Feature Article

PlayStation 4 Commanded The Generation With Exclusives

Sony's PS4 was the dominant console of the eighth generation thanks to a tight focus on strong gaming experiences and a slate of phenomenal titles.

Since its release in 2013, the PlayStation 4 has been a force on the gaming landscape, and across the last seven years, it's been clear that Sony and its gaming machine took the lead against the competition.

Sony's lead with the PS4 started with some missteps by its major rival, Microsoft, with the Xbox One. But it wasn't just a few key flubs from the competition at launch that propelled the PS4. Sony's console has become well-known for killer exclusives, and for a long portion of the generation, was the premiere home for big-hype indie games, as well. Sony also managed to make some moves in the hardware department--while not all of its ideas have defined the industry, its contribution to the mainstreaming of virtual reality had a big effect on the way the last few years have played out.

With the PS4, Sony developed a clear vision for its gaming machine, and while it tried out a variety of ideas along the way, it never wavered from making sure its system was a place to easily play and share great games. Though it didn't have to fight through the same rough public relations issues as its competition, Sony learned lessons from its own missteps with the PS3 and is carrying those lessons through to its next-generation console.

A Home For Indies

The PS4 would come to be known for bringing some of the best first-party titles of the generation. At launch, however, the PS4's lineup was a little lackluster. The console made up ground in a different realm, establishing itself as a premier showcase for indie games right from the jump. It all started with the extremely impressive side-scrolling shoot-em-up Resogun, but Sony didn't slow down on its indie focus throughout the PS4's life.

Small, interesting, and innovative titles drew a lot of attention to the indie gaming scene in the PS3 generation, and Sony had some big winners during that time with games like Journey and Hotline Miami. It continued to cultivate itself as a curated home for great indie titles on the PS4. Coupled with PlayStation Plus, which brought free games to subscribers, Sony managed to snag a lot of high-caliber and high-profile indies--and to thrive off their popularity.

Notable among them are Rocket League, which launched for free on PS Plus and became a phenomenon, and Fall Guys, which followed the same model and won some major acclaim. Sony also hit on some smaller titles, while working to make indies a bigger part of its showcase. The most memorable is No Man's Sky, Hello Games' massive exploration title that featured heavily in Sony's E3 2014 presentation. No Man's Sky's position during E3 generated enormous hype for the game--initially to the detriment of Hello Games as the game struggled to meet player expectations at launch, but largely to the benefit of the PS4. Today, No Man's Sky has seen several huge updates and has become well-regarded as the full, fascinating title that got players so excited six years ago.

The PS4 has waned somewhat as the location to go for worthy indie games over the course of its life--Microsoft has managed to cut back into that space a bit, while Sony has turned more of its attention to big first-party exclusives--but it still maintains a healthy collection of worthy titles. For years, one of the best things about owning a PS4 was getting access to some of the best indies around, if not as exclusives, then at least a little ahead of the competition.

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An Expensive Upgrade

Apart from the original PS4, Sony released two other iterations on the console over the course of the generation: the PS4 Slim and the PS4 Pro. The Slim introduced an improved form factor on the original PlayStation 4, but didn't mess with the internal hardware. The PS4 Pro, however, became the definitive version of the console.

As TVs adopted 4K resolutions and became more widespread and affordable, Sony put out a PS4 that could take advantage. The Pro amped up the original PS4 hardware with a more powerful CPU and GPU for enhanced performance. It also leaned into digital storage with a 1TB internal hard drive that was double the size of the original PS4's. The PS4 Pro ran games better and created better images, while offering more space to download and store games. It was an improvement over the PS4 in every way, and Sony showed off its capabilities with titles like Gran Turismo Sport that were tuned to take advantage of the hardware.

