PS4: an evolution when we need a revolution?

Core gamers had high expectations on this week’s PS4 keynote and for good reason: it’s been seven years since the XBox 360 launch, the longest gap ever between game console generations. But gaming has been redefined by social media, mobile games on smartphones and tablets, along with a resurgence in PC gaming on Steam. Can consoles placate core gamers while still bringing a more mainstream audience into the fold?

In light of this challenge, Sony did a great job this week addressing the core fan base, but there’s some unanswered questions and problems with their approach for the overall public.

Let’s start with Sony’s core audience. It’s a smaller group than seven years ago, but it’s still important. You want a strong base of early console adopters for that first “lean year” when there’s fewer release titles and developers are still grappling with how to program effectively on the device. Overall, Sony appears to have learned from the major mistakes they made with the PS3: system updates, a major PS3 annoyance, will be taken care of in the background. With 8 GB of fast RAM and a x86 processor, development should be easier than on the PS3 Cell chip. The PS4 incorporates streaming technology for quick demos and live spectating on friends games, an innovation a lot of the hard core audience wants and will actively use to share clips on Facebook, YouTube and other social media. Add in flashy demos from big traditional gaming houses (e.g. Activision, Ubisoft, Square Enix), combined with two huge newcomers (Bungie, Blizzard) makes for a strong showing for those already sold on traditional console gaming.

But there was a troubling amount of PS4 content that felt very much like something we saw back in 2005 but with much flashier graphics. Did Sony really have to open their gameplay demos with a six minute clip from another, tired first person sci-fi shooter? Why were there so many game demos sequels or small variants of existing IPs?

I think the biggest area Sony and Microsoft have to address is a very potent middle tier gaming market comprised of mostly smaller, indie developers who would price content generally in that $5 to $40 sweet spot that neither iOS or AAA game publishers generally cover. Granted, Sony’s PSN has a few much lauded indie titles (e.g. Journey, Limbo), and the PS4 nabbed acclaimed Braid developer Jonathan Blow for The Witness. The PS4 keynote even opened up with Sony’s Andrew House stating “PSN supports free to play” right off the bat. But PSN has a long way to go to match the open nature of Steam or the iOS App Store. A healthy indie market would give Sony the diversity it needs much more than just a console’s expected $60 AAA sports and shooter games. Imagine a big library of accessible casual games you could easily find and download for a few bucks each on PSN – much larger and more diverse than what we see today. It would be more than what you’d pay for your average iPad game (who’s race to the bottom market has effectively killed off games north of $3), but in return you get exponentially more engrossing graphics and gameplay depth.

I’m also concerned about the price tag on this device. There’s a lot of expensive sounding hardware and features, including a DualShock 4 that clearly took the kitchen sink approach (touch screen, movement tracking, headphone jack) without justifying a “why” behind it. Anything much more than $400 for the base console I think is dangerous territory for the holiday 2013 launch.

While you can’t place final bets until at least a year from now, Sony has clearly evolved from its last place PS3 finish in the previous round of console wars. But even with that correction, the PS4 could languish by failing to address the very different, mobile friendly gaming landscape of 2013.