The technology giant’s boss tells Tom Hoggins that Sony can make an ally out of smartphones.
The PlayStation 4 is a video games console for the connected generation. Unveiled in New York City, Sony’s new machine will allow players to watch each other playing over the internet, or upload their own video stream at the touch of a button. It’s a shrewd move in this YouTube age. The PS4 infrastructure will stretch to Sony’s handheld Vita console, as well as smartphones and tablets, allowing players to access some aspects of their games. It makes an ally out of smartphones, which are otherwise threatening traditional gaming.
But will it be enough? Will having access to PS4 features on the move be enough for people to ditch Angry Birds and rejoin the cabal of home-console gaming? It’s a risk Sony is clearly willing to take.
Back in 1994, Sony gambled big on getting into video games in the first place. Now it is losing money, and the PlayStation 4 is an integral part of bringing it back into the black. “It’s undeniable that Sony is going through some tough times,” says Jim Ryan, president and CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment Europe. “The corporation is probably reliant on PlayStation to be a success to a greater extent than it has been in the past.”
What is worrying for the console market is that the newest device, Nintendo’s Wii U, has struggled in its first three months on sale. In the US last month, the Wii U sold just 57,000 units. To put that in perspective, the Xbox 360 sold 281,000 units, while the original Wii sold 435,000 units in its first January on sale. Much of this poor performance can be put down to a paucity of new titles since release, and a rather muddled marketing campaign from Nintendo. However, that the figures are so low is a concern for the general health of the market.
“We always look carefully and respectfully at what our competition is doing,” says Ryan. “But these platforms have long life cycles. And whether it’s Sony or Nintendo, it’s often difficult at the start. After we launched PlayStation 2, we were summoned over to Tokyo because the sales of PS2 in Europe were nowhere near where they needed to be.”
The PlayStation 2 then rallied, eventually selling more than 150m units worldwide to become the best-selling home console in history. “It’s often tough at the beginning — you need to get traction and build an install base,” says Ryan.
“Nintendo are a very good company and very well managed. They have a lot of cash in the bank and they will do whatever it takes to make their platform successful. I always say to my management to never write these guys off, because their track record is excellent.”
To Sony’s credit, the PS4 seems to have a very clear message: this is a connected gaming device. Ryan says that while the PS4 will certainly feature video and music content, the company wants to get across that the primary purpose of the PlayStation 4 is games.
Part of this focus is on making the PS4 easy to develop for. The PlayStation 3 was a notoriously troublesome machine for games developers, often meaning multi-platform games did not run as well on the PS3 as they did on the Xbox 360. The PlayStation 4 looks to change all that, with lead architect Mark Cerny calling the system’s architecture like a ‘super-powered PC’ that should allow developers to get the best out of the generational leap in graphical fidelity and the touch-apd enhanced control palette of the PS4’s controller.
Following the reveal, Sony were criticised for the fact that the PlayStation 4 will not be backwards compatible, meaning you won’t be able to play your PS3 games on the new machine. Ryan admits backwards compatability is not a priority for Sony. “Every time you go from platform to platform, it’s an issue that lots of people get very exercised about,” he says. “And then six months down the line, nobody cares. All research from generation to generation is that once you actually launch the console and you have a reasonable amount of games on the new format available, people are not interested in playing the last generation’s games. They’ve moved on.”
At the PlayStation 4’s unveiling, Sony also decided against showing the console’s physical design. Ryan was surprised at the backlash that followed, with many commenters baffled by the console’s non-appearance.
“I don’t get it. In my mind it is 50 times more important to show what the platform is capable of, rather than what the damn box looks like,” says Ryan. “It’s a box Sony will design very well, it will be lovely and we’ll unveil it in the fullness of time. We’re getting to the stage where we have to reassure people that it even exists, which is nuts. There’s only so much you can do in the time, and for us it was a clear priority for us to demonstrate what developers are doing with it rather than saying, ‘Here’s a cool box’.”
Whatever that box may look like, Sony is counting on it finding its way under your television. The PlayStation 4’s potential is bright, sharp and focused, tapping into the always-online generation. Sony must hope that generation has not moved on from traditional console gaming.