In a way, the PS4 Pro was a bummer for early adopters. It was a better version of the original PS4 and released at the same price of $400--meaning if you wanted to go for an upgrade, you needed to double your gaming investment. That said, the gains were significant if you had a TV that could leverage them, to say nothing of games running better in general on the Pro. As the generation wore on, the Pro got the best out of a lot of games, including Marvel's Spider-Man and Control. Luckily, the PS4 Pro was never essential to run those games if you were saddled with the earlier version, but it wasn't a great feeling for players who stuck with Sony in the early days of the generation, only to find themselves wishing they had the kind of console that could take advantage of their spiffy new TVs years later. With the power found in the launch PS5, it seems like Sony's next-generation offering might keep better pace with TV technology as it ramps up, but it certainly seems possible that adopters on Day One could find themselves wishing they'd waited down the line.

Tech Swings, Hits, And Misses

The PS4 had a leg-up on its Xbox One competition when it launched. While Microsoft went hard on trying to make the Xbox One an all-in-one entertainment machine, Sony held back, preferring to keep a central focus on gaming. That helped the PS4 avoid some pitfalls, but this generation was an era of trend-chasing technologies, and the PS4 had its fair share of ideas that sounded interesting at the time, but never really went anywhere.

Probably the biggest elements of the PS4 that didn't take off were related to app and second-screen integration. Smartphones had made a huge impact on gaming when the PS4 released, and many developers and publishers at the time thought that combining their games with smartphone apps would help broaden their appeal and create all kinds of additional functionality. Sony made some inroads in that direction as well. It created a second screen app, which added some ability to control your console on your smartphone, and the more interesting PlayLink app, along with a few games that used it. Effectively, the app turned your smartphone's touchscreen into a simplified game controller specific to certain games. PlayLink was actually a great idea for bringing more casual people into the fold--Jackbox Games started using the same tech idea years earlier for its Jackbox Party Pack series, and has created a line of fun, engaging, and easy-to-play party games. But there wound up being few games that supported PlayLink. At this point, you're kind of hard-pressed to find anyone who knows about it.

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The PS4 launched partway into the life of Sony's second handheld console, the PlayStation Vita, and integrating the two machines together was also a major push for the PS4. The Vita had remote play capabilities, which remain pretty impressive: Remote play allows you to stream your PS4's screen to your Vita over a wi-fi connection, so you can play your PS4 games on the machine. Less useful was the Vita's second screen capability, which allows it to work as a controller for your PS4. Not many games bothered to give the Vita any additional functionality, so it never took off as an especially useful PS4 component.

Other pieces of PS4 tech also felt like they might be a bigger deal, but never really developed. The DualShock 4 controller sports a big touchpad right in the center, allowing for touch and gesture controls in games--but few developers outside Sony's first-party studios ever really took advantage of it, and it mostly became a big, simple button for opening menus. The same is true of the internal SixAxis gyroscope that allows for motion control if you move the controller in various ways. The motion controls never turned out to be especially responsive, and few games implemented them. Even the ones that did, like The Last of Us Part 2, kept the functionality fairly minimal--in that game, you can shake the controller occasionally to recharge your flashlight's batteries. There was also the lightbar, which would change colors to indicate which players was using which controller during multiplayer games and sometimes flash or change in keeping with gameplay. It was another element that went underutilized, partially because it was hard for players to actually see what was happening with it, thanks to its position on the side of the controller facing away from them. Sony eventually added a strip of light to the touchpad in later iterations of the DualShock 4, but that never resulted in more developers making use of it.

The PS4's controller did lead to some good ideas, though. The dedicated Share button makes it easy to quickly take and share screenshots and videos, for instance, a function that has become extremely useful in the era of game streaming. And several ideas, like the touch pad, the Share button, and the built-in speaker, are making their way forward with the PS5's DualSense controller. Add to that the DualSense's built-in microphone and it's easy to see how the PS5 will sport easier communication and content-creation tools, even if developers don't work those features into how they design game mechanics.

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Making VR (Somewhat) More Affordable

Virtual reality roared onto the gaming scene in this generation when Oculus and its Rift first hit the industry stage. But while PC VR rigs drove a lot of the conversation, Sony might have done the most to make VR approachable with the advent of PlayStation VR.

