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PlayStation 4: Expert views on Sony's games console reveal

By Leo Kelion
Technology reporter

image captionSony is hosting its PlayStation "see the future" event in New York

Sony has been coy about the details, but it's all but certain the firm is about to unveil its next-generation console - the PlayStation 4.

The machine is expected to offer better graphics, a new controller and should fit in with the firm's wider efforts to promote 4K - or "ultra-high definition" - television technology.

Gamers will also be hungry for any news of launch titles.

These can prove critical to a console's early fortunes as Nintendo has discovered. The company recently reported sales of its rival Wii U were "losing momentum" a mere two months after launch acknowledging it needed to "enrich the software line-up".

Based on console sales Nintendo was the clear winner in the last round of the video game wars.

By the end of 2012, 100.2 million Wiis had been sold compared to 79.2 million Xbox 360s and 75.2 million PlayStation 3s, according to research firm Strategy Analytics.

But in many "hardcore" gamers minds the key battle is between Sony and Microsoft.

media captionSony's PlayStation range has lost out to Microsoft's XBox and gaming on the move

At launch the PS3 appeared to trump the Xbox 360 thanks to having a more powerful CPU (central processing unit).

As things turned out it ultimately proved hard to pick one machine over the other when it came to cross-platform titles. Even so, expect thousands of web pages to be dedicated to comparing the PS4 and next-generation Xbox's specs before they go on sale.

Cost will also be scrutinised - the PS3's $500/$600 (£325/£390) initial price tag was blamed for limiting its appeal. It is traditional to sell new console gaming hardware at a loss to begin with - the question is how low Sony is willing to go to secure market share.

One reason it may wish to be aggressive is that the PS4 is much more than a gaming system. It also represents a chance to become a gateway to other kinds of internet-based entertainment.

Microsoft has been more successful at securing video-on-demand deals - and linked subscription fees, but this battle is still in its early stages.

Ahead of the launch the BBC asked a range of experts for their views of the challenges and opportunities facing Sony and the wider console sector .

Fasol Gerhard, Eurotechnology Japan

Sony is often taken as a poster child for Japan's stagnation.

Over the last 15 years, the firm has shown essentially no revenue growth and its profits have been wiped out by its losses.

One must be careful not to overstate gaming's ability to turn that around. Its Computer Entertainment division accounts for 11% of Sony's sales, while 56% of the firm's profits - disregarding the parts that make losses - come from selling life insurance, consumer loans and financial products in Japan.

But the new consoles could drive additional earnings by helping sell the firm's movies, music and other media.

But there are challenges facing the launch.

In Japan, the smartphone-based social games market is huge with users spending a small fortune on virtual items and other premium content. In anticipation of their global success, the country's two biggest social gaming firms - Gree and DeNA - now have a combined market cap value that is half that of Sony' whole business.

Across the world Sony is also facing disruption from free and $0.99 "snack-type" games. To win in this sector Sony would have to beat Rovio's Angry Birds brand, Halfbrick's Fruit Ninja and others.

If I was chief executive of Sony, I would also worry about the fact there are currently 800 games on PlayStation, while there are about 130,000 games on Apple's iOS platform.

The prospect of the US firm taking this enormous developer support to a next generation Apple TV ecosystem would give me sleepless nights.

Personally, I like Sony's acquisition of the cloud game platform Gaikai - a gaming service which offloads the processing work to remote servers which monitor controller commands and stream graphics to users via the internet.

The Wall Street Journal has suggested it might be used to provide access to last-generation PlayStation 3 games, and other uses are possible.

Ultimately Gaikai might become Sony's most important game platform.

David Braben, Frontier Developments

We see the arrival of new consoles like the new PlayStation as a great opportunity - the console is a key showcase for game technology.

At Frontier we have our own game engine and tools used for all of our games, and we pride ourselves at getting the most out of each machine.

When a film company sets out to make a feature film, they imagine the viewer watching in glorious surround sound in a cinema. Clearly the people creating it want it to be watched in the best possible setting that shows off all their creative work, and the same applies to a game.

Graphics and audio are moving ever closer to Hollywood-quality visual effects, and we will take full advantage of those capabilities, but it also goes beyond that.

As network connectivity gets ever better, control and input capabilities get ever more sophisticated, then so do the opportunities for our games like to shine and transform the players' experience and immersion. For example, our 2014 game Elite: Dangerous is an unashamedly high-end PC and Mac game, but I have every expectation it will come to new consoles, too.

People have regularly talked about consoles being "killed" by mobile devices. In practice, these are all just different venues for our games, and with careful thought can be integrated into the same game.

It is great to see the next generation of consoles being announced, as mobile devices have become ever closer in performance to the six or so year old current console designs and the new wave of machines will once again push consoles out in front.

Keza MacDonald,

The PlayStation 4 will be launching into a very different world than Sony's previous consoles.

When the PlayStation 3 came out in 2006 - early 2007 in the UK - the iPhone and iPad did not exist, smartphones were nascent, and only a very few people owned HD televisions.

The PlayStation 4, meanwhile, is competing with many other expensive gadgets for consumer cash, most of which are also capable of playing games.

What Sony has to show is that the games you'll be able to play on the PS4 are in a totally different class to what's already available.

