Orbis Wishlist: What We Want From the PS4
Sony has announced that they're going to be unveiling something very big on February 20th, and by process of elimination, it can only mean one thing: the next PlayStation. Most are calling it PS4; the internal codename at Sony is apparently Orbis, but the final name could really be anything. First, let's talk about why we need a new console generation to begin as soon as possible, and then we'll talk about what Sony needs to do to satisfy expectant gamers.
This console generation has gone on for far too long. It's the longest console generation we've ever had, and the old, crusty hardware that the 360 and PS3 run on have been severely limiting the designs of developers for years now. There's always a limit on any platform, of course, since no computer has unlimited horsepower, but the CPU, RAM, and GPU limitations of the current generation have been holding back designers' best-laid plans for innovative gameplay for years. Consider this: the smartphone in your pocket likely has the same or more memory than your 360 or PS3, each of which only has 512MB of system RAM. Sure, they've been working on streaming technology to unload game data from RAM and load new stuff off the disc constantly, and you can actually see the progress made from the early days on 360 and PS3 where we had tons of loading screens, to the terrible spartan hallways of Tony Hawk's American Wasteland you had to skate through and which substituted for loading screens, and onto today where, as long as no one scene eats up more than 512MB at a time, we can see many gigs of data streamed through a little bit at a time.
But that's the problem: no one scene can take up more space than can fit in the 512MB of RAM in the 360 or PS3. This means that vastly more complex scenes than what we have are impossible, and that became obvious last year as Skyrim's in-game data set overfilled the PS3's 256MB of system RAM (which is separate from its 256MB of RAM for art and textures, while the 360 has a single 512MB "chunk" that can house either kind of data). Many have said that Bethesda shouldn't have released Skyrim if that's how it was going to be, and after many months of people getting 80 hours into their Skyrim adventure and having the game simply bog down to single-digit frame rates, I don't blame them. This is a good reason to get some new hardware, as it took Bethesda many months to optimize the game post-release so it didn't do this. When the platform you're developing for causes you to have to solve a programming puzzle that takes months and the help of Sony to get things running, that's a problem.
It's important to point out that as a whole, Sony is not in good shape right now. Their inflexibility, pride, and poor choices in the consumer electronics industry have lost them billions, and while their gaming division has fared better, the other side has done very poorly - you can find a great article by Jake Adelstein and Nathalie-Kyoko Stucky on the matter. Financially, Sony is in a much tighter spot right now than they were when the PS3 was being developed and launched.
The PS3 may have cost customers a ridiculous $499 (or $599 for the 60GB version) back on launch day, but, believe it or not, they were still losing money on every console sold. Now, this is actually a proven strategy if you've got money to burn and are vying for dominance; this was done to give the console a long life, and the assumption was that sales of games and accessories would eventually make the money back plus a ton of profits. It's a sound strategy, but it means spending billions, especially after a huge media and advertising blitz, before you even start pulling in profit.
Simply put, Sony doesn't have the cash on-hand to go that far into the hole this time, and so they're going to have to be a little more conservative. I expect to see a very powerful, purpose-driven gaming machine, but I don't think we'll see a do-everything machine like the PS3 was originally billed to be.
Sony Should Not Make Crazy Controllers - the PS Move is the least successful motion control system of the three used in the last console generation, and I think Sony should put it to bed. We're hearing rumors of no-screen touchpads possibly going onto the PS4 controllers, and that might be a good choice overall, depending on how Sony designs the controllers to fit the space. Maybe there's a case for switching the right stick and face buttons and make the next controller more like a 360 gamepad - there'll probably be a lot of disagreement if they do it - but moving away from the Dual Shock-type design entirely might be a very bad idea.
Sony Should Not Try to Take Over the Living Room - Rumors are swirling that Microsoft is going to dedicate significant resources to making the next Xbox a major part of entertainment in your living room, even to the point of possibly reducing the graphics power in their next console so they can afford having enough RAM for multitasking and other more PC-like functionality. I don't think Sony should try the same thing; while 8GB of RAM dedicated to a slim OS and otherwise just for games is certainly a good idea if they can still make an affordable machine, it's not absolutely necessary. If Microsoft really is putting 8GB in the next Xbox and only giving 5GB to games like the rumors have mentioned, then Sony can get away with 6GB and using a slimmer, less-feature-filled OS and still have the same amount of RAM for games as Microsoft has - but that's only if the Xbox rumors are true.
Sony Should Not Announce the Price - Well, they shouldn't announce the price unless they know for a fact they can beat the next Xbox on price, and that seems unlikely that they could know this so surely. Thing is, this is just an announcement; Sony doesn't have to actually put a price tag on their console just yet. They can easily wait until E3 and if they want to really push it, they could get away with waiting until maybe as late as August. Announcing early could put Sony in the position that they themselves put Sega in back in 1995, when Sega jumped the gun and released the Saturn early for $399 while Sony simply hung back, announced a $299 price for the original PlayStation. They were patient, and made sure they curated a proper launch library, and many gamers hung around to wait for Sony. This was a big deal at the time, considering that Sega had the Genesis in their history while all Sony had until that point were electronics, TVs, and Walkmans. Either way, those expecting Sony to announce every detail about their console are almost surely going to be disappointed; Sony doesn't have to do this, nor would it be a good idea, especially considering Microsoft is lurking in the shadows and will almost certainly be looking for any possible way to create an edge in their Next Xbox announcement event.
