Sony’s Andrew House – a likeable, cigarette-smoking Welshman – had replaced his usual smile with an expression of mild concern to announce PlayStation 4 in New York last night.
His disquiet was understandable. Sony’s next-generation console will launch into a world where Apple and Google are mopping up gamers with gleeful success, where PlayStation’s position in the industry has been rudely and powerfully challenged. The primary question House needed to answer was not one of price or “graphics”: it was one of relevance.
With half a million people watching online and the ever-cynical games media sneering from the peanut gallery, Sony laid out its next generation plans. PlayStation 4 will release this Christmas. It is a powerful, always-connected machine, one ostensibly easy-to-use by both consumer and developer. Sony said it will form part of an “ecosystem” of services and devices comprising social, mobile, tablet, TV, console and desktop. PS4 is no bachelor. It’s the father of an extended family.
House gave a slick pitch. He showed a machine that has both innovative hardware components – such as a dedicated chip which allows background downloading without disrupting play – and the power to broadcast the PlayStation experience across every screen you own. You’ll be able to access PlayStation Network features on your iPhone or Android tablet, on your computer or through social networks. PS4’s user interface is customisable and bears more than a passing similarity to Windows 8. The modern digital user expects everything everywhere. Major earthquakes have warped gaming’s topography in recent years, and Sony showed it understands the need to architect buildings capable of withstanding future tremors.
One of the biggest shocks of the past console generation has been the impact of the internet, with PC gamers especially benefiting from an explosion in the popularity of online retail services. Streaming and downloading will play a huge part in the PS4 experience, and Sony is right to focus on online content delivery. The world of discs in shops is about to vanish. Sony elaborated on the ability to buy online, promising you’ll be able to start playing games when they’re only partially downloaded. You’l l eventually be able to test games remotely via cloud-based service Gaikai. In time, Sony’s handheld console, PlayStation Vita, will be able to stream any PS4 game to its small screen, freeing up the living room television for other family members.
While we’ve yet to see these features in action, there’s no doubting the intent. As for safer bets, the more traditional games shown yesterday hinted at incredible things to come. The demo of dystopian action simulation Watch Dogs blew the roof off. Destiny, too, looked brilliant.
The next big thing from Halo studio Bungie promises to be a reinvention of the console shooter. Its persistent online world and co-operative adventuring is new to PlayStation and Xbox, and Destiny is likely to become one of the first defining experiences of the new platforms. PS4’s major software pitch will be delivered at E3, an American games show, in June.
House looked more relaxed by the end of the presentation. It was enough for now. PlayStation can exist in the mutating world of video games by embracing new platforms and focusing on connectivity. PS4 itself is built from simple PC components, showing Sony has listened to complaints about the technically obtuse PlayStation 3. It has made a platform on which it is easy to create, share and consume content across any number of devices.
Andrew House was able to answer the question of PlayStation 4’s relevancy yesterday, in concept at least. Smoothly delivering some complex promises at a suitable price is another matter, of course, but Sony deserves to feel relieved this morning.
Patrick Garratt is the editor of video games news site VG247