PlayStation 4 Reveal Post-mortem: The end of gaming as we know it?
Let’s not pull any punches: while the PlayStation 3 has been successful as a games console, its development and lifecycle management has more or less been a catalogue of errors by Sony Computer Entertainment (SCE). We have seen a hardware architecture that nobody knew how to use, backed up by poor quality development tools; hardware reliability for the first years was extremely poor with a 33% return rate due to the ‘yellow light of death’ syndrome; management of the PlayStation Network (PSN) has been extremely shoddy, with one security breach leading to over a month of downtime, regular large maintenance windows which often stretch to 12 hours or more, and pricing/availability errors with each new store update every week. Regionalized versions of the PSN store (something the Xbox 360 doesn’t have) have created almost a kind of class divide between Europeans and Americans, with each complaining that the other gets better service and offers. Each region uses its own certification and QA processes, leading to non-uniform release dates for digital titles that are sometimes staggered by months. In the meanwhile, the platform has become infested with day 1 DLC, online passes, in-game micro-transactions and other ploys to milk the gamers of their hard-earned cash in as many ways as possible. Consumer confidence in PlayStation among hardcore gamers is at an all-time low. In the meanwhile, Sony as a global brand have failed to turn a profit for the last 4 years running due to poor TV sales, lack of interest in 3D (mercifully), the earthquake in Japan and unfavourable exchange rates against the Yen.
It was with a healthy dose of trepidation, therefore, that I tuned into the PlayStation 4 Reveal which took place at midnight CET on the morning of 21st February 2013.
The atmosphere among the journos was decidedly tepid – the first 12 minutes or so was pure business technobabble, with the majority of games and services shown barely receiving golf-clap applause from the 1200-strong attendee audience. It’s easy to understand why: the reveal was vague, fluffed out with marketing nonsense, and the majority of the time was spent devoted to showcasing 5 or 6 games which were either sequels or non-revolutionary new IPs. It’s important to note that we will probably get the full details at E3, and this conference was likely designed to get the jump on Microsoft pending their announcement of a new competitor console. Nevertheless, the lack of detail was disappointing.
While the form factor of the machine itself wasn’t shown, we have been informed that it will run an 8-core AMD x86-64 Jaguar CPU (rumours say this will be running at 1.6GHz), and an “enhanced PC GPU” based on the AMD Radeon, with 18 compute units running at a total maximum of 1.84 TFLOPS (again, rumours speculate that this will be an AMD Radeon HD 7000-series or similar). It was stated that the CPU and GPU will be rolled onto a single die, which is good news for performance.
One other significant detail was revealed: the PS4 will use 8GB of GDDR5 RAM as unified system and video RAM. While most of the hardware specs of any new console aren’t really important at this stage in the evolution of gaming (anything you could use nowadays will produce decent framerates at 1080p for a living room environment, so it’s the services architecture that will differentiate Microsoft and Sony’s offering this time around), this decision on RAM is to be applauded. The PS3 was crippled by having 256MB of system RAM (some of which was used by the OS) and 256MB of video RAM, compared to the Xbox 360’s 512MB of unified RAM. Using unified RAM, and specifically 8GB rather than 4GB – which should be enough to futureproof the machine for a couple extra years – and GDDR5 (the new Xbox is expected to use GDDR3) – should make memory throughput lightning fast on the PS4 (maximum theoretical throughput of 176GB/sec).
Using the familiar x86 architecture is a trade-off: on the one hand, we are not seeing the innovation or leap in raw processing power relative to current PCs as we did with the Cell and RSX architecture of the PS3. The new Xbox is likely to use a similar or identical processor, as it is reported that AMD are supplying chipsets to both manufacturers. On the other hand, it means that porting will be easier, developers unfamiliar with consoles will have a much easier time migrating from PC game development, and the dev tools available will be much more mature, leading to higher productivity. This is all good news for the gamer, and the development community. It just means that rather than some novel powerhouse architecture that only a few developers can utilise to the full, we’re getting more of a PC in a box this time.
A custom secondary ASIC on the motherboard will be dedicated to downloading software updates and such. Your games will now update while the system is “powered off”, which is ok if it actually updates all of your games and not just the last 10 you played as PlayStation Plus does now.
While no information was given about the physical media used by the machine, hard disk sizes, input/output connectors, audio or networking capabilities and so on during the press conference itself, the press release states that the PS4 will be equipped with a Blu-ray drive running at 6x (or 8x for DVDs), at least one USB 3 port, Gigabit Ethernet, wifi b/g/n connectivity, Bluetooth 2.1, HDMI out, digital optical out and legacy AV outputs.
