The PlayStation Meeting: Under the Microscope

Kevin VanOrd and Martin Gaston go head to head on whether or not the PlayStation 4 announcement was a success.

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The PlayStation Meeting: Sony's Confident Approach to the PS4

by Kevin VanOrd, Senior Editor

"Cautious optimism." It's a phrase I believe in, and it's the state of mind I embraced in anticipation of Sony's PlayStation 4 announcement. Assume the worst, and you risk being cynical; assume the best, and you lose your critical eye and risk sycophancy. And so I tried to shed any expectation and let Sony say its piece--and happily, my optimism regarding the PS4 continues. The PlayStation Meeting was a winner, presenting relevant information, announcing important games and partnerships, and making me anxious to learn more about the console. Let's break down what made the PlayStation Meeting such a success.

The Message Was About Games And Gaming

We've all rolled our eyes at one time or another when a major console manufacturer takes the stage, only to talk about features that seem least relevant to our interests as game players. Sony and Microsoft both have positioned their current consoles as general entertainment machines. Netflix, ESPN, YouTube, Twitter, Bing--all of these products have taken center stage at presentations, prompting many of us to ask: what about the games?

Certainly Sony didn't abolish all talk of peripheral functionality; Netflix was name-dropped a few minutes into the conference, after all, and there was discussion of music and movie services. But the features receiving the lion's share of attention were about the games, the way we access and interact with them, and the way we share the gaming experience with others.

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Innovation Beyond Gimmicks

I am not prepared to call motion controls a fad--and certainly, Sony isn't either; Media Molecule's Move-focused presentation was proof enough of that. But Sony's most interesting announcements were about features that, for me, make games more enjoyable and more social. "Social" is a scary word: it brings to mind Facebook walls and Twitter feeds loaded with extraneous information on people's gaming habits--habits I don't really care about. Sony's proposed PS4 features, however, appeal greatly to me. As someone who enjoys live-streaming games and sharing the play experience with others, being able to share live game video directly from the console is an enormous step forward, and it's a feature I dreamed of years ago. And if I'm having trouble with a difficult boss (perhaps in Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes?), I love the idea of inviting a friend to watch, offer tips, and take over and try it for himself if I feel particularly stuck.

This is "social" that makes sense.

Beyond social, we heard about other intriguing features--features that meant fewer obstacles between you and the games you love, not more obstacles. Suspending and resuming a game right where you left off without having to load a save? Convenient and sensible. Playing a digital game shortly after beginning the download, while the rest downloads in the background? Wonderful. Remote Play is the icing on the cake, though of course, its value rests on whether you own a PlayStation Vita. But if Sony accomplishes its goal--to ultimately make every PS4 game playable on the Vita--the promise of curling up in bed with your favorite PS4 games in the palm of your hand might be difficult for many players to resist.

These aren't gimmicks. These are great uses of technology to make your gaming experience better and more convenient. The PlayStation 4 Eye and the controller touch screen are all variations on the more familiar "gimmicks" we practically take for granted in the current technological climate, but Sony didn't greatly elaborate on these features, choosing instead to showcase technology more interesting to the core market.

Game Diversity

A new Killzone was inevitable. That it is gorgeous was also inevitable. But Killzone: Shadow Fall was also one of the most important games Sony presented, because we want to know: just how powerful is this console? Shadow Fall proved that it was pretty damn powerful, but if that game didn't convince you, DriveClub probably did. (Car porn at its finest, there.) The graphics enthusiasts among us saw what we needed: top-notch visual technology. The question remains: were these games actually running on PS4 development hardware? Console manufacturers are known to mislead, misdirect, and flat-out lie. Presuming what we saw was actual footage, I'm happy to see glimpses of next-generation visuals. And given how much progress we've seen during the current generation, what we saw is likely the tip of the iceberg.

