch: who remembers the first showing of the PS3 with 3 Ethernet ports, 2 HDMI ports and some extra USB? I sincerely see no good reason not to show the device's case at this point in the game - it's not like there is a lot of visually compelling stuff to compete with it, and we all remember what happens when you let to design a case at the last minute.

They could very easily put blame on publishers and say that they insisted on not using physical media - they are, after all, the ones pushing for no used games. And they could kill the on-disc DLC snafu at the same time.

The roundup

I am genuinely excited with the device. I feel a need, however, to not let my imagination run wild. The PS4 in my head certainly can not do justice to what will hit store shelves at the end of the year. Likewise, the tech specs suggest an extremely expensive console. 8GB of GDDR5 cost a small fortune, and the integrated custom chipset based on the specs mentioned don't make matters any better (did I mentioned the included camera?). Assembling this beast for less than US$500 is virtually impossible - and added to the current financial situation of the company and the promise to create Gaikai's infrastructure only adds more doubt to the claims.

However, my fear goes beyond: what would be the impact should all that power be in fact true? My next editorial is focused exactly on the dangerous possibilites should Sony actually deliver.

P.S.: Can anyone tell me how the Options button can replace both Start and Select at the same time? That's what the press release is claiming...

P.P.S.: Seems like my concern on Yoshida's answer was not baseless. He has since stepped back on the answer, and as I predicted, shifted blame on publishers. Game cases with no disc and only a download code? We'll see.

Esta postagem também está disponível em: Portuguese (Brazil)

Author, freelance videogame journalist, cinematography major and a little insane.