Sony Should Not Try to Offer Backwards Compatibility - Or at least, not if it costs the gamer much money, and it almost certainly will. Sony included the full internal PS2 hardware inside the PS3 for quite a while, but that circuitry pushed up the cost significantly. Eventually they cut those costs back down by emulating the PS2's entire architecture in software on the Cell CPU, but that may not even be possible for the PS4 to do with PS3 games, especially with how wacky the PS3 Cell CPU's architecture has proven to be. It'll be weird to have a backwards compatibility "hole", but PS3s are pretty reliable hardware. For some it'll be a minor annoyance to have to keep one around just to play one's existing PS3 library, but that's still not worth it to Sony to jack up the price of every PS4 just so it can include the PS3 hardware inside each machine.
Sony Should Leverage their Superior First Party Studios - Sony has a fantastic stable of first-party studios making a pretty wide range of games. Everyone from Media Molecule (LittleBigPlanet) to Sucker Punch (inFamous), Polyphony Digital (Gran Turismo) to Guerrilla Games (Killzone) should all be coming out for this big announcement. Not all of these games will be ready for what will almost surely be the late-2013 launch of the PS4 or even within six months of the release, but we should be hearing about 'em anyway. Simply put, Sony's first-party exclusives have been more diverse and numerous than Microsoft's, and many will argue that they're better and more interesting games, but either way, this has to be a big deal.
Sony Should Work on Unique Third Party Games - Sony should also be taking advantage of the developers that prefer development on PlayStation hardware. Obviously this will include Japanese publishers like Namco Bandai and Square Enix, and I do think that this is a good opportunity for Sony to negotiate at least a couple of exclusives, too. While it's unreasonable for Sony to try and get an exclusive for something as big as Rockstar's next flagship game after GTAV or the next Call of Duty, a big JRPG should certainly be in their power.
Sony Should Impose Graphical Superiority - The many rumors surrounding the hardware going into the next PlayStation and Xbox consoles suggest that the Sony might have the edge in pure graphical power, and that'd be a really good move for Sony to go with - they can try to differentiate themselves from stuff like Kinect by committing solely to "classical" gaming with big, awesome graphics and controllers rather than dance parties and talking children. (Of course, Microsoft will have that stuff too, but if Sony can demonstrate that theirs is, or at least might be better, then that's a solid edge.)
Sony Should Deliver Good-Looking Hardware - Obviously, what looks good to one person may look awful to someone else, so I'll try and stay away from that kind of subjectivity, but what I think we're going to see over the next five or six years is a lot of very small gaming devices, and if Sony makes a machine as big as the original PS3 again, good looks might not be enough. They don't have to make a successor that's as small as a Wii, but maybe something sized like the PS3 Super Slim would be nice. And while some cost-cutting is important, a few nice features would help - we don't need touch-sensitive non-buttons or the four USB ports the launch PS3 had, but maybe we could get the slot-loading Blu-Ray back. Either way, bigger is no longer better and cheap doesn't have to feel cheap, not with today's plastics and heatpipe-powered cooling.
Sony Should Maintain Innovation - Xbox Live is a cash cow for Microsoft, but as gamers become more connected and more interested in collectively fighting to not be ripped off or have piles of ads thrown at them, MS might find themselves on the wrong side of some serious gamers' rights backlash. It's not terribly likely, but it's possible. Meanwhile, if Sony can keep giving gamers value with PS Plus and the Cross Buy/Cross Play systems to play the same game with the same purchase on either the Vita or PS4, they could find themselves at a big advantage.
Sony Should Allow Used Games - Or at the very least, don't mention them and allow publishers to decide what to do with whatever tech they might be brewing. Really, this is a bigger opportunity for the person who announces second - which is now going to be Microsoft - but if Sony announces that used games will be blocked and MS follows up by announcing their console will allow them, that'd be a big deal, so Sony needs to avoid that. The likelihood is that both companies have developed systems to block used games, but I doubt anyone will want to talk about it, because it's almost certainly going to be an optional system for publishers to choose to use if they want it. But if Sony proudly proclaims a new used-game-blocking technology and tries to spin it as a positive thing, perhaps by suggesting that this tech "could" bring down the cost of games, people will see through that - especially gamers that have dealt with a console generation of publishers constantly trying find ways to milk them. Currently, publishers are trying to make more money for each copy sold, not less money per copy with a larger number of sales - and for now, that's going to stay that way. (There's a larger debate that could be had here on whether gamers actually really want a wider range of prices on games, but it's outside the scope of this editorial.)
Sony Should Improve PSN and Reduce Wait Times - Sony should not be making gamers wait half an hour for a system update, and a 2GB download shouldn't be taking two to five times as long to grab over PSN as it does on Xbox Live or Steam (which is currently the case most of the time). Network security should probably be a priority, too, especially after the security breaches a couple of years ago. Basically, if Sony can commit to making the fastest and smoothest gaming network around with the least advertising and the smallest amount of wasted time for gamers - and there's room for improvement here when looking at Sony's competitors - that could make a huge difference for them.
Sony Should Foster Social Networking - One non-gaming bit of functionality Sony should work on is social networking. As Nintendo showed with the Wii U and Valve is starting to show with Steam, there are lots of crazy and goofy ways that a console manufacturer can make an interesting and fun social network that doesn't just copy Facebook. Forums, drawings, screenshots, posts, user-made guides, "likes" and more can all come together to make for a whole mega-community that doesn't just stand around making lewd jokes together in PS Home or whatever.
Video game press conferences often have a tendency to veer towards the strange, and Sony has its fair share of these moments. Silliness and embarrassing moments should be avoided at all costs, even if that means they need to limit themselves to a few quick presentations, a look at the console and games, and that's it. Do what's necessary to be taken seriously, and I think Sony will both make and keep fans throughout 2013 and into their console's launch.