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What went wrong with the Playstation 4 launch?

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

New Statesman
The DualShock 4 controller. Photograph: SCEA

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.