The DualShock 4 resembles the trusty DualShock 3, with a few changes. The rear triggers are now concave instead of convex, the analog sticks are slightly smaller and have edge borders, the Select and Start buttons have been replaced with an Options button that lies at the top edge slightly to the left of triangle, a touchpad (not touch screen) has been introduced in the centre, a PS Move light bar has been added to the back, an integrated speaker has been added and the rumble function has apparently been ‘enhanced’. One nifty feature is that the DualShock 4 has a headset jack. Whether you can use this to plug in your headphones and listen to the game sound, or only for in-game voice chat, is as of yet unclear. The light bar on the back is detected by the new PS4 Eye, a device with a Kinect-like form factor featuring 2 cameras and 4 directional microphones. The PS4 will come with a headset as standard, although it’s not clear if it will come with a PS4 Eye or not.
It’s not all good news, unfortunately. Technology is all about finding new ways to invade the consumer’s privacy these days, and PlayStation 4 is no exception. The DualShock 4 features a Share button which allows you to stream your gaming session live via UStream or Facebook, flick through the last few minutes of gameplay to upload photos and videos, and so on. Recipients can send you on-screen messages in response, and the sharing happens in the background while you continue to play. I’m sure hardcore and casual gamers alike will be thrilled by this feature set.
I’m going to gloss over this because I think we all got pretty bored of watching pre-rendered cinematic sequences last night. UbiSoft later confirmed that the demo of Watch Dogs was actually running on a PC; as usual at these kinds of events, we shouldn’t take anything we see on-screen too seriously, although it was telling that Square Enix could only manage to bring a 1-year old tech demo to the table.
Needless to say, the games looked graphically respectable, but then they should, it’s a given. The main point of interest games-wise is that both Blizzard Entertainment and Bungie are on-board with PS4, the former working on a 10-year project called Destiny (an open-world online shooter), the latter bringing Diablo 3 to the platform (and PS3 as well). Blizzard will no doubt have a new cash cow on their hands.
Social this, Connected that
I find the modern emphasis that games have to be socially connected to everyone and everything in the world extremely disturbing. It is bad enough that new PS3 games ask us to share to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, but it seems that with PS4, we’re taking it to a whole new level. Business goons seem to have got it into their head that if we are playing games alone, we are somehow socially unbalanced, isolated and lonely people. At the same time, there is an increasing push to make games and game stats available everywhere. There was much fanciful bantering during the presentation about being able to stream games on your cellphone or tablet, or go into a multiplayer lobby while you’re on the train and challenge someone to a match when you get home, plus a lot more I won’t bore you with. So on the one hand, they want us to be social; on the other hand, they want us to take our games everywhere and be glued to our OLEDs.
There was a video clip showing a guy playing a video game at home, then getting up and going somewhere on the train without his games. This was portrayed as a sad thing. Is there really something wrong with this picture? It begs the question: what is the problem with playing a game in your living room, then getting on with the rest of your life? I like to think of myself as a socially balanced person: sometimes I code, sometimes I blog, sometimes I play video games, and a lot of the time, I go out and have coffee with my friends. I’m really not interested in knowing what my KD ratio is or how many people have beaten my lap time while I’m taking those coffees; but as a corollary, I’m really not interested in talking to my friends or giving them a running commentary on every move I make in a game, while I’m trying to work on some quests or beat a difficult boss.
This fundamental change in the direction of gaming is not unique to PlayStation: Xbox is going the same way, as has the Wii U. Dedicating an entire button on the controller to ‘social’ sets a worrying precedent about just how important this really is to them. Virtually every CEO who came to demo their new PS4 game harped on about how the game was about socialising, teamwork and the people, and not so much about the shooting, or the racing or whatever. Evolution Studios (of MotorStorm fame) demoed Drive Club, a driving game where the emphasis is on “people, not the races”. You join a team and play online. It was stomach-curdling enough to watch a race in progress with icons in the corner saying “15 comments, 243 likes”, but when he whipped out his iPhone and started talking about using the Drive Club app while you’re away from your console, it was highly off-putting.
Additionally, it was stated that the majority of social networking aspects of the new console will use players’ real names a la Facebook, not gamer handles.
Of course, I have no doubt all of these games will have offline single-player modes. I just know social connectivity is going to be rammed down our throats like never before though.
Social ideas that were good
PS4 will offer players the opportunity to share their gameplay via a live stream as mentioned above. Other PS4 users (and presumably, phone and web users too, so everyone) will be able to live spectate these games, and offer a hand if a friend is struggling. The idea is that you can hand off control of the game to your friend while he or she completes a section you are stuck on, then control is handed back, all while you sit and watch the action unfold. That was pretty neat, though see caveats below.
