Playstation 4: All Star or Impending Supernova?
“Playstation All Stars: Battle Royale!” It was a swan-song for the Playstation brand, uniting disparate franchises with innovative 4 player combat, solid netcode, and a varied roster. Most of all, the demand was eager for a retrospective.
Yet, SuperBot delivered a product which was lacking the scope and critical acclaim of its adversarial inspiration. “Sony Smash Brothers” was a shadow of its competitor, a series backed by Nintendo lore and the tremendous heart of developer Masahiro Sakurai. In addition, Miyamoto-san lovingly oversees Nintendo projects, dropping his endearing definition of fun into every title. And, there’s always the Super Mario factor, a character bigger than Mickey Mouse whose presence overwhelms Sony’s characters, more so the third-party characters shoehorned into All Stars. It’s the power of first-party development that has kept Nintendo relevant for its lifespan, and their eighteen studios to Sony’s twelve says it all.
Sony has potency, though, or they wouldn’t have lasted as long as they have! Indeed, developers like Naughty Dog and Media Molecule are consistently producing quality titles with memorable characters. Still, while Sony rides the zeitgeist, their creative abilities are in a dead heat with Microsoft and in a lower league than Nintendo’s production powerhouse.
Frothing fervor for the newest Playstation, the PS4, has caused it to become the hit pre-order item on Amazon, chagrining Microsoft’s carefully laid plans. The Xbox One was proven to be anti-consumer and anti-privacy, a deadly cocktail in the digital market and one for which Playstation was the antidote. The Wii U, meanwhile, struggles to come up with quality content due to Nintendo’s resource drain into the blossoming 3DS. While this holiday season is meant to rectify that issue, fans are anticipating a killer app which will rejuvenate the flailing console; one hasn’t materialized so far, but even if fans have to wait until the next Legend of Zelda or Super Smash Brothers, it will rise.
All things considered, the PS4 appears to be the champion. Yet, we have the problem of Playstation All Stars causing concern: can Sony deliver on a safe bet when their creative department lives in Nintendo’s shadow and Microsoft breathes down their neck?
Alea Iacta Est
Before E3, neither Sony or Microsoft knew what their opponents were preparing. Sony’s sensibilities at E3 were twofold: their console would be traditional, and it would overwhelm the next Xbox, much like their aim was with the Cell processor last generation. On both counts, they succeeded. The console was adequately priced with plenty of titles promised, and the hardware looked beefier than Microsoft’s. But, the biggest victory was unexpected, and months later it’s hard to forget that tongue-in-cheek video in response to Microsoft’s tortuous now-reversed DRM. The PS4 was crowned by many-a-message board, but with retrospect and Microsoft’s cyclical improvement, Sony has begun to see harsher criticism, all rooted in the same concepts that earned it praise initially.
The greatest post-E3 revelation is that Sony’s next console is generic. The Playstation Camera is merely port-fodder compared to the Xbox Kinect, a peripheral bundled with every Xbox and likely to see a plethora of original gameplay ideas because of it. When it comes to the input demands of the next generation, they are served by the PS4 controller with a touchpad and light-bar to integrate Playstation camera support, not to mention an identical form factor which some might regard as “classic”. Their design is met by Microsoft and Nintendo with an actual touchscreen controller, more ergonomic design, the integrated Kinect, and rumble triggers. Finally, their support of the Vita as a PS4 playmate is questionable when the upcoming software lineup is less-than-stellar and has been receiving a pounding from Nintendo. Even the DRM issue has been addressed with a reversal of policy by Microsoft.
Luckily, Sony has tricks up their sleeves which are earning them brownie points, but it’s pressing to come up with conclusive reasons why they are strict advantages and not, ironically, risks.
For the Love of the Game
A surprising turn in Sony’s E3 conference was the motley indie showcase to promote their cultivation of independent developer/publishers on their platform. Adam Boyes, figurehead of Sony’s initiative, emphatically showed Sony’s dedication to their market and support for innovative endeavors while Microsoft was botching this same element. By blocking out the ability for indies to self-publish, the Xbox was cut off from the same content that the PS4 would receive, all as a sacrifice to the robber barons craving a cut of indie income.
A month later, Microsoft decided to correct their error, allowing not only for indies to self-publish, but also for them to develop on a retail Xbox One for a $300 fee, totalling $800 dollars for a dev package. Sony, on the other hand, felt very secure with their plan: they would charge $2500 for PS4 devkits, but also push out one year loaners to qualified indie developers to get on their feet. You might ask, where is the Wii U in this scheme? Their devkits cost $2500 including free access to the Unity 4 Pro engine, a $1500 value, which is a nifty package but decidedly niche.
