The PS4 was revealed by Sony last night. It’s a big moment for gamers of all stripes: as a PC site, I feel like we should at least comment a little bit on what went on, and what it might mean for our collective future.
In context, the whole thrust of the conference felt like a massive dump on Microsoft’s relationship with developers. First blow: repeating the mantra that Sony have listened and listened and listened to what the development community wants and needs: less gatekeeping, more open platforms. Less messing around with bureaucracy, more getting on with making stuff. Second blow: Jonathan Blow - famously critical of Microsoft’s attitude to indies and the Xbox Live Arcade. The wording of his announcement was very careful, that The Witness, a gentle pastel exploration puzzle game, would debut first on console on the PS4. No to Microsoft. Yes to Sony. And probably yes to PC. Third blow: Bungie waltzing in to show a few further glimpses of Destiny.
Destiny, and the Blizzard announcement of Diablo 3 on PS4 are fascinating. I would imagine that bringing any Blizzard game to console asks serious questions about the console’s network infrastructure, and who controls what.
Blizzard’s investment in Battle.net means they own everything about their customers information; their data, their friends, how they connect, how they patch, how they play, and the microtransactions and subscriptions in-between. That ownership allows for subscription games, services like the Real Money Auction House, a cross-game social network in RealID, and anything Blizzard can dream up.
That kind of interaction just isn’t allowed on Xbox. Alongside charging for multiplayer gaming, Microsoft have always acted as a barrier. Playstation has historically been more open: although the network infrastructure has felt shambolic.
Therefore, Blizzard’s endorsement of PS4 is significant, and fascinating. There are some really exciting possibilities and challenges.
Will, for instance, the PS3 and 4 versions of Diablo maintain feature parity with the PC and Mac versions? Will they be patched and updated as regularly? Will PS3 players be present on Battle.net and able to chat to friends who play WoW or Starcraft? Will PS3 players be able to play with friends on PC or Mac? Will PC players get a free copy of PS3 or PS4 Diablo III, like they get a free Mac copy? I think they should, actually. It’s certainly a great rabbit to pull out of Blizzard and Sony’s collective electric hat.
Lastly; does Blizzard’s endorsement of PS3 and PS4 mean we can expect a console version of Titan, their next-generation MMO? While the D3 announcement feels significant in itself, it may well be part of a test and learning experience for Blizzard and Sony for when the next-gen MMO lands.
Looking wider: having a console with an infrastructure for self-publishing and more open development - i.e. acting like a PC, can only be a good thing for the PC. More opportunities for developers means more games, on every platform willing and able to take them. There was an odd omission in the PS4 presentation though: absolutely no mention of free-to-play games. If I was making a console now, I’d assume that free-to-play would be at the heart of the system - but I’d be very nervous at advertising that fact to core gamers.
PC gamers seem to have been sneering at the hardware specs of the PS4 and rumoured XBox specs - and in raw horsepower terms, yes, mid-range PCs can outclass these consoles. However, they’re not being built for raw specs and graphical output, they’re being built for efficiency, low power draw, always on situations.
This is actually good news for PC gamers. AMD’s Bulldozer cores (of which the PS4's Jaguar cores are an upgraded version of) are a relatively new system architecture that tries to combine the CPU and GPU on one single chip. That’s a very power efficient way of building a system. The trouble is, previous generations of this tech have been significantly underpowered and shonky as hell.
One of the side-effects of AMD working on this architecture for consoles is in allowing them to progress and improve, reducing the costs of manufacture. That’s actually great news for PC gamers: it could well see rapid improvement in the graphical power of mobile CPUs and GPUs: and with it, laptops and portables and everything in between.
In the short term, the bump in console power should result in (thank god) prettier games on PC. This generation has gone on way too long: it’s about time standards were raised.
In the mid-term, I think there’s a general fear that the consoles will max out pretty quickly; leaving the increased horsepower of 2015’s PCs bereft of anything to actually do.
I think that’s misplaced. Moore’s Law will continue, and there will always be applications and games that will aim to take advantage of the bleeding edge.
I’ve been wondering if the hardware specs of the PS4 should change over its lifespan. They’d never announce this at the launch of the first iteration of the console, but I see no reason for Sony (and Microsoft) to bump the specs of the consoles every other year, or more. Apple have been doing exactly that for both the iPad and iPhone, and it hasn’t dented the appetite for either the devices, or the software that runs on them.
As long as developers are producing games for the lowest spec, it won’t break compatibility. Even if it did, as long as the games for the higher end boxes were available digitally, and consumers were prevented from buying a game that wouldn’t work on their console, no-one loses. There are benefits that could be sold to gamers: faster load times, higher resolutions, higher frame rates, maybe even the ability to power two or three displays or wirelessly beam content to another display.
As for the games we’ll actually play: I thought Watch Dogs looked really fun - mainly because the constant barrage of information about the people within the city made it feel so extremely lived in. Destiny’s slow motion reveal feels ever more irritating - although I’ll play pretty much any post apocalyptic co-op sci-fi FPS. The Witness looks beautiful - and I like that Sony are confident enough to place something as low key and quiet as that next to the killsplosions of Killzone and Infamous.
Sony’s deal to buy game-streaming service Gaikai is the final piece of the puzzle. They’re using Gaikai to let you trial games in the Playstation Store before you put down cash. It’s a great concept. But there’s also a commitment to make Sony’s PS3 library playable via Gaikai through the PS4 - without paying for backwards compatibility.
OnLive didn’t work - both as a business and a product: it was just too laggy, too expensive, and too mad, and you’d never be able to predict what games were on it. Gaikai is better placed: it’s built into the PS4 as a differentiator, rather than a key product.
In time, that puts Sony in an interesting position. If they can host every PS3 game available, ever, via Gaikai and get the tech working so there is little to no input lag, they can probably start selling it as a bigger benefit. Add into it the PS2 and PSOne library... and suddenly you’ve got an exceptionally compelling service: something that could function a bit like Netflix, but for games. If it worked, I’d pay a subscription for that.
But I’d only pay if the games were available on the same variety of devices that Netflix is. I love Netflix not just for its content, but because it works everywhere: on the XBox, PS3, iPad, iPhone, Android, and most importantly, the web. Or in other words: the PC.
The ongoing joke on twitter is that the PS4 is a PC - in its hardware and in its open approach. I think that’s great news. PCs are good.