It had been rumored for months, but in late February Sony finally took the wraps off its next-generation game system, the PlayStation 4. Scheduled for release this holiday season, the next-gen PlayStation is the company's attempt to steal back market and mindshare from Microsoft's Xbox. The move to announce the system in February was strategic on Sony's part: last time around the PlayStation 3 arrived a year after Xbox 360 and Sony doesn't want to make the same mistake again. Microsoft, for its part, is widely rumored to have a new Xbox planned for release later this year as well, but has yet to formally announce it to the public.
So what is the PlayStation 4 and will it usher in an incredible new era of gaming? I attended Sony's 2-hour announcement event in New York City and talked to many developers after the press conference. There's no question that the PlayStation 4 will be easier to develop for than the PS3 (indeed the system is really a high-end PC, not a custom architecture like the PlayStation 3 Cell), but it remains to be seen how far the games will push the limits beyond what we can see today on the PS3. The leap from PS2 to PS3 was gigantic with the introduction of HD graphics. For PS4, the changes seem to be more subtle, with a bigger focus around online connectivity, services, and of course better graphics.
Killzone: Shadow Fall will be one of the PS4's flagship launch games.
The new PlayStation 4 controller.
The good news is that even if you don't immediately upgrade to a PS4, there will still be a lot of big games coming for PS3 and Xbox 360 this year. Grand Theft Auto V is coming in September, and recently Ubisoft announced Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag for PS3 and PS4. What I'm hearing is that a lot of the big games later this year will arrive for both PS3 and PS4, meaning that the transition to the next generation will be less abrupt than in the past. PS4 will also not play PS3 discs right out of the gate and be backwards compatible, so there are plenty of reasons to keep your PlayStation 3 around.
We will see much more of the PS4 at E3 in Los Angeles this June, but for now here are my key takeaways on the PS4.
If you're wondering why you haven't seen the PS4 system design there's a very good reason: Sony didn't want to show what the actual box looks like, and instead will save that reveal for a later date, likely E3. Inside the box, the PlayStation 4 will feature a different hardware architecture than the PS3. It's not proprietary but instead based around the standard PC architecture. Developers love this because they can more easily work on the platform and develop games for multiple systems like the PC, PS4, and presumably the next Xbox, which is likely to adopt a similar format. Sony has gone out of its way to accommodate developers this time around, even packing the box with a lot of on-system memory (8 gigabytes of unified memory) to allow for detailed graphic and physics effects.
The one thing Sony did show off was its new DualShock 4 controller. The big feature here is a multi-touch pad on the front, similar to the back touch surface on the PlayStation Vita handheld. Sony didn't show this touchpad in action, but you can imagine the ability to instantly select inventory items on this touchpad or interact with a game environment in new ways. The controller also has a built-in light bar on the back, similar to a PS Move controller that can be recognized by a new PlayStation Eye Camera. It seems like Sony is trying to build the Move controller into the DualShock 4, but unfortunately they didn't demonstrate how any of this would actually work. Again, this is likely another reveal for E3.
How will games change in the PS4 era? One thing's for sure: Sony has some incredible internal studios working on exclusive games. The two highlights for me were a new Infamous named Second Son from Sucker Punch, and a new Killzone: Shadow Fall from Guerilla Games. The Killzone demo felt like the closest thing to a real game. Set 30 years after Killzone 3, this first-person shooter showcased some incredible visuals and vast, city environments that aren't possible on the current systems. A few other games were announced for PS4 as well, including Ubisoft's next-generation open world game Watch Dogs (first shown at E3 last year), as well as Bungie's shared world shooter Destiny. Overall, Sony showed some strong game demos, but is likely saving some of its biggest announcements for E3.
Sure PS4 will be about games, but Sony is also betting big in the area of user services. Currently PlayStation Network isn't as robust as Xbox Live, but for the PS4 era Sony is planning new features like a share button on the controller. This button will let you instantly upload your most recent gameplay online to show friends. Sony also bought a company named Gaikai last year for its streaming game technology, which means you can play a game without having to wait for it to download. Imagine clicking on a game demo icon in the PlayStation store and instantly being able to play the demo without a download. Most full games will likely still be bought on Blu-ray discs in the next generation due to size, but Sony is trying to bridge the gap to a digital future.
Xbox is expected to remain strong in the area of apps and digital entertainment, so it will be interesting to see how Sony competes in this space with entertainment apps like Netflix and NFL Sunday Ticket. So far there aren't a lot of details about the next-generation PlayStation Network beyond a few mockups of the new PlayStation Store, but Sony knows online has always been its Achilles heel. We will hopefully find out at E3 how they plan to make it their strength.