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PlayStation 4: Everything you need to know (and the questions we still need answered)

PlayStation 4 EventIf you thought that Sony’s recent PlayStation 4 unveiling would offer more concrete facts about the forthcoming uber-console, that’s adorable. It’s going to be a while until we know all of the details. When Nintendo announced the Wii U, the first presentation was vague to the point that many observers thought the Wii U was actually just a cool new controller for the Wii. Even after establishing that it was the next console, it was a year and change before we got certain specific details like price and release date, and technically we’re still waiting on the official specs from Nintendo. So by those standards, Sony was an open book.

When dealing with any major announcement for technology, it helps to have a background in Shakespearean literature or something akin. Poetry goes a long way too. You need to be able to read between the lines and differentiate possibilities from promises. Sony knows this well. The PlayStation 3 held plenty of promises that – as Polygon’s Chris Plante depressingly points out - Sony wasn’t able to keep. Remember the promise of dual HD screen support? Probably not, because it never happened.

This is fairly common, but with so many eyes on Sony – and stock owners fidgeting nervously – the Japanese giant did its best to show its hand without overpromising. So with that in mind, we’re revisiting Sony’s announcement to take a closer look at what Sony did – and didn’t – announce.

Streaming technology for the win

One of the lynchpins of the PlayStation 4 will be the streaming technology brought to us by Gaikai. Sony had enough confidence in Gaikai’s new technology and infrastructure that it bought the company outright for $380 million. Poor OnLive, on the other hand, sold for just $4.8 million. There’s probably a good joke in there somewhere, but it’s just too depressing.

Gaikai

Dave Perry, co-founder of Gaikai

The streaming tech is going to define the PlayStation 4. It isn’t just an app you’ll find on the new console, it is an extension of the console itself. That means that, in theory, multiple devices will act as clients that can accept the streamy goodness. Take that one step further and the PS4 becomes more of a brand than a specific piece of hardware. Give it a few years and you could be making calls on your Sony phone then launch into a PS4 game on that same phone - assuming anyone actually buys a Sony phone. Maybe that’s a bad example. 

You will also be able to stream your own content. On the controller is a share button, which allows you to take pieces of your gameplay and post them online for your friends to see and comment on (and then most likely criticize and tell you how you did it wrong). It’ll be fun. A partnership with Ustream will also allow you to basically run your own online show, with your gameplay being streamed and your image being broadcast via the PlayStation Eye 4 camera. There should be a pool on how long it takes someone to figure out the best way to abuse this technology.

Sharing your videos

Streaming also will be Sony’s answer to backwards compatibility. The hardware of the PS4 is different enough that it won’t be able to run a PS One, PS2, or PS3 game. Technically, there may be a way to run these games using an emulator, but why keep your dumb old games when you can buy those same games again, only streaming?!

It’s a shame that the PS4 won’t play backward-compatible games, but it is not in the least surprising. If the PS4 is your first Sony gaming console in a while, then you can still play those older games, just using a different delivery method. If still own a PS3, there is nothing stopping you from using that to play the library of PS3 games. It isn’t like the systems are going to fight to the death. The PS4 won’t eat your PS3. Granted, multiple systems can strangle your home entertainment center’s real estate, but the PS3 will remain a good piece of hardware. It’s still a Blu-ray player, of course, and you might as well run it into the ground before you start to wear down your shiny new PS4.

Downloads and you

While streaming is going to be the ketchup to the PS4’s freedom fries, there will still be a huge emphasis on downloading content. It’s neat to think that you’ll soon be able to blow the minds of your less tech-savvy friends and family members (especially the older ones that are still convinced that the Internet is magic) by bringing up a game from your PS4 on your Sony tablet. But that doesn’t mean downloads are going anywhere. People like to have access to the stuff they buy at any time regardless of an Internet connection; we like having the things we own. Go figure.

The console is even designed with downloads in mind. A standalone chip is specifically dedicated to downloading, which will let you skip over the inevitable years of updates we have in store. There should be trophies for downloads on the PS3, because so much of a PS3 owner’s time is spent in mandatory downloads. Of all the similarities between the Wii U and the PS3, this is the one we could do without. With the PS4, that will all be handled in the background.

Knack for PS4

The PlayStation 4 exclusive title, Knack

It will also make for faster gaming. Waiting is for suckers. Instead of buying a game online and having to waste whole minutes of our valuable time, you will be able to wait just a few moments and then start playing as the game continues to download in the background.

You will also be able to purchase PS4 games online to both stream and download, making it even less necessary to ever leave your home for any reason other than to earn money to buy more games. It’s a vicious cycle, but it’s also the obvious evolution of the distribution model.