The actual hardware is less and less relevant for a video games console now - if all people wanted was better graphics, they would all buy high-end PCs.

The PS3 and Xbox 360 have both been key players in the "battle for the living room" that has raged over the past five years, but with Apple, PC-specialists Valve and smart TV manufacturers stepping onto this battleground, things are getting crowded.

In order to remain relevant, the new generation of games consoles will have to offer more than just a box that plays discs: they will have to offer viable platforms for digital distribution of games and entertainment, and of course huge libraries of content.

What it really comes down to is the games themselves.

In order to build confidence in the PS4, Sony will need to announce at least three strong, exclusive games titles, ideally both entirely new games or new entries in the company's existing well-loved franchises like Uncharted and Gran Turismo.

This is what will really matter to gamers.

Prof Ian Bogost, Georgia Institute of Technology

Thanks to the enormous cost of developing blockbusters, AAA [big budget] games often settle on proven approaches.

The PS3 deepened Sony's commitment to visual realism, and new versions of popular game engines like Unreal extended that commitment.

This is a conservatism of technology as much as design. Given particular hardware and software tools, it's easier, cheaper, and less risky to make the games those consoles and engines were designed to run.

The PS4 has opportunity and reason to offer something different.

Until now, high-end consoles have focused on the physical world via 3D-graphics and physics.

Given a realistic world like those of Uncharted or Far Cry, what else can be done within them besides more variations on action or science fiction exploration and combat?

Consider all the things other than visuals, movement, and collision detection that might deepen the experience of games.

There's a lot visually realistic worlds leave out.

To name a few: the biology of organic life-forms; the mental motivations of individuals; their group social, cultural, and economic dynamics; their political behaviours under different kinds of regimes; the logics of narrative progression and plot.

These are difficult but not intractable computational problems.

Research on procedural methods for narrative, behaviour, and motivation exist, they just haven't had the time and investment to develop into stable commercial systems.

Normally such work would be done in software anyway. But over time, proven software methods sometimes find their way back into hardware.

Sometimes it's better that way, because those methods become encapsulated and treated as givens.

The new, even more powerful multicore AMD64 architecture rumoured to run the PS4 might seem to allow game creators to do anything they want, but sometimes being able to do anything amounts to less freedom than being given specific tools.

Instead, the PS4 seems poised to offer a touchpad on the controller, in a foolish bid to compete with touch-controlled platforms like phones and tablets, rather than to offer new computational capacities that can't be found anywhere else.

Brian Fargo, InXile Entertainment

Sony recognised early on the power of connecting their users to each other to make the gaming experience more meaningful.

Nothing beats the personal nature of joining your friends in a game either co-operatively or competitively. And this functionality does not come without a lot of effort and planning.

There are a number of systems and tools that need to be created in order to trigger people to jump in with their friends.

The basics start with the simplistic leader boards to stoke the vanity and competitive aspects of gaming. From there you need to make it simple to find your friends and be alerted when they come online.

Throw in the ability to chat online and you suddenly have your community of real life friends around you at all times.

I would expect Sony to greatly expand upon these systems to bring social connectivity to another level. A greater ability to jump in and out of multiplayer games would turn up the social aspects.

Having alerts or information come to you while away from your gaming console would keep the players involved even while they are not playing. Players will want to access information on their favourite games and friends from any device they are operating.

In addition, we have also seen the power of the crowd as is relates to content creation and this is another area that could be area to be exploited.

It used to be that the console wars were won by who had the most powerful hardware but now it comes down to all of the systems that support a connected and greater experience.

Lewis Ward, IDC

It's clear that the device formerly known as the game console is quickly converging with a range of multimedia-capable devices that can be used in the living room.

Many smart TV's can now access over-the-top services, including casual games. The set-top boxes from cable and fibre companies are becoming web access points to an extent.

And then there are emerging gaming-centric technology providers like Valve's so-called Steam Box and the Android-based Ouya and GameStick consoles that have their sights set on the family room, in addition to tablet-makers like Apple and Samsung.

A successful gaming platform has four elements in my mind:

  • Quality hardware
  • A large catalogue of fun and innovative games
  • A surrounding ecosystem of software and value-added features that support community interactions
  • A unique business model and price point niche

If any of these elements are missing it's going to be difficult to make headway against the PS4 or the ecosystems that Nintendo and Microsoft have established.

Going back through the emerging alternatives to the likes of the PS4, smart TV's come up the shortest on the game catalogue today. Their main challenge will be to get enough games to get people to switch their spending patterns away from game/entertainment consoles.

Cable and fibre company set-top boxes are currently short on games as well as social networking capabilities.

Right now, there are too many unknowns about Ouya and GameStick to make a call about their competitiveness. I'm sure they'll be low-priced from both a hardware and a game perspective relative to the PS4, but what's the catalogue look like and what about their social features?

The most intriguing near-term alternative to my mind is the Steam Box.

Valve already has an amazingly loyal hardware customer base - a base that's proven willing to open up their wallets - so I wouldn't put it past them to launch a successful connected gaming-centric platform in the living room.

More than any of the other current threats to the hegemony of the console manufacturers, at least in North America and the UK, I think Valve has the potential to peel off a significant market share in the next 3 years.

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