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Does the Sony PS4 launch show PlayStation is running out of steam?

The Sony PS4 officially launched just before midnight GMT on 20 February 2013. But is it dynamic enough to take the PlayStation brand into the future? Has Sony really made leap console gaming needs to make the PS4 last the best part of a decade?

The PS4 basics

By the time the Sony PS4 launches, the PS3 will have been around and available to buy for seven years. Seven years ago, people in their twenties could afford to buy houses, Tony Blair was Prime Minister and the first iPhone had not yet been released.

In case you’re wondering, it’s the latter point that’s the crucial one.

What concerns us is that if the Sony PS4 wants to have a lifespan anywhere near as long as the current generation, we’re not convinced it has done enough to align itself to the way digital content is consumed these days.

Anatomy of a PS4

If we’re going to take a poke at the PS4, we need to specify what it is lacking. The truth is that Sony didn’t really tell us everything about the PS4 at the launch, but did give us an overview of its basic anatomy.

The Sony PS4 is a largely traditional games console. It is a box that will sit in your living room. It will gobble-up shiny plastic discs and spew out immensely pretty visuals.

In many respects, the Sony PS4 continues on the trajectory that was established by its forebears, the PS1, PS2 and PS3. It represents a huge power upgrade over its predecessor, and is able to render much more advanced visuals, and recreate more complex physics models.

The Sony PS4’s 8-core CPU doesn’t sound all that impressive when phones are starting to use 8-core chips, but it’s the GPU that matters most in a games console. And the AMD GPU of the Sony PS4 looks like a winner.

However, now that so much gaming takes place on iPads and smartphones in front of the television, is such a traditional model for a home console already archaic?

PS4 Game Streaming

Perhaps the most forward-thinking aspect of the Sony PS4 to date is its incorporation of Gaikai technology. This works in a similar fashion to OnLive, which is better-known in the UK.

Gaikai lets you stream games to a PS4 over your home broadband connection. This all sounds very futuristic when put into the context of average Joe gamer, but its primary uses are pretty conservative ones. It’ll be used to side-step the lack of PS3 backward compatibility in the PS4 – which may be down to the notoriously tricky system architecture of the current console. It’ll also act as a retro game archive, letting you play older PlayStation games. PS4 games are not currently on the cards.

The Sony PS4 remains wedded to the humble game disc, and while that’s a sensible move at present, it’s indicative of Sony’s stick-in-the-mud traits that we’ve witnessed before.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Sony PS4’s approach to cross-platform integration. During the launch event, Sony bigged-up the importance of a cross-platform approach, but all the most interesting uses of this are tied to a handheld that no-one owns – the PS Vita. Sony itself admitted that sales of the device were “behind the numbers we originally pictured”, talking to gaming site Polygon.

What this relationship can do – stream any PS4 game to the high-tech handheld using Remote Play – is impressive. But to create a revolutionary device, Sony would need to let the PS4 stream to Android tablets and iPads alike. Yes, the PS4-tablet relationship brings up all sorts of interface issues, but to use one of the Sony PS4’s most intriguing features to prop-up the fortunes of an essentially failed console feels short-sighted.

Older tech fans may be reminded of Sony’s dogged and destructive support of Minidisc, the ATRAC format, Betamax and, more recently, the PSP’s UMD format. Few pleasant memories lie there.

What will the Sony PS4 be able to do with Android and iOS devices? Tablets and phones will be able to act as second screens for games – an accessory. 

Sony PS4 – Is Current Excitement Enough?

Enthusiast gamers may wonder what we’re complaining about. For traditional lounge gaming, the Sony PS4 seem like virtually everything we could have asked for. It offers superior visuals, new ways to interface with games and will have the support of all the biggest console game developers.

The problem is what’s coming next, from Apple. The Sony PS4 does little to combat the threat of the long-rumoured Apple TV-based gaming device. You can bet it will offer full integration with iPhones and iPads – and with that user base, it doesn’t need to consider users of other platforms. Sony does not have such a luxury.

Sony, and “real” gamers, will cry that the PS4 and an Apple gaming device would serve different audiences. However, it’s an argument that we’ve heard before, when the PS Vita was launched against the tide of iPhone popularity.

The issue is not that the Apple TV will usurp the Sony PS4 among gaming fans, but that the console cannot afford not to be mainstream. Sony’s PS3 has sold 70 million units to date, well above niche, and with Sony’s current stock state. Falling TV sales and difficulty competing with Samsung in the smartphone market mean Sony can’t afford a failure, even a failure most people would class as a success.

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