Playstation 4: One Year Later
It has been a little more than a year since the Playstation 4 was released to the world, and twenty years since Playstation entered our vocabulary. I think it is time for us to examine the path that Sony’s fourth console has walked down, and where it stands now that it has had a year to prove its qualities, or lack thereof.
Greatness Created and Squandered
It may seem like an eon ago, but in the twilight years of the 20th century Sony was the plucky upstart to Nintendo and Sega when it dared to throw its hat in the platform manufacturers ring. The PlayStation stared down the Nintendo 64 and the Sega Saturn and didn’t blink in the face of that well established competition.
The success of the first Playstation gave Sony the momentum it needed to take the lead in console sales soon after the release of the Playstation 2 in 2001. This was made even more clear when the Sega Dreamcast, despite having similar technological capabilities and a great stable of games was discontinued a year after the premiere of the Playstation 2 because it simply couldn’t compete.
By 2004 the Playstation 2 had sold more than 70 million consoles worldwide and at E3 2006. Riding high on that success Ken Kutaragi, the then chairman of Sony Computer Entertainment announced the Playstation 3 and had the audacity of claiming that gamers would get a second job in order to afford one. That was a blunder that resulted in the Xbox 360, which went on sale a year earlier and for a hundred dollars cheaper, being seen as the more appealing to the average consumer and a sales lead that Sony would be playing catch up to for the next seven years.
The time finally came for the retirement of the seventh generation of consoles and more than any generation that came before it was obvious a year prior to its beginning that the winds of change were already blowing. The most creatively ambitious games of 2011 and 2012 like Assassins Creed III, Far Cry 3, and Battlefield 3 were not able to do much more than serve as shells of their potential and sacrificed frame rate, resolution, and player counts to simply be able to function on those old machines, which drove many to play them as they were meant to be played on the PC. A cryptic invitation was sent out by Sony at the end of January inviting the press and by extension, the world, to “see the future” at a press conference the following month.
Everyone expected to see the unveiling of the Playstation 4, but no one expected Sony to so aggressively orient that initial reveal towards recapturing the hearts and minds of those that it might have lost in 2005. Mark Cerny, a fabled game designer responsible for some of Sony’s most enduring franchises including Rayman, Jax and Daxter and Uncharted, was announced as the System Architect for the Playstation 4. That revelation was not only a sign that Sony was entrusting its new console to someone that has been primarily game, and not technology oriented, but that they understood that game design was not Japano-centric anymore. But beyond some flashy trailers and promises of incredible socially oriented functionality, much of the PS4’s reveal was built on the machine’s hypothetical potential. We would have to wait until E3 for the full coming out party.
Microsoft may not have been first to the next generation console announcement circus, but it had a much greater level of hype to live up to considering how prolific the Xbox 360 had become. And unlike the Playstation 4’s premiere, Microsoft chose to focus on everything but games, and emphasized the console’s ability to route your television programming and video games through the Xbox One simultaneously, and when E3 2013 rolled around they announced the price, $499, the console’s hardware specifications, which weren’t on the same level as the PS4, and forced players to keep their console online whether or not the game needed it was seen as both arrogant and out of touch that Sony quickly leveraged against them by announcing that the Playstation 4 would be one hundred dollars cheaper and could be played offline without issue.
Released on November 15 and November 29 2013 in the US and Europe respectively the Playstation 4 sold over a million units after only a month, and a year later had secured a place in the living room of over 10 million people in every corner of the world. Those impressive sales stats have made everyone believe that this this is the console set to reclaim the title belt for Sony that had been lost in the last generation. But there are several other pieces to that puzzle that we should consider that will assist us in gauging whether that possibility is truly realizable.
Pay to Play is Here to Stay?
Two things differentiated the Xbox from the Playstation in the last generation, the first was that it’s network infrastructure was reliable and part and parcel to that was that it was a premium feature, at least if you wanted to play against others online. While many felt that Sony was the champion of both the technologically savvy and (after several price drops and the introduction of PS Plus), the thrifty gamer, by allowing its players to play online multiplayer without paying a subscription fee Sony realized that in order to both expand its offerings and its market penetration they would have to change that policy.
