PlayStation

The PS4: One Day Later

I went to Sony’s over-hyped 2006 press conference and they showed the world a version of the PlayStation 3 that we never quite got. And so last night, I went to Sony’s 2013 PlayStation 4 press conference wondering what new ways they’d planned to trick me.

You go to one of these big showcase events where they don’t even admit, on stage, the reality that there are things called “Xbox”es and “iPad”s out there and you expect to be misled.

You expect to be lied to. Maybe you’ll get the darker lies of misleading marketing. Maybe you’ll hear about plans or promises that sound like guarantees, until you parse the language and notice all the loopholes.

More likely, you’ll hear the more innocent lies of hopes that never happen while your brain plays a few tricks on you and tells you that you ought to be more excited just because it’s supposed to be an exciting moment.

If this all sounds too cynical, keep in mind two things:

  1. At the time of that 2006 PS3 event, Sony’s then-next console was going to be able to pull extra processing power from your Sony-made kitchen appliances and was going to output two HD TVs at once, if you wanted it to. These features, among others, were cut.
  2. The first year of a console’s life-cycle is awful enough, with a launch-line-up usually full of mediocrities followed by months barren of many game releases… so a console’s year zero, when they’re just talking about it, is even further removed from when the console is actually going to be good. So there’s not a lot of reason to be that sunny about the immediate future. More than likely, that new console that sounds so good is going to launch in rough shape.

I went into the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City last night expecting there to be smoke and mirrors. I kept looking for them.

I left the ballroom without even seeing a PlayStation 4, which I admit was an unexpected magic trick. Credit to Sony for pulling one off. We saw the controller. We didn’t see the box. We got the inversion of the Wii’s debut, when Satoru Iwata showed the little Wii console in May of 2005 but didn’t show off the system’s controller until September of that year.

We didn’t see the box, I think, because Sony wants us to forget about the box. Sony’s game studio chief Shuhei Yoshida told me yesterday that they basically decided they didn’t need to show it. He told reporters today that the design isn’t even finalised. Fine, but it was also clear last night that Sony wants people to feel like they can access their games from anywhere, from any device. It doesn’t benefit that message for them to show a box — to remind people that there’s an expensive, central thing that they don’t own yet that is needed for this PS4 experience. Instead, they stressed how effectively many of the things we already have — smartphones, tablets, even our Facebook accounts — will work with the PlayStation 4 gaming experience. Apple gets away with selling you a powerful game device without making you think you’re buying one — or without them even thinking about selling it to you. You buy a phone. You sort of happen to wind up with a game machine. This PS4-without-a-PS4 unveiling feels like it’s designed for that kind of world.

That was the thing at that 2006 PS3 event. We saw trailer after trailer that looked nothing like the games that came out for the PlayStation 3 in the following years. Sony sold vision, not reality.

The magic trick I did expect to see was a trailer or two for a game that will never look as good when it’s running on my future PS4. That was the thing at that 2006 PS3 event. We saw trailer after trailer that looked nothing like the games that came out for the PlayStation 3 in the following years. Sony sold vision, not reality. Not surprising. That’s what marketers do. Shame on us if we believe.

Watch the trailers and interactive demos from last night’s event, however, and you won’t see as many telltale signs of visual trickery. Sure, the Infamous: Second Son trailer wasn’t gameplay, but the Killzone: Shadow Fall playable demo… it… well… it didn’t look that much better than what we get on PS3 now, did it? It looked nice. You could see really far across the game’s cityscape. There are more sparks, more debris, but as I kept saying last night to Sony PR people who asked me what I thought: If you’d told me that was a PS3 game, I’d say “Wow, they really pushed the PS3.” But I wouldn’t say you were a liar.

The only game we saw last night that looked too good be to true was Capcom’s tech-demo/work-in-progress/maybe-it’s-a-game Deep Down.

These graphics don’t look like extra-pretty PS3 graphics.

This was the one “game” shown that seemed so unbelievable that, with memories of 2006 in my head, I didn’t believe it. No way that’s real. Well, later in the evening I was talking to some people who’ve worked on the PS4. Not Capcom people, but developers. And they said, actually, sure, that’s doable, maybe if you constrain the game you’re designing. Maybe if you make it like a one-room-at-a-time dungeon crawler. A PS4 game could look that good.

The vibe in 2006 was that Sony would tell you anything. They’d tell you the PS3 would iron your pants and expect you’d believe it. The only bad news they delivered was the price, and they left that $US600 sticker shock to the end, after they dropped the mic and figured you’d be sufficiently impressed. Last night was different, because out came game designer/exec David Perry and he served up some bad news in plain language. He just sandwiched it into a stack of pretty amazing promises (emphasis added by me):

The PlayStation Network and the cloud can present an additional value to PlayStation gamers. (…) Although PS3 titles aren’t natively supported on the PS4, we’re exploring some very unique opportunities enabled by cloud technology, with the long-term vision of making PS3 games ubiquitous on any device; the technology is so advanced that someday we could easily put PS1/PS2/PS3 and the PS Mobile games on any device, including the PS4.

