Last Wednesday at 3 p.m., in the middle of class, I pulled out my laptop, opened a streaming video, and incurred the wrath of my professor and fellow classmates. To me, my actions were a professional duty, but nobody else seemed to care. Ironically, by 6 p.m., I didn’t care either.
My love of cryptic openings has kept me, of course, from telling you that what I was doing over those three hours was watching the PlayStation 4 announcement press conference and trade show. I can only give you my opinion of how the proceedings went, with perhaps a little speculative analysis thrown in, but … hey, that’s why everyone reads this column anyway, right?
First of all, the announcement itself was strangely timed. A late-February console reveal is unusual, to say the least, and one could argue both sides of the question “Was it a good move?” On one hand, the announcement had serendipity on its side: In the wake of shockingly sluggish WiiU Q1 sales, some might see the presentation of a new Sony console as a breath of fresh air. It is an alternative to the only next-generation console currently available and, hence, something to be anticipated, watched, and, most importantly, hyped up until its eventual holiday 2013 launch. On the other hand, the timing bears a couple of the ragged earmarks of desperation—with declining PS3 sales and two stronger competitors in the market, as well as the threat of the upcoming Xbox 720 (if that is indeed what it is to be called), this announcement could be seen as a premature attempt to steal the spotlight away from Microsoft before they even have an opportunity to react. That’s fine and all, but it raises the all-important question: Can the hype machine keep churning out new and interesting content on the PS4 for nine whole months?
As for the press conference itself, it was not the worst I have ever seen. With a futuristic wraparound projection screen and a Who Wants To Be A Millionaire-inspired lighting scheme, the venue itself was sufficiently grand for the presentation of something very “new” and very “now.” The only problem? We did not get a PS4 reveal. Not a full one, at least. Sure, Sony executives paced back and forth on stage, revealing features, logos, partnerships, and even the new DualShock 4 controller at one point. However, their speeches were very carefully worded to prevent revealing anything significant about the nuts and bolts of the console itself.
We know the internals will now be supplied entirely by AMD, meaning that the PowerPC processor has finally died in console architecture—no doubt an attempt to lure PC developers who are more comfortable in the ubiquitous x86 environment. We know the console includes dedicated hardware for parallel processing of downloaded content so that one can background-download games with relative ease. We know the controller has a small touchpad built into the space between the buttons. We also know a revised, Kinect-inspired PS Move webcam appears to be in the works. However, we still do not know how the console stacks up against a gaming PC of the same price … heck, we don’t even know the price. Physical disks were never referenced even once, leaving us to wonder whether the console will even include a disk drive and, if so, what formats it will accept.
Sony and its partners, however, did make one thing crystal clear: This console is meant to be a social powerhouse. A “share” button is built right into the controller, allowing one to share thoughts, screenshots, or videos with Facebook, Twitter, or other PSN users. You can even launch a Ustream of a current gaming session right from the hub and invite friends to jeer at you as you fail at whatever game you happen to be attempting. Privacy really is not a concept that the PS4 understands, it seems, as directed marketing through the PSN store will not only give recommendations for games you might like but will also (without your prompting) download games that it thinks you are likely to buy so that your wait time will be reduced if the service guesses right.
Downloaded games really seem to be the order of the day on this console. The digital distribution network will launch with such titles as Killzone: Shadow Fall, Bungie’s Destiny, Watch_Dogs, Driveclub, Infamous: Second Son, and Square Enix’s The Witness. A Final Fantasy title was also hinted to be in production. Shocking. In all honesty, the launch lineup is weak compared to what was supposed to happen on the WiiU, with only one exclusive title and several ports making top billing. This would seem quite anti-progressive, but, then again, given how badly the WiiU bungled its launch window releases, anything is possible for this console’s start.
Overall, the PS4 seems to be just like everything else Sony has produced for the last three or four years: safe and marketable. Without a true spec sheet in our hands, it is difficult to know whether the console pushes the hardware envelope, but judging it just by the features showcased last Wednesday in New York, it looks like we will be getting a console whose value is tied inextricably and intrinsically to the number of friends a player has. Friends. In real life. Because we all have so many of those, right?