Of course, many players would suggest that the current generation is already as visually advanced as is necessary. We want more than photorealism from our games, after all: we want them to be fun, or immersive, or emotionally stimulating, or thought-provoking, or all of the above. We're interested in different types of experiences, and Sony seems fully aware of that interest. Jonathan Blow's presentation was key, here: Sony wants indie developers as well as big-budget devs on board.

Important, too, was Media Molecule's charming presentation, which garnered more than a few "What the hell was that?" reactions on my Twitter feed, but I felt in tune with what the Little Big Planet developer was doing: bringing us a vast suite of creation tools that utilized 3D space. The PlayStation 4 will have games like Bungie's always-connected shooter Destiny, Blizzard's action RPG Diablo III, Ubisoft's ambitious action/espionage game Watch_Dogs, and open-world superhero game inFamous: Second Son. The games we saw at the conference represent diversity, but the kind of diversity appealing to Sony's most loyal audience.

What was missing? Games and services core gamers don't care about. We didn't have to suffer through another Wonderbook-type presentation, or a kid-friendly minigame compilation showcased by impossibly happy, cleanly-scrubbed families wearing manufactured smiles. Sony knew who its audience was, and didn't ruminate on frivolities. The conference was long, but it didn't waste my time.

Healthy Skepticism

Well, maybe that's not entirely true. Square Enix certainly wasted my time by showing a tech demo they'd already presented at E3, and then announcing… that they would be announcing something at this year's E3. Square continually squanders its rapidly diminishing goodwill in every possible way, and this particular shenanigan was insulting.

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Even beyond Square's lack of respect for its audience, there's something else troubling me: no backwards compatibility. I expect that this could change, particularly given the Gaikai partnership. The hardware may not be backwards compatible, but if the console could identify my PS3/PS2/PS1 discs, perhaps those games could be streamed via Gaikai. Ultimately, I still own a PS3 and PS2; a lack of backwards compatibility doesn't prevent me from playing and accessing the games I already own. But Sony is making decisions meant to improve player convenience--and what could be more convenient than playing all of my PlayStation products on a single machine?

Then again, we can't have all of the things, all of the time, and I remain skeptical that Sony can deliver on every promise they made--not because I believe they aren't capable, but because features often get canceled or delayed in advance of a hardware launch. But I sincerely hope the PlayStation 4 we receive is the same PlayStation 4 we heard about on Wednesday, because it seems loaded with smart ideas that make me excited for the future.

The PlayStation Meeting: A Giant Leap Towards Nowhere In Particular

by Martin Gaston, News Editor

On Wednesday, as Sony unveiled its PlayStation 4 in New York, an assembled trove of developers leapt one-by-one to Sony's stage before muttering about the creative constraints of old technology in their multimillion dollar productions of yesterday. They were here to pledge their total allegiance to Sony's new machine, and their current multi-multimillion dollar productions of the future. This overlong sales pitch was, perhaps unsurprisingly, very much a case of down with the old, and in with the new, the social, and the innovative: the PlayStation 4.

Before long the ceaseless procession of executive prattle became so cloying it seemed like the PlayStation 4 was being designed to transmogrify simple button inputs into intense bursts of concentrated adrenaline, but perhaps this is to be expected from any product launch in today's hyperbolic technology industry. The PlayStation 4 was to be such a leap of innovation and creativity, intimated Sony with its mighty buzzwords and rhetoric, that its gamers/consumers (that's us) would end up so empowered by such rousing sentiment that we might as well stomp our PlayStation 3's into a dozen pieces this very second.

Don't Panic: The Hardware Was Exciting

At times, underneath the thick layers of honeyed narration, the idea of the PlayStation 4 felt perfectly designed for the future. Perhaps the most significant symbol of the whole night, in retrospect, was Mark Cerny announcing his own game Knack. Admittedly Knack hardly amazed, but the sight of the PlayStation 4's lead systems architect using the fruits of the machine's engineering labour to make a genuine video game is about a hundred million miles away from spirit of the PlayStation 3. Seven years ago Sony embarked on an ill-fated decision to snub developers by opting for a wholly confusing and awkward system architecture that managed to baffle some of the world's most talented coding minds, and the company was clearly working overtime to assure developers that such an action was not happening again.