And boy oh boy were they clever about how they went about doing that. Riding off of the rush of dropping megaton after megaton on Microsoft by announcing the PS4’s lower price, liberal game sharing and offline play policies Jack Tretton slipped in the little nugget about access to online multiplayer requiring a PS Plus subscription, with the exception of Free to Play games and single player games that had online leaderboards.
So did it pay off? PS Plus subscriptions number over 7.9 million as of November of this year, which is more than half of everyone that owns a PS4, so I would say yes, in Sony’s case. What about us, the subscribers? Personally I thought PS Plus was a good investment for the incredible games that were on offer for us to download every month for as long as we maintained our subscription. Cloud saves are a nice bonus, but I don’t have much use for them as one of the unwashed scum that only has one PS4 and don’t have many friends that have PS4’s within a geographically proximate area. Secondly, the reliability that my multiplayer taxes should have guaranteed still isn’t there yet as Destiny, Driveclub and the biweekly outages have proven.
Instant Gratification or Frustration?
Seamlessness was another major feather in Sony’s cap when promoting the PS4 back in 2013, the unpleasant experience of downloading patches, system updates or even waiting for a game to install before playing it were all supposed to be things of the past. While those promises turned out to be mostly true, the PS Vita like suspend feature is nowhere to be seen, and more often then not those background downloads need to be started manually by me before I can put my console into ‘rest mode’ to download overnight. Push updates or nothing is what I say. As a quick note, don’t release feature rich updates to the hardware unless you know they won’t break both games and core system functionality. I would rather have cool new features meted out to make the 300th system stability update seem less lame.
The increased graphical fidelity showcased by launch titles like Killzone: Shadow Fall and Knack, to a lesser extent, were certainly impressive in showing off what games would look like on the shiny new box, but it was the promise of being able to share your gameplay experiences with anyone by streaming your gameplay via Twitch, saving screenshots or 15 minute long gameplay clips or even reincarnating couch coop by allowing others to participate in single players games that made the Playstation 4 seem like a next generation machine for the socially connected world we inhabited.
Unfortunately, the promise of endless social connectivity has yet to fully take off, while streaming your games (or your more private activities in the Playroom) has taken off, the concept of online enabled coop is just getting started and has not matured beyond what was offered by the previous consoles.
With every genertion comes the hope that our dreams of inhabiting vividly imaginative and infinitely more realistic worlds will finally be realized. And the job of every launch game is to satisfy the latter while preserving the former. Killzone: Shadow Fall and Knack were the two most prominent launch games of the PS4, and what they gave us was physics and shader driven splendor heavily constrained by a shortened and technologically impaired development cycle. Which lead to a trend that has been seen before but never to this extent.
If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, or rather, if it was a successful and well liked game on the older consoles it was probably up-rezzed and re-released as a ‘definitive’ version to kill time until developers could produce a proper game that takes advantage of the new programming tools we are just beginning to understand. While I didn’t mind replaying some of the best games every made for a second time, our favorite hobby exists because we are constantly shown new things that we have to experience. Until this point most of my favorite games of this new generation were highly polished relics of the last generation.
There were the odd exceptions, Driveclub, Infamous: Second Son and Shadow of Mordor were games built to take advantage of the current generation technology to show us something we hadn’t seen before and I know, and hope that next year will continue to offer us new experiences that will allow us to finally shrug off the longest, and therefore the most persistent gameplay trends of the PS3 days.
The Playstation 4 is the product of twenty years of lessons that Sony has learned, and one of it’s greatest accomplishments is that they aren’t afraid to keep experimenting with new ideas that don’t simply improve their bottom line, but challenge our expectations of what to expect from a game console maker and a video game publisher. Some of those very same ideas might not be fully cooked when they are served to us, and like some other Japanese console manufacturers, Sony might hold on to tradition for longer than they should have, but when change is made, it is made with confidence and comprehensiveness. The Playstation 4 is a console that has shown that gaming is both alive and well and hasn’t changed a great deal since the last go around, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t.