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Reading the Tea Leaves on PlayStation 4 Announcement

Sony’s announcement of the PlayStation 4 today has gotten a wide array of responses from the internet (including, amusingly, dismay at the fact that Sony never actually showed the console itself). What was interesting to me was less the console itself but what is revealed about the tech industry in the pretty big changes Sony made over the PlayStation’s previous incarnations. They give a sign of things to come as we await the “XBox 720” (or whatever they call it), Valve’s “Steambox” console, and (what I ultimately think will prevail) the next generation of mobile platform-based consoles like Green Throttle.

  • Sony switched to a more standard PC technology architecture over its old custom supercomputer-like Cell architecture. This is probably due to the increasingly ridiculous costs of putting together custom chips as well as the difficulties for developers in writing software for exotic hardware: Verge link
  • New controller that includes new interface modalities which capture some of the new types of user experiences that users have grown accustomed to from the mobile world (touch, motion) and from Microsoft’s wildly successful Kinect product via their “Eye Camera” (2 1280×800 f/2.0 cameras with 4 channel microphone array): Verge link
  • Strong emphasis during the announcement on streaming cloud gameplay: It looks like Sony is trying to make the most of its $380M acquisition of Gaikai to
    • demo service letting users try the full versions of the games immediately as opposed to after downloading a large, not always available demo
    • drive instant play for downloaded games (because you can stream the game from the cloud while it downloads in the background)
    • provide support for games for the PS3/2/1 without dedicated hardware (and maybe even non-PlayStation games on the platform?)

    Verge link

  • Focus on more social interactions via saving/streaming/uploading video of gameplay: the success of sites like Machinima hint at the types of social engagement that console gamers enjoy. So given the push in the mobile/web gaming world to “social”, it makes perfect sense for Sony to embrace this (so much so that apparently Sony will have dedicated hardware to support video compression/recording/uploading in the background) even if it means support for third party services like UStream (Verge link)
  • Second screen interactivity: The idea of the console as the be-all-end-all site of experience is now thoroughly dead. According to the announcement, the PlayStation 4 includes the ability to “stream” gameplay to handheld PlayStation Vitas (Verge link) as well as the ability to deliver special content/functionality that goes alongside content to iOS/Android phones and tablets (Verge link). A lot of parallels to Microsoft’s XBox Smart Glass announcement last year and the numerous guys trying to put together a second screen experience for TVs and set-top boxes

Regardless of if the PS4 succeeds, these are interesting changes from Sony’s usual extremely locked-down, heavily customized MO and while there are still plenty of details to be described, I think it shows just how much the rise of horizontal platforms, the boom in mobile, the maturation of the cloud as a content delivery platform, and the importance of social engagement have pervaded every element of the tech industry.

(disclosure: DCM is an investor in Green Throttle and UStream)

(Update: as per Pat Miller’s comments, I’ve corrected some of the previous statements I made about the PlayStation 4’s use of Gaikai technology)

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2 Comments

  1. FYI, the “Verge link” for “big departure from the traditional console business model” isn’t actually about the point you were trying to make.

    Also, it’s really hard to say if the PS4 is actually a change from Sony’s “usual locked-down, heavily-customized MO”, as no one was willing to state that they’d actually be doing business any differently. My colleague Frank Cifaldi did an interview with Shuhei Yoshida on the topic, and he was pretty evasive on just about ANYTHING involving opening up the PS4 (http://gamasutra.com/view/news/187093/QA_What_does_Sonys_most_open_console_promise_mean.php).

    Let’s recap the barriers to developing for the PS3: You need a dev kit, which is really expensive, and in order to satisfy the requirements for a dev kit you also need a lot of stuff (one of the requirements is usually something along the lines of “a highly secure office space”, which doesn’t really work for remote indie dev teams). You need documentation for that dev kit (much of which was in Japanese during the early PS3 days, I believe) so that you can actually program with the damn thing (most of which requires mastering the use of the SPU, which is pretty awful from all accounts). And then you need to pay a whole bunch of licensing fees, etc. to actually sell the damn game.

    With the PS4, you get a more-standard CPU architecture to work with (it’s anyone’s guess as to whether they’re getting a different instruction set or what), and hopefully, if Sony’s engineers have even an ounce of goodwill to their fellow game developers, a standard graphics library (DirectX would probably be too much to hope for; OpenGL, maybe?). That’d significantly lower the technical barrier to access, but if you still need to shell out for a devkit + licensing fees to make Big Boy PS4 games (compared to, say, developing for PlayStation Mobile), it won’t be anything close to “open.” This move would have been impressively forward-thinking six years ago–maybe.

  2. Ben Ben

    Glad to know somebody’s read this 🙂

    Your points are definitely valid — because I wrote this quickly, I both overly aggressively summarized and didn’t read all the fine print on what was actually announced re: Gaikai. Thanks for the heads up (have updated post to tone down/remove a number of the points on)

    I still stand by my statement that this is quite a departure — yes, the devil is in the details but Sony is doing a console that lacks exotic customized Si (and because its AMD, I think its highly unlikely to be a custom architecture), that embraces cloud services for streaming/delivery, that will provide second screen support for non-Sony tablets/phones — no, this isn’t open the way Linux is (or even by the watered down standard of Android openness) but its a lot less “Galapagos Island” than I’m used to from Sony.

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