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PlayStation 4: Imagining Sony’s Next Game Console

This year’s E3 is on the horizon, and the buzz of what may and may not be displayed continues to push the rumor mill into overdrive.  Could there be a PSP2 announcement, or will the Natal steal the show?  What new games are going to blow us away, and who’s technology will we be telling our friends about? We will know soon enough, but for now, it is never too early to begin speculating about the future of gaming.  The PlayStation 3 has only recently begun to turn a profit on each unit sold, and with the console seemingly just beginning to hit its stride (and new hardware like the Move on the way), any discussion of the next generation of consoles is purely speculation.  Awesome, sweet speculation.

Let’s be clear: Sony hasn’t let a word slip about any game system to follow the PlayStation 3.  They are surely working on one, as are Microsoft and Nintendo, but it is likely years before we will hear anything about them. But as learned observers of the industry, we’re willing to make some educated guesses about just what the next generation of Sony’s gaming will be. Will all of them come true? Almost certainly not. But it’s fun to play along, so close your eyes, put on your imagination cap and come along with us. OK, don’t close your eyes. You need them to read.

Goodbye, Discs

The current generation of Internet-connected consoles has already dipped a toe in the realm of digital distribution for games, but the next crop, including the PS4, will go even further. The PS4 will have no disc drive, depending entirely on an Internet connection for browsing and accessing games. Games may not be instantly playable, but development will likely change to quicken download times significantly. For instance, you might be able to begin playing the first level of a game while the rest is still downloading, making them almost “streamable” in the same way that movies now are. The concept of downloadable content (DLC) will no longer be thought of as an add-on for existing games, but the game itself.  We have already seen this with current-gen “classic” titles, especially on Xbox Live that offers dozen of current titles, and the trend is likely to grow.

As hard as it might sound to completely break our tether with physical media, neither the PSPGo and later versions of the PSP2 accept physical disks.  XBox Live and the PlayStation Network both offer full current-gen games for download, and the Wii has a vast library of older hits for download only.  Changing to digital media would also undercut the massive used gaming market that has seemingly become the bane of video game producers.  EA recently announced that it would charge $10 for users that purchased a used EA title to connect online, so there is industry support for a medium that would extinguish the used games market.

On the PC, networks like Valve’s Steam have already gained acceptance from most gamers and developers for distributing games digitally, and many gamers now skip the lines at malls for new releases to wait on download bars at home. The monthly subscription service, OnLive, is set to debut on June 17, and its success or failure will be a huge gage for the future of how games are distributed.

The flipside of that argument is that digital games would lead to increased digital piracy, something Sony blames for lower than expected games sales for the PSPGo, plus it would also anger retailers that Sony needs to appease in order to move its TVs, computers, etc.  Still, the trend continues to move towards digital downloads, and once more intensive piracy guards are in place, and deals are struck with retailers to sell games on their websites, there will be nothing to stop it.

Lower Price, Fewer Features

Sony must have learned its lesson on this one, by now. The PlayStation 3 launched at $600, and though it stood head and shoulders above every other console on the market as the most powerful console, sales tanked on its price tag alone. But it wasn’t that bad a deal. The PS3 came with many features out of the box, like an high-def drive, wireless controller, and a hard drive, that drove the Xbox 360 to a comparable price if you included them all as accessories. But consumers favored the lower entry price.

Sony Computer Entertainment’s CEO Ken Kuaragi once said that the “[PS3 is] for consumers to think to themselves ‘I will work more hours to buy one’. We want people to feel that they want it, irrespective of anything else.” Gamers disagreed, and many labelled Sony as being arrogant and out of touch, especially as they pushed an incredibly expensive piece of hardware during an economic recession.  Sony has recently admitted to that it was arrogant, and claims to have learned from it.

Last year, when Sony lowered the price for the PS3 to $300, the sales saw an immediate boost and the PS3 is now consistently outselling the Xbox 360 across the globe, boosting its market share to 31 percent, a jump from 18 percent at the same time last year.  A handful of exclusive titles helped, but it was the price cut that had people willing to bring the PS3 home.

Next time around, Sony will probably copy’s Microsoft’s routine, stripping the PS4 of all the non-essentials to get the base price down as low as possible. For instance, it may lack a disc drive, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to get one – it will just come as an accessory that costs extra. How low will it go? It’s almost impossible to tell, but $300 wouldn’t be a bad starting point.