But just to be clear, the PS4 will still play physical media. There will certainly be some games only available for download or streaming, but until physical media makes publishers zero dollars, there will still be physical media. Which means…

The PS4 will play used games! Maybe

There is a thin line between a press conference and a Lord of the Flies conclave, something Sony reps saw first hand as the question of whether or not the PS4 will play used games was asked. Constantly. And aggressively. We were no different when we spoke with the President of Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios, Shuhei Yoshida.

“When you purchase the disc-based games on PS4, that should work on any hardware,” Yoshida confirmed.

Killzone

The PS4 launch title, Killzone: Shadow Fall

That should settle the matter, right? Maybe. It seems clear enough from what Yoshida said, but this is where reading deeper is key. All he really confirms is that the system won’t lock out any discs. That could still mean that you will need to log into your profile in order to unlock content. If someone else then tries to play that game, they may be taken to a screen offering them the easy option to buy the pass that will let them access certain features like, ya know… the game.

That’s fairly unlikely, though. As much as Sony and most publishers despise used games, there would be riots if used games were blocked. Gamer blood would flow in the streets. It also would be a bad business move, as not only would it enrage the fanbase, it would stunt the growth of the industry in general. On top of that, Yoshida also confirmed that the PS4 wouldn’t always need an Internet connection to work, so there would be no way to consistently authorize a game. Assuming Yoshida was speaking accurately (and it would require incredible testicular fortitude to stare down the assembled hordes of the gaming and tech press and lie to their faces – it’s not like the guy is a politician), the games will work. Most online games, however, will almost certainly require an online pass, as is becoming the norm. 

A new controller that is nothing like the Xbox 360 controller

controller_03We already spent a good deal of time speaking about this, but the DualShock 4 will replace the PS3’s imaginatively named DualShock 3. It will look a bit more like an Xbox controller – although you would likely need to waterboard a Sony exec to get them to admit that. Despite the changes, it still retains the traditional PlayStation feel.

Oh, and it has a glowing orb on top that changes color in tandem with actions on screen. So there’s that.  

The orb has a second feature too: It sends a signal to a Kinect-like camera peripheral. Dubbed the PlayStation Eye 4, the dual HD cameras will use the orb to help gauge distance. Yoshida said that the primary use would not be stereoscopic gaming like you currently see on the Kinect though. At least until it is.

The Vita has a point!

Let’s face facts: The PS Vita has issues. It’s a slick piece of hardware, but you could have your Vita out while riding the NYC subway at 3 a.m. in a bad part of town and no one would steal it because there aren’t any games worth playing. The downloadable PS One and PS2 games are neat, but the best selling point of a gaming system really shouldn’t be that you can buy dated games that you’ve probably already bought once before. The Vita’s launch felt half-cocked, like it wasn’t ready to be released yet even if the hardware was ready. Now it makes a bit more sense.

PlayStation_Vita_41954Sony is essentially positioning the Vita to be something akin to the Wii U’s GamePad. We’ve already seen the start of this through cross-play games, and Sony is pushing developers to use the remote play feature in PS4 games. Plus, once the Gaikai streaming tech drops like bass in your face, the Vita should be able to access the same streaming content.

Sony may have been playing the long game with the Vita. Sending the hardware out into the world long before the PS4 now makes a lot of sense. It kept investors happy to see new tech (even if sales aren’t great), it lets the developers get used to the technology, and it is a Trojan horse in the homes of Vita owners who now have an even better reason to buy a PS4. If you don’t, your Vita will laugh at you.

The PS4 will learn from you… It will hunt you…

Menu Screen

The PS4 user interface has also been completely overhauled. Now, instead of the ads you normally get, you will still get ads but they will be your ads! And I, for one, welcome our new PlayStation overlords.

The UI will feature targeted ads based on the things we have shown an interest in. Sure, it is sort of weird to have Sony tracking your preferences, but it’s for a good cause: bringing you better options of stuff to buy. Ads are a reality whether you like it or not. The new targeted system is no different than what most sites that require a log-in already do, anyway. There isn’t anything ominous about it, it’s just a better way to separate you from your cash. Yay?

ProfileThe new system will also connect people through their real, personal profiles. Sony wasn’t that clear on how this will work, but with luck the result will be an online community that can’t hide behind anonymous profiles. No longer will 14-year-old boys with names like “Skullphunker” be able to terrorize online gaming and then escape into anonymity. Instead, those same, obnoxious 14 year olds will have their real identities available online. What could possibly go wrong?

Sony did say that there will still be avatar-only players, so the reign of terror may not be done yet. You will, however, be able to connect social networks like Twitter and Facebook to your account. 

As for the specs…

In short, the PS4 will be about as powerful as a good, mid-range PC. But it’s not the size of the equipment, its what Sony does with it. Check out our full breakdown of what the specs portend. 

