What went wrong with the Playstation 4 launch?

What was revealed (and what wasn't) shows Sony desperately clinging to a business in disarray.

Sony introduced the PlayStation 4 yesterday, sort of.

Over the course of a two-hour event, the company demonstrated ten in-development games, including new instalments in the Killzone, Infamous and Final Fantasy franchises, a port of Diablo 3, and several all-new titles.

It also showed off the new controller for the console, an upgrade of the Dual Shock 3 featuring a touch pad in the centre and a new dedicated "share" button. Much of the non-game portion of the presentation was focused on some of those new social features: the share button will let you put videos and screenshots of games online, as well as stream live games. The latter is done in collaboration with Facebook and Ustream, and Sony are calling it "the first social network with streaming".

The company also showed off a few nifty features, like an instant suspend/resume function, and the ability to carry on playing games on the handheld PS Vita with a "remote play" option.

But what they didn't show was more notable. We still don't know how much the new console will cost, when exactly it will be released (though the plans are for the "holiday season"), or how much games will cost. We also don't know what the console will have internally, beyond an "x86 processor" (which covers nearly every home PC processor since 1978), 8GB of RAM and a "massive" hard-drive, and nothing at all about what the actual console looks like.

While launching a console without actually revealing the console is probably the most laughable element of the press conference, the more worrying aspect for Sony was the silence on many of its online functions. It is widely accepted that the Playstation 3 dropped the ball on online gaming in the last generation. Its free services were an attempt to compete with Microsoft's subscription Xbox Live offering on price, but they fell down in too many aspects. There was scant cross-title integration, voice chat remained infrequent, in-game online services were limited, and few improvements were made over the lifetime of the console.

Without hearing much about those features, it's not clear whether or not Sony has learned from its mistakes this time around. Similarly, the company didn't discuss multimedia features in any great depth. The one area the PS3 has definitively led the field on is its integration with streaming services and home media libraries, getting access to iPlayer over three years before the Xbox 360 did. Similarly, the console's integrated Blu-ray player and hard-drives made it far more useful as an all-round home-entertainment system. It remains to be seen if Sony can come up with comparable advantages this generation.

But there are deeper problems raised by the PS4 launch. The first is a refrain which is being heard increasingly frequently: an uncritical gaming press is getting embarrassing. Everyone wants videogame journalists to be enthusiasts, because there's little worse than reading someone who hates games pontificating on them. But that ought not translate into enthusiasm for everything: a bad console, or bad launch, should be noted as such.

Buzzfeed's Joe Bernstein had a look back at the launch of the Wii U, now generally thought to have been an incredibly underwhelming launch, and found similar problems to what has happened today. Notes of caution were few and far between, and Bernstein concludes:

I wish Wii U had more good games, and that the handheld peripheral wasn't so obviously a mistake. But this is an instinct that people who aspire to cover games honestly for a wide audience need to be incredibly aware of, and vigilant about either acknowledging or suppressing. Because this is exactly the reason that game journalists failed to see plainly what an insufficient product the Wii U was going to be for months after its release, and perhaps forever. Nintendo has earned an enormous reservoir of positive feelings from gamers (and game/tech journalists) who grew up on their wonderful products. People want Nintendo to succeed. It is telling that the people who were clear-eyed about the Wii U — investors and consumers — both had money on the line. Significant purchasing decisions have a way of turning beliefs into questions.

The broader problem is that the entire console model is under attack. Steady increases in the processing power of the consoles themselves are having diminishing returns when it comes to what the games can actually do. At the same time, with each boost in graphics quality, the cost of developing a big-budget title goes up, as does the number of sales needed to break even. The industry is torn between the gimmicky success of the Wii with mainstream markets and doubling down on the hobbyist sector, leading to strange contortions like the fact that the new PS4 controller has a touchpad and motion sensing.

While the top end is spiralling into a world of inflated budgets and shrinking returns, the bottom end is being eaten away by casual gaming, on smartphones and online. More and more developers, disillusioned by the world of AAA console development, are retreating to this market, where they can actually take control again. And it's not even casual gaming: Super Hexagon, which launched on the iPhone, is about as hardcore as it comes.

Sony's PS4 launch offers no answers as to how it intends to fight any of these trends, instead doubling down on more pixels, more sequels, more RAM and processing power and hard-drive space. The games that come out for it will undoubtedly be impressive; and many of them may even be fun. But the overall impression is of a company in denial, and a fanbase uneasily averting their eyes.

The DualShock 4 controller. Photograph: SCEA

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.