Multimedia Machine

Expect to see the PlayStation 4 marketed as much as a home media server as a game console, because it will pretty much replace your cable box, video library, laptop, and the rental store down the block. You can already pull many of these tasks off with existing set-top boxes and consoles- like downloading 1080p movies, and streaming online video from sites like YouTube and Netflix. But you’ll also watch new shows live when they first air, as many people now rely on cable TV for.

We’re already seeing this happen. Recently, Xbox Live announced that it was considering launching a channel on the Xbox Live network.  The channel would be helmed by former News Corp. President Peter Chernin, and at one point, the fledgling channel was a possible destination for Conan O’Brien before he settled on TBS.  The channel would cost an extra buck or a two a month, and offer original programming supplemented by reruns of old movies and TV shows. We suspect more and more channels will choose this type of digital distribution in the future, since they’ll be able to command higher per-channel prices from individuals than they currently get from cable operators. That will finally give consumers a shot at the “ala carte” programming they’ve been clamoring for, paring out cable operators altogether and allowing individuals to pay only for the channels they watch.

Further Shrinkage

While the clutter of A/V boxes used to sit nicely in the deep cabinets under most CRT televisions, today’s flat screens don’t leave much room for junk. Fortunately, miniaturization has never let up its breakneck pace (as netbooks are a testament), and the next-gen hardware that ends up in the PS4 should be able to fit in a box much smaller than the existing console – maybe even one small enough to hang from a bracket on the back of your TV, removing it from sight entirely. That might be an issue with a disc-based machine, or one with wired controllers, but the PS4 won’t require either.

More Power

This one has to be a given for any generation of game console: Power ratchets up a notch, making graphics look even closer to life. While the existing PlayStation 3 already does pretty well in this arena, with visuals that stand out as the best on any existing console, you can expect the PS4 to generate the kind of graphics than have hitherto only been available in the very highest echelon of gaming PCs. Think one shade away from cinematic, along the lines of the infamously graphic heavy Crysis running on one of today’s $8,000 rigs with every setting turned to high. To generate that type of realism, Sony will of course need to aim for higher clock speeds (or more cores) on its main central and graphics processors, but the PS4 will also likely include a devoted physics card for the heavy lifting behind the most engrossing effects: everything from trees realistically toppling in the right direction to realistic rain spatter and waves.

Sony Motion Controller DemoMotion Controller

Nintendo got the ball started with the Wii, but as last year’s E3 proved that everybody’s looking at new ways to control video games. Sony’s own attempt, the Move, combines the accelerometers of a remote with the video capture of Microsoft’s Project Natal. By tracking a bright red ball atop the remote, the console can digitally insert objects into the hands of gamers or track movement with extreme precision, allowing it to act as a sword one moment and a handgun another.

Although the new controller will likely open up all sorts of opportunities for unique games – as it did with the Wii – Sony will likely also see it as a way to broaden the PS4’s appeal to non-gamers. Sony has already begun to debut the Move in small demos, but they plan to make a splash at this year’s E3.  We had a chance to run the Move through its paces and found it to be superior to the Wii’s nunchucks.  If that superiority equates to sales, and if the Natal can pry open Xbox users’ wallets, we suspect an intuitive motion controller will be used a primary selling point to put the PlayStation 4 into the hands of Ma and Pa.

Lean and Green

Ten years ago, even discussing the electricity demands or noise from a console seemed silly, and no one even considered the materials used to build electronics. Raw power was paramount. But with increasing environmental concerns, people don’t just want a machine that will produce movie-quality graphic experiences, they want a refined box that runs as cool, quiet and efficient as possible, and if possible is eco-friendly. Fortunately, smaller chip manufacturing processes make all of that possible without significant sacrifice, and recycled materials are becoming easier to refine and use. And PC manufacturers are leading the way. Look, for instance, at HP’s tiny, water-cooled Firebird, or the latest generation of inexpensive-but-powerful ATI Radeon cards; Lenovo recently released the L Series ThinkPads, laptops designed entirely with green in mind.  The demand for fast, efficient, green computing is there, and it is growing.

Not only do these technologies go easier on power bills while keeping the eco-minded happy, they keep things whisper-quiet, too, which will be absolutely critical if the system will have any credibility as a home media server. You can’t have whirring fans ruining the quiet scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey, after all.

(This article has been recently updated)