PlayStation 4: why Sony has a place in the next generation

Wednesday, 13 February 2013 13:20 GMT By Patrick Garratt

Sony is expected to announce PlayStation 4 in New York next Wednesday. Patrick Garratt explains why Sony has earned its place in living room gaming’s future.

Of the five companies generally forming the next generation games industry over the rest of this decade, Sony is very much “in the house”.

It’s widely expected that Sony will announce PlayStation 4 at an event in New York next Wednesday. I wrote this Huffington Post article yesterday about PS4′s place in the immediate future of video games, and some of the struggles it will face. I wanted to extend on the subject here, because despite the changes happening in gaming right now, I firmly believe the PlayStation brand will have a place in the living room for at least one more cycle.

It’s important to realise that companies must be able to provide a suite of both services and hardware across multiple screens and locations if they’re to flourish in the next generation. PlayStation 4 – and therefore iPhone, Xbox 720 and Steambox – is part of a gaming ecosystem, and is not a complete offering in itself. The nature of gaming hardware in the coming generation is markedly different to that of PS3, Wii and Xbox 360.

PS4 is an enabling piece of kit which will help Sony to exist in the modern games industry as a major player, but it’s only a single element in a list of necessary components. Companies that aren’t able to tick all the required boxes will almost certainly be downgraded to a lower industry tier in the coming years, most likely one in which they cease to produce hardware. The ability to provide both large-scale online services and hardware will be the defining factor of success in the near-future of video games. The games industry is about to be dominated by the following companies: Apple, Google, Valve, Microsoft and Sony.

Each of these corporations makes its own hardware; has a very robust online service which is appropriate to its audience; and is directly faced at either core or light game consumers. Notice the “or”. None of them have yet captured both.

(You’ll note that Nintendo isn’t on the list. In the coming years, Nintendo’s IPs will move into the services of others as the company has no method of delivering them itself through its own screen-agnostic system. Nintendo does not have an Xbox Live. The current critical nature of hardware will diminish as we move forward in games, but the ability to offer solid multiplayer services and deliver a massive range of content through a variety of connected screens will be crucial to core-facing game companies. Nintendo has a meagre store, and its multiplayer system is a shadow of Live, PSN and Steam. A Nintendo IP distribution exclusive with one of the five main game service providers will probably be the biggest shock of the next five years (we’re already seeing Nintendo products on iOS, for example). As Nintendo’s hardware (alongside all other hardware) becomes less relevant, the company will be forced to move its content back in front of its audience. That audience will be commanded by the aforementioned five companies.)

Uphill struggle?

Back to the PS4 reveal next week. Of the five companies generally forming the next generation games industry over the rest of this decade, Sony is very much “in the house”. The PlayStation ecosystem’s mobile component is, to say the least, a little awkward at the moment, but all the boxes are ticked. Sony makes its own hardware in PS3, PS4 and Vita; has a very strong content delivery and multiplayer system in PSN, a service which can, in theory, spider any OS; and is absolutely engaged with the core living room gamer.

PlayStation’s biggest difficulty in the coming years is likely to be in mobile. Sony’s phone play was with Sony Ericsson, and the less said about that the better. Currently, Sony’s mobile component for games is Vita and PSP, and unless Vita has an incredible change of fortunes in the next few years that isn’t going to cut it against the ubiquity of iOS and Android. Vita doesn’t have to compete with iOS, but it does have to make sense alongside it. PlayStation’s strong mobile offering was supposed to be Vita, and the machine’s theory isn’t working in practice (yet). PlayStation Certified and PlayStation Mobile are steps in the right direction, but neither has made a splash.

Sony has also been far too slow in realising just how important “computers” are to digital distribution in console games, and therefore to surviving in the living room games space full stop. But at least you can now use the PlayStation Store through a browser. I bought a game through it this morning, and lo, it did work. PlayStation does have mobile and desktop components. It will need to significantly bolster them as we move on, but they are real things.

And therefore, as regards the question which is bound to be asked incessantly next week, that of whether or not PlayStation 4 is “relevant,” the answer is yes.

There’s been a huge amount of discussion in recent years on the future viability of dedicated gaming machines. “Mobile” evangelists have claimed consoles are dead and Gabe Newell has written off the battle for the living room as one between Apple and “PC”. This is just posturing. If you want to play the most advanced console games on your TV in 2014, you’re going to have to buy a new Xbox or PlayStation, and these machines will be part of complete ecosystems which encompass every screen you use and offer giant libraries of services and content. Those are not insignificant factors. You will not be able to play Uncharted 4, or anything remotely like it, on your Apple TV. Google Play is not a substitute for Xbox Live. The “average user” won’t be able to use a complete suite of entertainment services or play any first-party games – other than those created by Valve, natch – through a Steambox. Reversely, you won’t be able to access App Store content through a PS4. All these offerings have their audience niche, and one does not simply negate another. The next round may be more difficult for them, and financial struggles are unlikely to help, but Sony and Microsoft have their place in the next generation.

Whether or not Sony sets fire to the chair before taking its seat at the table is a different matter. But make sure you keep an open mind next week. Because PlayStation is going to be with us for a while yet.

Latest