For those of you not already aware; Wednesday was big day for the games
industry. it was on that day, early into the evening, that the
Playstation 4 - Sony's next generation offering- was finally unveiled,
to much fanfare. The console, which is due by the holiday season of
2013; is easily powerful enough to blow pretty much any of the current
generation of offerings straight out of the water, and the launch titles thus far
look positively brilliant. That's not what makes it exciting, though.
It's only when one looks closer - at some of the features of the
console - that one realizes just what this system could mean for video
games. We're going to focus on three things: how Sony is appealing to developers, how they're encouraging deeper connectivity between their players, and how they're leveraging the power of the cloud.
The Basics of Playstation 4
For those of you who missed the press event (or simply didn't have time to sit down and watch it for two straight hours), here are the quick and dirty details on the console - think of this as something of a 'TL;DR on what the PS4 can do.
- We still don't know what the console looks like. Sony was quite coy about giving us a glimpse of the system.
- In terms of raw specs, the PS4 will host an 8-core X86 CPU unified with a high-powered GPU capable of two teraflops of computational power between them, and 8GB of high-speed GDDR5 RAM. In addition, it's got hardware dedicated to game downloads, video compression and decompression, and social play.
- The Share Button will allow easy uploading and live-streaming of video and will let friends jump in and take control of play sessions.
- Digital titles will be playable even while downloading as a result of specialized hardware.
- As bandwidth is concerned, the system is capable of speeds up to 176GBPS.
- Expect integration with other Sony products (particularly the Vita); tablets, smartphones, and PCs.
- The system will allow for suspension of gameplay when the console is powered down - the game can be resumed instantly at any time.
With that out of the way, let's move on to the discussion.
The Design Principles
One of the most fascinating keynotes at the event came courtesy of Mark Cerny
"One of our main goals in the design of the Playstation 3 was that nothing come between the platform, the player, and the joy of playing," Lead System Architect Mark Cerny told an audience consisting of millions. "We wanted our system architecture to fluidly connect the player to a larger world of experience, but moreoever, we wanted to hear from developers - we spoke to dozens of the best teams in the world, but we wanted to ensure the creation of an architecture that would facilitate the expression of their ideas." In other words...Sony set out from the beginning to make things simpler for its developers.
It's a far cry from what it did with the Playstation 3 - whose early SDK was "intentionally"obtuse: "We don't provide the 'easy to program for' console that developers want, because 'easy to program for' means that anybody will be able to take advantage of pretty much what the hardware can do, so then the question becomes 'what can you do for the rest of nine-and-a-half-years?" SCEI Head Kazuo Hirai explained back in 2009.
Thank God someone knocked some sense into them, right?
In keeping with the 'ease of development' idea, the console's 8-core CPU will be running an X86 architecture - basically what most PCs use these days. This is, Cerny explained, because most developers are actually quite comfortable coding in such an environment. It's familiar to them, and hence makes things much easier for them to do. Couple that with the positively massive power the system's packing under the hood, and you've got the sort of device most developers probably dream of running their games on.
Coupled with the fact that Playstation Move makes 3D modeling a breeze (and something do-able by gamers as well as developers), we're likely to end up with some very, very exciting games. We've already got some pretty exciting stuff on the way- Knack, Watch Dogs, an Infamous sequel, The Witcher 3, and a puzzle game which combines Myst and Lost in an aesthetic that resembles an oil painting. This is only the tip of the iceberg- there's much more to come.
Let's stop for a moment to talk about the power of the PS4's "Share" button. As many of you probably well know, livestreaming's become a pretty big thing in the past few years. People all over the world stream and upload videos of them playing various different games, sharing their experiences with their fans, friends, and families. Typically, this requires the use of specialized applications and a streaming service - or at the very least, video editing software.
Sony has taken this process and streamlined it. Whenever you're playing a game on the PS4; sharing that gameplay experience with your friends and followers is as simple as pressing the 'share' button.This will immediately begin streaming a live video of your play to everyone who cares to look. At any point - say you took down a boss in a particularly creative fashion, or completed a particularly difficult challenge - you can decide to record and upload a video with little more than a few button clicks.
It doesn't end there, either. Depending on what the developer allowed for; friends who are watching you play can give you items, modify your surroundings, or even take control of your character if you're having trouble with a particularly difficult segment. It is, as Gaikai's David Perry explains it, an integration of "the experience of your friends sitting next to you on the couch;" projected across the globe. There's even more to it than that. Sony is working to integrate everything - including social media - into their console. The Playstation 3 will place a focus on 'real-world' friends through partnerships with major social networks such as Facebook.
This forms a portion of the crux of the PS4's deep personalization - based on your favorite games and developers (as well as those of your friends), the console will 'predict' which purchases you might make in the future - meaning you could decide to buy a game and find it already loaded onto your console, ready to play without necessitating a download. Not bad, right?
All this taken in tandem means one thing - the Playstation 4 (and consequently, gaming) could well see itself becoming so deeply integrated into our lives come 2014 that it ends up taking gaming to a whole new level. We've already seen video games make their way into mainstream culture - could true and complete integration be the next step?
To be fair, the intense push towards socialization could be more akin to Sony reading the writing on the wall than anything else. As Erik Kain of Forbes put it; it would have been insanely stupid of them to ignore the trend towards a more social gaming experience. Even so, it's a rather interesting - and exciting - step forward for anyone who finds gaming more enjoyable when there are people with which to share the experience.
Harnessing the Power of the Cloud
It was no coincidence, of course, that Gaikai was at the conference - a great deal of the networking technology in the Playstation 4 was built upon their proprietary systems - which you might recall were acquired by Sony along with the organization itself last July. The technology played a great part, it seems, in designing the architecture geared for Remote Play: the ability to actively stream games from the Playstation 4 to a secondary device, such as a Playstation Vita. Their ultimate goal is to make every Playstation 4 title playable on the Vita, so long as it's got a network connection and a console that can function as a game server.
Gaikai's technology will also be doing a lot of the heavy lifting relative to the "Share" feature I mentioned earlier. The ability to take control of another player's local session via the Internet - without latency - isn't exactly an easy thing to accomplish, even if both networks involved are up to it.
This is, of course, where we run into one of the problems with Sony's plans for the PS4 - and the issue with any initiative related to the cloud: believe it or not; not everyone has a network connection capable of dealing with such intense bandwidth demands. Sony's biggest challenge here will thus not be making the system work, but making sure it works in such a way that it doesn't overtly impede the experience of anyone without the networking resources to support it.
A secondary goal for Gaikai's presence was to revamp and beef up the Playstation Network -as well as the system's internal architecture. For Perry, it's all about immediacy - some day, he hopes; gamers will be able to play or stream any game they desire, with virtually no wait times.
According to Perry, they've already set the Guinness World Record for a prototype network - now all they need to do is meld the PSN into the most powerful gaming network in the world. A tall order - one has to wonder if Sony is up to the task.
Wednesday was an exciting day for the video game industry - it's no surprise that everyone's still buzzing about it days later. Sony's got some very creative, very innovative ideas for this generation - more than enough for everyone to be excited about their new console. If nothing else, they've lit a fire under all their competitors:everyone else is going to need to adapt and evolve unless they want to be left in the dust.
In other words...there's some change on the way.