If you still dismiss video games as the sole preserve of kids, geeks and freaks then prepare to think again. A fortnight ago Rockstar Games bagged the biggest entertainment launch ever when their ultra-violent open world adventure Grand Theft Auto V grossed over $1billion during its first three days on sale.
And next month Sony and Microsoft will contest what promises to be an equally bloody – and lucrative – battle for your living room, with the near simultaneous UK launch of their new next gen games consoles, the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
Essentially custom-built high-end PCs in a box, both promise graphics and experiences exponentially advanced from anything possible on current consoles. And yet almost since their first reveals earlier this year, perceived wisdom has pegged the PS4 as the gamers’ choice.
Sony used their New York unveiling in February to explain how many of the world’s best games developers helped design the PS4’s architecture. Conversely Microsoft used their May showcase in Seattle to talk up the Xbox One’s capability to control your satellite TV signal.
Inevitably, the truth isn’t quite so clear cut. The Xbox One will still play amazing games, and the PS4 is an all-singing, all-dancing entertainment system custom-built for 21st century lifestyles. As well as offering streaming media services and social network integration on your TV, Sony’s box of tricks will also integrate fully with your tablet or smartphone via the multi-platform PS App.
As Andrew House, the British-born CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment, explained when I interviewed him at the company’s Tokyo headquarters in September: “The direct translation of the Japanese word for ‘console’ is ‘dedicated game device’, and that definition is now no longer viable. These are multi-functional devices that offer a wide range of network services that give players and consumers opportunities outside of games.”
Less than 24 hours earlier, House had delivered an important keynote address – in impressively fluent Japanese – at the 2013 Tokyo Games Show, during which he expressed his expectation to sell 5 million PlayStation 4 units within the first fiscal year. To put that into perspective, the PlayStation 3 sold around 3.5 million in the same timeframe.
Sony infamously had their fingers if not burnt, then certainly singed in the previous generation when Microsoft not only beat them to market by almost a year with the Xbox 360, but also offered a cheaper product which, despite having inferior hardware specs, was far better suited to the then emerging genre of online gaming.
It took Sony almost seven years to claw back Microsoft’s launch lead, with reports suggesting the PS3 only overtook its rival’s total sales figures in May this year (both consoles have shifted just shy of 80 million units each). Naturally, House insists those lessons have been learned.
“We have confidence in our ability to make [the PS4] an instant success,” he assures me the following day, citing the console’s competitive price point – at £349.99, it’s almost £80 cheaper than the Xbox One – and developer support as key differentiators in the imminent hardware war.
“On the original PlayStation it was, ‘arcade game quality… in the home!’ Remember that? And it was great! Come PlayStation 2, I think most people would agree it was open world gaming that opened up this sense of freedom that people had never had before. On PlayStation 3, one would probably point to online multiplayer as being the dominant genre.
“The excitement for me is: what’s going to be next? I firmly believe there’s just so much creativity out there among game developers right now that there will be something fantastic. The joy is almost the anticipation of not knowing exactly what it’s going to be, but knowing that that potential is there.”
We’ll get our first inkling when the PS4 is released in the UK on November 29th.
What”s in the box?
The PlayStation 4 has been designed to comply with five guiding principles: Simple, Immediate, Social, Integrated and Personalised. Here’s how they will shape your next gen experience:
The PS4 itself is at once sleek, simple and stylish, with sharp angular lines to offset its natural boxiness. “I’m especially proud of the look and feel of the hardware design itself,” says House. One of my strongest requests was that it very much carries the PlayStation DNA. There is something of an homage to the PlayStation 2, and that was deliberate on our part.”
With over 20 games available on day one, House is confident the PS4 boasts the strongest launch line-up of any Sony console ever. Titles range from multi-platform blockbusters including FIFA 14, Call of Duty Ghosts and Battlefield 4 to exclusives like racer Driveclub, shooter Killzone: Shadow Fall and family platformer Knack. Shuhei Yoshida, the President of Sony’s Worldwide Studios, also told me that that the company had invested heavily in attracting indie developers who will provide a steady stream of high quality games throughout the launch period.
Sony’s motion sensing camera uses facial recognition to customise the PS4’s dashboard to individual users although, unlike Microsoft, they’re not bundling their motion sensing camera with every console. The newly redesigned DualShock 4 controller has an inbuilt speaker and a unique touchpad that mimics the touchscreen interfaces of smartphones. “The controller was the result of one of the most exhausting rounds of user testing and redesign that I’ve ever experienced,” says House, “and I’ve been at Sony for over 20 years.”
In a move deliberately designed to break down barriers for more mainstream gamers, users can now use real names and social media profiles to interact with friends and access services rather than the gamertags of old. The new user interface makes playing with and even watching other gamers a doddle, and the new controller also boasts a Share button to instantly upload in-game video footage to Facebook at the press of a button.
The recently announced PlayStation App will allow users to interact with their console from a anywhere in the world. You can buy and install games from the PS Store, use your mobile device as a second screen or controller, arrange multiplayer sessions and even send voice messages from your phones to the PS4. “This is in essence a console fully designed with that consumer lifestyle in mind,” explained House.
Due to the redesigned hardware, your old PS3 games won’t work on the PS4. However, Sony purchased streaming pioneers Gaikai in order to create a cloud service that will allow you to browse and instantly play games both old and new in the same way you watch movies on Netflix. It’s due to launch in the States next year. PlayStation Vita owners will also be able to stream PS4 games instantly to their handheld console via a home wi-fi network.
“Essentially custom-built high-end PCs in a box…” I’m sorry, but in the context of gaming PCs, consoles are by no means “high-end”. I know some people who consider a GTX 670 “mid-range”. I still can’t wait for the new consoles though!