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Other features, too, left a good impression. Having a part of the machine dedicated to background downloading will help fix one of Sony's most oft-criticised mistakes of the PlayStation 3. Making the PlayStation Store more immediate and predictive should help developers with the problem of visibility in these increasingly-crowded digital marketplaces. And the Share button, as far as I'm concerned, will likely become one of the most oft-used parts of the console for today's new generation of gamers who digest a vast majority of their gaming media from Let's Play videos.

The more I think about the specifics of what Sony announced, the more excited I get. The PlayStation 4 could quite easily end up an utterly fantastic machine, and Sony seems to be doing its best to shed the problems that have afflicted it for the last generation. I'm hugely excited to see the finished product.

Panic: Where's The Software?

But for all these laudable new features, what was the first harvest of software from Sony's latest machine? The exhibited nuggets of Sony's developer-led, developer-focused, developer-friendly mentality managed to produce, at first glance, some of the finest examples of box-ticking, laundry list games publishing I've seen since the last time new hardware was announced.

Sony's Evolution Studios took to the stage to say that it's taken a decade for technology to catch up with their dreams of making a social-led driving game, one which could integrate the very kind of social features we've been seeing and using in driving games for the last four years; Sucker Punch presented another entry in the inFamous series; and Guerrilla Games stood up to present a visually stunning demo of Killzone: Now With Blue Skies And Ropes, albeit one which proudly exhibited almost every single trope of the modern first-person shooter in the first three minutes of screentime.

The folks at Sony in charge of actually making the games seem to lack the same conviction of those presenting the hardware. Before the show I fully expected Guerilla Games to unveil a new IP for a new hardware generation, free from the stigma of their dampening Killzone franchise, at the very time in a console's lifecycle where new IP has its very best chance to flourish and thrive. It's a massive shame it didn't, though of course Killzone looks like a real work of technical accomplishment from the engineers at Guerilla.

Ubisoft knows the power of new IP better than most, having ran away with E3 2012 by showing off Watch Dogs for the first time. Carried aloft on this wave of hype, Ubisoft managed to steal the show once again with its second showing. While it was fantastic to get another glimpse at one of the most promising upcoming games, Watch Dogs is hardly a system seller--I'd be utterly amazed if we don't see the game again as soon as Microsoft decides to announce its next Xbox. The same goes for the other third-parties on show.

I find it very hard to feel particularly positive about a game titled DriveClub, though its gorgeous aesthetic managed to pique my interest. The game feels like SCEA's shot across the bows of Gran Turismo developer Polyphony Digital. with Sony's American publishing arm likely wanting a successful racing franchise it can crank out at a bare minimum of every other year, and Polyphony Digital only managing one entry in its vaunted Gran Turismo series for the entire lifespan of the PS3 thus far. DriveClub is a game clearly more about franchise and function rather than form, and that's fine. But it's hardly exciting.

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Red Alert: PlayStation Move Sighting

But, still, Sony's software on show considerably let down the promise of the hardware. And then Sony decided to parade a string of its more eclectic developers to validate the machine's innovative credentials. An intriguing presentation by Jonathan Blow gave the line-up some promise and hope, and Media Molecule were wheeled out to remind us that nobody, nobody at all, cares even remotely about the PlayStation Move.

Between the two was time for Heavy Rain director David Cage to confidently dismiss an iconic, medium-defining movie--1903's The Great Train Robbery, considered a milestone of filmmaking--before singling out the need for emotion in the next-generation of games and showing a floating old man's head as if it was the missing piece in gaming's puzzle. In many ways Cage was inadvertently retreading the same path Sony took in 1999 when it unveiled the PlayStation 2, its Emotion Engine processor, and another floating old man's head as a tech demo. Cage, in his attempts to convince us of the future, ended up reminding me about the past, though he was by no means the only one guilty of this during Sony's PlayStation 4 unveiling. The more things change, it seems…

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