Here it was. Bad news. Sony must have figured that they might as well get that one out of the way. Some people will tell you that backwards compatibility doesn’t matter or that it only matters short-term or not not enough to justify the cost. Whatever. You’d rather have it than not, I think. Sony’s pushing some amazing-looking games like Last of Us and Beyond for PS3 this year, and if you’re a fervent enough fan of interesting games to know those exist, you might well be someone who wants to get a PS4 this holiday season. And if you want those games and that system, then you’re probably going to want to keep a PS3 alongside your new PS4. That’s aggravating no matter what the technical explanation involving incompatible system architectures is. And no cloud-gaming promise is going to hold much weight with people who live in places where a fast, consistent, persistent Internet connect is not guaranteed (thanks for nothing, Time Warner Cable).

I’ve been through console transitions before that had no backwards compatibility. I got rid of my Super Nintendo when I was in college, kept a few cartridges but took to leap to the disc-based GameCube. It was bittersweet. I missed playing Yoshi’s Island almost immediately. I didn’t mind the Xbox-Xbox360 transition. That one, I could jump without missing much, and Microsoft got most of my old favourites to run on 360 eventually. Sony’s Yoshida has already sent some mixed signals about whether a Last of Us or Beyond might come to PS3. He told Eurogamer that, hey, since gamers and game-makers liked seeing some PS2 games rebuilt to run on PS3, sure, “I think for some [PS3] games it will make sense for us to look at.” But he also acknowledged at a separate meeting with reporters today that doing that kind of thing is “not [Sony's] focus.” There’s “focus” and then there’s what makes sense and there’s not frustrating the loyal fans.

I saw Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs apparently running on PS4 or at least with a PS4 controller at last night’s event. And that game is supposedly still coming to PS3, Xbox 360 and PC. So, if Ubisoft can make PS3 and PS4 versions, which PS3 owner is going to be ok buying Last of Us for PS3 in June and not being given a way to play it on their new PS4 in November? Looks like there’s a solution for Sony there, if they want make the effort to port. Easier said than done, I know.

The most futuristic part of the PS4 event was David Perry’s presentation and some of Mark Cerny’s before. The future they described may sound like the PC’s present to some, but nevertheless, the promise of standardized, one-button video capture of gameplay is wonderful. The idea that friends can spectate any games or even take them over if you’re stuck, sounds like a high-tech step in the right direction. While the graphics at yesterday’s event failed to wow me, the services likes these did. Not surprisingly, they’re also the things I’m most wary of. They’re the things I’m most convinced are verbal sleights of hand. We’ll see how much of these smart stores and no-wait downloads and other services come to be and how much they’re just the idealised hopes preceding a less lofty reality. I want to believe, but that I want to is what sets the alarm bells off.

I want to believe, but that I want to is what sets the alarm bells off.

The best things about the PlayStation 4 that we know are mostly small things. You see all the bluster and splendor and it’s easy to wonder what’s going to be truly great, but you hear a tiny fact and you hang some confidence on that. I suspect developers loved hearing about 8GB of RAM. I suspect some indie folks out there were intrigued by Sony’s promise to allow self-publishing on PS4. I looked through Sony’s press releases last night and found a mention that they’ll let the new PS4 controllers charge while the system is a stand-by mode. That micro-detail is actually something I’m excited about. Yay! The PS4 is catching up the 360! More like: yay! One PS3 aggravation could go away with the PS4.

There were other little things that made big differences: the headphone jack in the new controller, promising we don’t have to worry about long wires to the console or unreliable wireless headsets; the declaration that the PS4 can do background-processing, so you don’t have to stop using your PlayStation, as you did the PS3 when you wanted to first run a game you just downloaded. These are tiny things, but they cross lines in the long list of PS3 inconveniences. The PS4 may bring new headaches but it seems like it’s not backwards compatible with the old PS3 ones.

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I expect every game console to stink for at least a year. I expect the launch games to be games I only suffer to enjoy until the good stuff comes (Mario 64 was a freak occurrence!). I expect year one of PS4 to be as bad as year ones always are. And I expect year three to be pretty damn good, as PlayStation and Nintendo and Xbox year threes tend to be. I was expecting a console, sure. But I’ll take a controller. I wasn’t expecting a price. No one ever announces price this early.

I guess I didn’t really expect people who make first-person shooters to show anything more than more detailed guns

I didn’t expect David Cage to say anything different than that he hopes games can be more emotional (dude, play Fire Emblem — not many polys-per-emotion-evoked there)…

I didn’t expect a revolution in hyper-detailed racing games

I also didn’t expect Jonathan Blow to show up and talk some truth about how developers pad their games with filler and promise, refreshingly that he would not. And I know The Witness looks like a modern Myst and that for many Blow seems like a blow-hard, but I’ve played the game. It’s very good. It’s the PS4 game I’m most excited about.

***

Were there a lot of smoke and mirrors last night? I don’t think so. Not ones we couldn’t see through. There was a lot of vision, yes. There wasn’t much tangible. And there was a lot of the same-old, same-old with added special effects. At the end of the day, no matter what the Sony people say, the PlayStation is an appliance. It’s a bit weird to get excited for appliances. So am I excited for the new machine? Not really. Do I look forward to having one? Yes. It’s a console. I know how these things work. And so do you.