Spectating on its own is also arguably a good feature; it has become very popular on YouTube the last years, and it can be very handy to watch someone else to figure out how to complete a section of a game.
Immediacy – Powered by Lag
There was a lot of talk about play needing to be immediate. The unbearable trauma of having to wait for a machine to boot and put a disk in then wait for it to load. Similarly re: downloadable titles. Personally I solve the first problem by pausing the game and turning the TV off, which I find works quite well. However, much new technology was discussed, and good news is that PS4 will have a PSP/Vita-style suspend mode where you can just press the power button on the controller to (instantly) hibernate the system. This is a nice feature.
The other immediacy features, however, raised more questions than they answered. Games you like the look of on PSN will be demo-able by streaming them directly via Gaikai, who were purchased by Sony in 2012. It was also stated that you no longer need to download an entire game to start playing it, rather, a “small fraction”, while the rest downloads in the background as you play. To me, this sounds like a recipe for catastrophe. First, the games will have to be configured to support this – is any multi-platform port going to bother? Second, I smell massive amounts of lag when the player reaches a point in the game that hasn’t been downloaded yet. This feature will have to be very carefully designed and orchestrated to work properly, and I do wonder if the effort for developers will be more than it’s worth.
It was ironic listening to (or trying to listen to) the talk about streaming games over Gaikai, as I watched the Sony-powered presentation stream stutter and buffer and drop audio repeatedly on my 20Mbit non-shared dedicated business connection. I wasn’t the only one having problems, and you have to wonder if Sony can’t even manage to broadcast their own big reveal event properly to half a million viewers, how they are going to get on with an entire game streaming network. We can only hope that SCE has no involvement in Gaikai streaming at all, but even then, people are going to need fast stable internet connections to take advantage of this technology, and Gaikai is also going to have to be available in the consumer’s country. The net result? This technology will be mostly useless for the foreseeable future except in selected areas such as South Korea.
You have 200 PSN games. Will they play on PS4? Well, no, because the architecture is completely different to the Cell architecture of the PS3. The proposed solution? The CEO of Gaikai put it like this: “The technology is so advanced that some day, we could see all PS1, PS2, PS3 and PS Mobile games streaming on the service”. So in other words, there is currently no backwards compatibility at all, and if there is to be, it will be via streaming, which would be ‘really cool’ to do ‘some day’.
Sony have spoken on the record and said that shoehorning PS2 hardware (the Emotion Engine et al) into early PS3s for backwards compatibility was a mistake that cost them money and increased the time to market. Do not expect any meaningful backwards compatibility with PS4.
Things They “Forgot” To Mention
- What does the hardware look like?
- Will it be launched simultaneously in all regions (they have stated the release date as ‘Holiday 2013’ at the end of the presentation)
- What are the hard disk sizes? Will it use standard hard disks that are upgradeable as with the PS3?
- Will the regionalized PSN stores be merged into a global store? (highly needed, but highly unlikely)
- Will the system be locked to a single PSN account (as with the PS Vita) or allow multiple accounts (as with the PS3)?
- How much will it cost?
Most of the questions that are concerning gamers now have remained unanswered, although we’ll presumably find out more at E3.
Shuhei Yoshida says that the PS4 will “play used games” but as you can see from this interview, his responses are very vague and leave much to the imagination. Let’s hope you don’t have to pay an activation fee to play them.
So where are we at with the story so far?
- A high-end PC in a box that will be a medium-end PC in a box by the time it’s released
- Improved memory architecture and development tools should improve game quality relative to the competitors
- New controller with touchpad + traditional controls, headset jack and bundled headset
- Games that update themselves in the background
- Suspend mode
- Live stream sharing, live spectate, control hand-off, background sharing (all requiring a fast stable internet connection)
- Everything will be connected to your smartphone or tablet
- Incremental game downloads (subject to developer support)
- Gaikai demo streaming (subject to regional support and internet connection speed/caps)
- No backwards compatibility
- No outright used game blocking, but we should be wary of other potential roadblocks
For me, what this means is an evolutionary development rather than a revolutionary one. There are some nice features here. There is also a lot of crap. There is nothing that is a must-have, and lots of important questions remain unanswered. If PSN continues to be maintained and managed the way it is now, it will continue to lurch from screw-up to screw-up as it does now and the fundamental problem with PS3 will be carried over to PS4. It’s not the hardware that really matters in the end, it’s the way the platform is managed, and SCE have demonstrated with PSN on PS3 that they are absolutely clueless in online platform management.
All we can do now is patiently await Microsoft’s retaliatory salvo, and E3.