Sony's VR headset isn't nearly the most high-end one on the market, but it came relatively early in the ramp-up in VR, and it had the virtue of being cheaper and more approachable than any other system on the market. First, it leveraged the big PS4 install base, getting around the requirement of having a powerful, VR-ready PC. Second, it kept the price down--if you already owned a PS4, the whole PSVR rig would run you only about $400, which was significantly cheaper than the $600 Rift (which had additional costs, like its motion-sensitive Touch controllers, besides). It was even cheaper if you were a longtime PlayStation fan who had bought into other PS3 and PS4 peripherals, like the PlayStation Camera and PlayStation Move controllers. With those already hooked up to your system, all you needed was the headset.

Though it wasn't incredibly cheap by any stretch, PSVR was, for many who were excited by the technology, a much more affordable option than what Oculus and HTC offered on PC. Sony significantly lowered the barrier of entry to virtual reality, and while the PSVR hasn't sold like gangbusters or totally revamped the gaming landscape by helping create an overwhelming VR wave, it has helped keep VR gaming in the conversation. Sony has a number of VR exclusives, including Astro Bot: Rescue Mission, Blood & Truth, Farpoint, and The Inpatient, and Sony's support led to some exceptionally cool VR versions of games, like Tetris Effect, Resident Evil 7, and Thumper. PSVR isn't the most important thing to happen for the PS4 this generation, but Sony did make a significant contribution to making virtual reality an actual reality for a lot of players.

Fighting Cross-Play

The rise of Fortnite as the biggest thing in games affected all corners of the industry. As far as the PS4 is concerned, the pressures of Fortnite might have changed Sony's policy for the better, at least as far as players are concerned.

It was Fortnite developer Epic Games that pushed both Sony and Microsoft to allow for cross-play between the platforms, something that was exceedingly rare in past generations. At first, Sony didn't go for it, fighting to keep games on the PS4 compatible with only other PS4 owners. But eventually, Sony caved to the pressure of Fortnite's huge player base, allowing developers to create opportunities in their game for cross-play integration.

With the gates opening, the flow of cross-play games seems to be increasing. Sony's change of heart allowed Destiny 2 to implement cross-save capabilities that allow players to move their characters from one platform to another, a huge move for the game's player base in the wake of its release of the PC version. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare took advantage with cross-play for its multiplayer modes. And now, several games are getting cross-generation multiplayer capabilities as Sony moves to the PS5, including Destiny 2 and Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War. Cross-play is still picking up steam, but if the situation holds, it could lead to a new era in multiplayer gaming as it becomes a lot less important what platforms you buy games on.

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The Power Of Exclusives

The realm in which the PS4 has soared more than any other is in big-budget, well-regarded exclusive titles. There are almost too many to count and they run the gamut of genres. First-party and exclusive titles are the main way in which the PS4 defined itself, and while not every exclusive was a hit, Sony made big moves throughout the PS4's life to secure what turned out to be some of the best games on the market. It made owning a PS4 a must for players who wanted access to many of the games that defined the eighth generation.

The early slate of PS4 exclusive games--titles such as Killzone: Shadow Fall and Knack--didn't blow the doors off, but they did do a good job of showing off what the console could do. Knack excelled at displaying tons of particles on screen at once to demonstrate the PS4's power, while Shadow Fall showcased some of the PS4's more interesting aspects, with a focus on touchpad controls. But it would be the later games that really set a tone for the PS4 having some top-end experiences.

Those generation-defining titles include cinematic action games such as The Last of Us Part 2 and God of War, expansive open-world titles like Marvel's Spider-Man and Ghost of Tsushima, and massively influential breakouts like Bloodborne and Persona 5. It's in exclusives that Sony has been pummeling the competition most clearly. For a lot of games, PS4 is the only place to play them. With many, many others, including massive sellers like the Call of Duty series and games with big communities such as Destiny 2, Sony secured timed exclusivity deals that meant DLC and multiplayer offerings went to PS4 first. Sony made a number of big gets across the course of the generation, and that only increased its cache.

Sony made additional moves by acquiring Insomniac Games, the team behind Ratchet & Clank and Marvel's Spider-Man, in 2019. The studio joined its earlier purchase of Sucker Punch Productions, the studio behind Ghost of Tsushima, which it had grabbed in 2011. At this point, Sony has a stable of first-party developers that also includes Naughty Dog, Guerrilla Games, and Sony Santa Monica. It's an extremely impressive group, all of whom put out big hits for the PS4.