Knack Screenshot

What we still need to know

The price

When the PS3 was first announced, the charming and possibly insane then-Chairman and CEO of Sony, Ken Kutaragi, began to spout off gem after meme-worthy gem regarding the steep $600 price tag of the PS3. Of the many, many lines, one of his most famous was that Sony wanted “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.” Basically, they wanted you to want a PS3 so badly you would possibly get a second job, forgo eating, and at least consider robbing a liquor store. Not that you should rob a liquor store, but you could at least consider it for the glory of the PS3. Needless to say, despite a few more black-market kidneys floating around than usual, Sony’s price did the opposite of encourage people to buy PS3s.

ken-kutaragi-ps3

Ken Kutaragi

The cost (along with Microsoft’s head start of one year) proved to be a problem for Sony. In the good ol’ US of A where we want our stuff now, Microsoft dominated the PS3 and has continued to pwn Sony for over six years with no signs of slowing. Globally, Sony did manage to catch up, but what could it have done if it hadn’t shot itself in the foot, then shot the ambulance coming for it?

Sony is not one to pass up a high price tag, but it has to have learned from its mistakes. Although journalists everywhere miss Kutaragi’s knack for saying things that make PR people want to head butt him until he explodes, things like calling the $600 price tag “too cheap,” Sony only found success after it lowered the prices. It also seems to have learned from the timing, and the 2013 release window took a lot of people by surprise, almost certainly including Microsoft. There will likely be several models and bundles as well, so the sooner we know how much these will go for, the sooner we can begin applying for multiple jobs to pay for it.

Release date

Killzone 4

Killzone: Shadow Fall

Sony promised to release the PlayStation 4 in time for the 2013 holiday season, which likely means before the lucrative Black Friday weekend. Every company looking to sell an entertainment product wants to be that one, hot Christmas gift that Arnold Schwarzenegger would beat on people to get for his kid, and Sony is no different.

Online pricing

Besides the cost of the hardware, an equally important question for prospective buyers is how much the online services will cost. While PlayStation 3 owners currently play online for free there is very little reason for Sony not to charge to play its next console online, outside of a bullet point for these fans use in their arguments with Xbox owners. Fans may appreciate the free capabilities, but it was never really a sticking point to the 40+ million XBL Gold subscribers that dropped billions on fees. PSN boasts far, far more members, but while it may be annoying, most people probably aren’t going to skip buying a console because they have to pay $60 or so once a year to get online. So get ready for the bill, PSN users.

Launch titles

Killzone Shadow Fall

In-game footage of Killzone Shadow Fall

Sony actually did a fairly good job of unveiling a handful of PS4 games that were exciting, but of the few that were confirmed as launch titles, most weren’t PS4 exclusives. Games like Watch Dogs and Destiny will straddle both today’s consoles and tomorrow’s. The next-gen versions will be better, but maybe not enough to get people to buy the system when they can get only slightly worse-looking versions without upgrading a thing.

Infamous: Second Son

New consoles need system-selling titles. The PS Vita is still looking for some, and the Wii U’s launch titles just make people sad. E3 is going to be important this year, and the launch games announced there are going to be vital – especially the exclusive ones. Gran Turismo 6 is rumored to be among those launch titles (even though other rumors suggest that it will be a PS3 release), so we should see it sometime around 2015 if the developer remains consistent.

Another big question is how much games will cost. Each new console has brought  a steady increase of around $10 per game. Will PS4 games cost $70?

Will it all be ready at launch?

It’s great that online connectivity can add new features to hardware. Microsoft has taken full advantage of this and continued to push new content and apps online for years now. But manufacturers shouldn’t use this as an excuse to ship hardware that isn’t ready. Not to name any names, but some gaming manufacturers have done this a few times already and promised more than they could deliver on launch. It’s Nintendo, by the way. We’re talking about Nintendo.

Mark Cerny

PS4 designer, Mark Cerny

Sony broke a lot of promises with the PS3, but with the exception of hardware changes, it can gradually unroll software and still be true to its word. It might annoy the hell out of gamers, but eventually they will get what they paid for. So the question is, will services like the touted Gaikai streaming tech even be ready at launch? We’ll see.

Design

Sony wasn’t ready to unveil the final look of the PS4 yet, mainly because they haven’t decided on it. On one hand, it’s somewhat alarming to be this close to launch and still not have a final design for the hardware chassis. Not even a mock up. If the hardware is ready enough to show, why isn’t there even a prototype to show off since it’s mostly aesthetic rather than functional? Does that mean the PS4 is doomed? Doomed?!

On the other hand, if the new hardware hasn’t sold you, if the new streaming tech and social integration don’t do it for you, if the Vita connectivity and new controller just aren’t enough, and the one deciding factor of whether or not you will buy the PS4 is what it looks like, God bless you.