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.

Show Hide image

Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.