20 February 2013

My thoughts on the Playstation 4 announcement & the gaming industry's future

First and foremost, I should let you know that I've been an XBOX user since the first XBOX was released in 2005 and have never owned a Playstation in my life. I have never really had a strong attraction to Sony's offering of gaming consoles save for the great console battle of the Sega Dreamcast vs. the PS1. Years after that debate (where Sony obviously won), Sony announced the new Playstation 4 console today and gave the world a glimpse into the series of improvements they've made for their flagship entertainment product and tried to entice the gaming industry that their new product was superior to all other consoles - as any marketing campaign would require. However, the announcement was not what I would call a normal event.
Now, I should raise the disclaimer that I was only able to watch the first half of the announcement up until their presentation of "Drive Club," so information about the presentations made afterwards were sourced from reactions and information disseminated via Twitter. Regardless, here are a few things I noticed about Sony's event today:
  • First, in stark contrast to industry tradition, they elected to announce their new console outside of a large gaming expo, such as E3. I have noticed that this has become a recent trend in the tech industry, where games and consoles are announced outside of these large events and lead me to believe that the hype building up to and after a purely announcement-only event help drive interest so that appearances at venues such as E3 and PAX get more attention. It feels very "viral" in nature and seems to be a very effective technique in generating buzz about products and brands, a fact I will come to again shortly.
  • Secondly, the technical hardware details of their upcoming gaming platform were given fairly early in the presentation, which I was very appreciative of but I'm sure was more techno-babble to most consumers. This fact is very important, because
  • Thirdly, the entire event seemed geared more toward attracting game developers to their platform than   an announcement to consumers. In fact, Sony's event was more a demonstration of their new platform than a reveal of the platform itself. Details of the hardware were almost glossed over and, instead, focus was given to the software-based aspects of the Playstation 4. To illustrate this point, consider the event's timeline: a somewhat high-level discussion was given about the hardware pedigree of the system, only spending a couple minutes talking about the processing power and graphical capabilities; a very short display of the system's new controller, allowing developers a brief glimpse into what capabilities the primary input peripheral will provide; an argument in favor of its design and the principles therein; and finally a sampling of various games and features demonstrating some of the capabilities of the platform. Also, it can not be forgotten that throughout the presentation, mentions of the PS Vita's interoperability with the system were not in short supply.
  • Finally, from what I read via Twitter, the console itself was never shown. This part makes some sense to me since during one of the demos early in the event it was mentioned that they were demonstrating off development hardware. This leads me to think a couple of things: a) they have not settled on a design for the unit; b) the hardware components are technically still in flux, which explains why they did not mention exactly what kind of processor and graphics processor they were using; or (and this goes back to the first point above) c) they purposely did not reveal the physical system to continue to build interest and attention to the new Playstation as speculation of the design of the unit is still unknown.
Overall, this event did not seem like it was destined for consumers. But since they knew prospective consumers were still part of the viewing audience, they included the game demos as part of a way to satiate the typical consumer's desire to know why they would want to spend their money to purchase a shiny new Playstation. This seemed, as I mentioned before, to be more about getting developers to join them and build an IP portfolio for their system and brand before other systems gained a foothold on the market, especially since Nintendo's Wii U has been slow to sell and Microsoft has yet to reveal their own next generation console. The sooner they attract developers, the more likely they may have a successful launch and may be likely to maintain a market foothold for quite some time.
One last point I want to address is the outcry and criticisms I witnessed over various social networks about how they did not actually show what the Playstation 4 would look like. It seemed as though to these people the appearance of the system was more important than the components and platform the system was built on, which, to be frank, is very superficial. Personally, I do not care what the unit looks like since it will sit inside my entertainment cabinet where I will likely never need to see it unless I need to change a disc - which in itself is becoming an infrequent task what with remote power control and online content delivery becoming standard features for most consoles now. For me, and I would hope a lot of other people, the console would merely need to fit into my cabinet and allow me to set other components on top of it and still function without overheating. It could be just a very plain rectangular black box with 1 LED and a disc drive, I don't care. I care only about the experience it pumps to my television and speakers, since ultimately that is where my money was invested if I bought one.
Overall, the game demos I did see showed the new machine had great potential for putting out astoundingly beautiful graphics, but outside of the games, there was little to be terribly excited about. Its social features and remote play via the PS Vita are great conveniences, but I rarely use such things and do not even own a PS Vita, so there is virtually no value to me there. And the fact that there really wasn't anything that got me excited brings me to this: it appears as if the gaming industry has hit a wall. It seems as though the last big creative and technical breakthroughs were made back in 2005, and peripherals such as the Wiimote, WiiU gamepad, Kinect and Move have only incrementally extended the lifetime and functionality of those the respective platforms. But it seems that with the Wii U and now the Playstation 4, the next generation of consoles are shaping up to be less revolutionary and more of just technology refreshes on current designs. But now that two of the gaming giants have put their cards on the table, it will certainly be interesting to see what Microsoft's offering will bring and whether they will contribute any innovations to the industry.

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