It's impossible to overestimate the prestige Sony gained from first-party titles this generation. Games like God of War, Marvel's Spider-Man, The Last of Us Part 2, Horizon Zero Dawn, and Ghost of Tsushima haven't just been big sellers--they've driven big conversations around games. Many of those titles have been high in the running for the best games of the year. Sony developed a very impressive library of exclusive games that elevated the reputation of the platform, while having a big impact on the gaming landscape at the time. In a big way, it was the exclusives that defined the generation--and Sony had a lot of the best.

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Next-Gen: The PS5

With the PS5, it seems like Sony has adopted something of an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality. The PS4 was a huge success, and while some elements and technology ideas didn't really pan out, many of Sony's moves in the eighth generation worked exceedingly well.

A lot of the ideas of the DualShock 4 controller are moving forward with the DualSense. It too sports a dedicated Share button, a touchpad, and a built-in speaker. Sony also added a built-in microphone that should make party chat a lot easier. The controller also includes a big new focus on haptic feedback, which sounds like a feature that could open up new gameplay opportunities, or find itself going the way of the ligthbar if developers mostly ignore it. Sound is also an area that Sony is pushing with the PS5, sporting new 3D surround sound tech. At launch, that technology only works in headphones, but Sony says it's adapting it for speakers in the future, as well.

One of the big areas where the PS4 was lacking was in backwards compatibility--it's something PlayStation fans have clamored for, and an area where the Xbox One was miles ahead of the PS4. Sony solved the issue somewhat with its PlayStation Now subscription service, but you'll be able to play a big number of PS4 games on PS5 right out of the box. You'll still need PS Now for titles from earlier generations, but the change in focus is a big step for making the PS5 even more competitive.

And of course, the PS5 is going to be a much more powerful machine than its predecessor. Sony has made much of its reduced load times thanks to its internal SSD. While it's not the flashiest of improvements, it sounds like developers are excited to see how they can utilize the ability for seamless transitions and access to huge maps to improve games in the next generation.

Other Matters In Brief

  • PlayStation Now: Sony got ahead of the streaming competition in the PS4 era with PlayStation Now, which offers the ability to stream hundreds of PlayStation titles across multiple generations to the PS4. The service has a huge library, and while its titles tend to be a bit older, it's still an impressive service that solves some of PS4's lack of backward compatibility. PS Now's viability has grown over time with the inclusion of PC support and the ability to download games to your PS4 rather than stream them.
  • Kaz Steps Down: Kaz Hirai served as the president and CEO of Sony throughout the PS4 era, but announced he was stepping down in 2018. His leadership in the eighth generation helped Sony put a stronger focus on gaming that served the PS4 well, helping it to get ahead of the competition and regain some lost loyalty among players in the PS3 era.

The Verdict

Sony's PlayStation consoles have routinely been powerful monoliths in the gaming landscape, even when the platform maker occasionally stumbles. The PS4, however, is pretty much an unmitigated success. By keeping its eye pretty squarely on providing solid gaming experiences, Sony managed to push ahead of the competition on a number of fronts. For many players, the PS4 became their default machine in the eighth generation, and Sony rewarded them with great games over and over again.

Going into the next generation, it seems that all the good things from the PS4 are continuing forward with additional improvements. Sony is maintaining support for PS4 as it moves forward, it's adding new, useful, and interesting ideas to its controller tech, and it's leveraging the power of improved hardware to continue a focus on enticing games. The PS5 launches with some notable powerhouses that play off past successes, including Spider-Man: Miles Morales and . And Sony's backwards compatibility push means that the hits from the current generation are coming forward into the future. The PS4 was a console that succeeded through Sony learning a lot of lessons from the past, and while it tried new things, it always kept a clear goal in mind: Provide great gaming experiences. This is a console that did that at every turn.

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philhornshaw

Phil Hornshaw

GameSpot editor in Los Angeles, and the co-author of So You Created a Wormhole: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Time Travel and The Space Hero’s Guide to Glory. Hoped the latter would help me get Han Solo hair, but so far, unsuccessful.

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