All the schemes have their strengths, but Sony’s hides critical flaws. Consider indie darling Fez, which took five years solid to see daylight. That would require eventual purchase of the PS4 development package regardless of a year-long loaner. An indie with a budget that small might not be able to develop in a year due to being a novice, or being impoverished such that they have to fight for the necessities. Really, the offering only caters for already established and funded indies like Jonathan Blow who can put out a title in a year and do more than break even after publishing. It’s a catch-22 for the starving artist.
Of course, Sony has their pub-fund for 6-8 indies a year (including already established teams like Blow) to have a game’s development entirely funded, but it requires timed Sony exclusivity, not to mention trust. It’s also only a royalty-fronting system, so unless the game does well, the developers will need to push the title to another platform in spite of the investment, leaving Sony fruitless. The fund is set to run out in 2014 when, if it isn’t renewed (and Sony certainly can’t play fairy godmother forever), Microsoft will presumably pick up the slack with their ideal price point. It’s an entirely frustrating scenario for Sony after pushing so much effort into indie development, and if it does end up being a net waste of resources, the PS4 will have that much more trouble treading in 2014.
Cheapening of the Brand
Another of PS4’s advantages from the current generation was stripped away from the beginning: Sony revealed that online multiplayer would be limited to those with a Playstation Plus subscription. Revelations about Microsoft’s and Sony’s subscription systems keep being revealed, mostly they are required for the most touted features of both consoles. The ones complaining about Sony are fairly foolish, however; Microsoft’s subscription wall locks players out of most of its touted online features, and besides, if you’re a Playstation owner without Playstation Plus, you’re not taking advantage of one of the best deals in the history of gaming. With the price of a $50 a year subscription (cheaper than Xbox Live), Sony delivers deep discounts and a new game every week, adding up to 42 games in a year for the Vita or PS3. Undeniably more awesome, Sony has promised that Playstation Plus will support the PS4, albeit with a smaller line-up of indie games and content-stripped major titles. They’re nearly giving these games away, to the point that they must be crazy–and maybe they are.
The Playstation Vita is not turning a profit right now, potentially due to the cost of PS+. Three of its first-party darlings, Gravity Rush, Uncharted, and Wipeout, are offered up for free with a subscription, and very soon they will be swapped out for three newer first-party titles. A smart consumer could purchase three months of Playstation Plus immediately before this swap and have access to some of the best titles from its library, along with other third-party titles, for only $18. Of course, they are only available while the subscription is in effect, but the cost is marginal compared to purchasing these games for $40 new individually. With triple-A development’s ever-increasing toll, it’s a hefty amount of potential black to cut out when viewing already stagnant finances.
The same argument does not necessarily follow for the PS3, a console with a back catalog stretching back six and a half years. Still, in an era where the Playstation brand is not a money-maker, it’s hard to justify PS+. Sony’s indomitable altruism has played consumers to boost sales as well as positivity, but higher profits just aren’t there in recent financial reports to signify that it’s working for the present. Similar to their indie fund, Sony cannot forevermore pay off publishers with a sum in order to provide games gratis.
Financial possibilities exhausted, it all leads to grooming consumers for the PS4, which will sell at a profit for Sony and perhaps lead their console sector into a new era of promise. But, like their indie program, PS+ is a big bet when Sony could have brought in more revenue, subsequently safeguarding a troublesome PS4 launch. Perhaps there would have been trust in the PS4 even without PS+’s supreme goodwill.
Cost of Prodigy
Part of that trust is currently being generated by armchair enthusiasts spinning yarns about the Xbox’s infinite cloud computing or the PS3’s monolithic RAM, but just days ago id Software’s programmer extraordinaire John Carmack ruled that Xbox One and PS4 are virtually the same. His claim is justified: both consoles offer an x86 pc-type architecture which will ensure minimal porting woes between them and the PC compared to the Wii U’s outsider PowerPC chip. Both also feature eight-core processors, though two of the cores are likely to be reserved for multitasking, at least in the Xbox One. The same can be said for multitasking reservations in their GPUs and RAM, though that is where similarities begin to tail off.
A comparison of raw graphical flops puts the PS4 ahead in FPS and looks, showing price for price a design with more value than Microsoft’s. In this regard, Microsoft is tweaking until the very end to fill the performance gap sensationalized at E3: they have increased the clock speed of the GPU and announced an Xbox One optimized version of Direct X which ensures that developers can unlock the Xbox’s potential faster. They even claim that the red ring of death is a thing of the past; Xbox One should last ten years according to their trials. The PS4, already given the OK for manufacture, supposedly still outperforms the Xbox One substantially, but any measuring is apples to apples until comparisons of retail software are performed.
Despite any advantage, Sony is seeing a diminished return on their financial investment while Microsoft’s gaming division still posts profits, even as R&D continues for the Xbox One until the deadline. This has everything to do with Microsoft’s history of wise tech investment, and Microsoft’s solvency could mean the continued success of the Xbox brand and the grave for Sony, whose technological edge comes at a relatively heady cost.
New Games, Same Games
It’s hard to believe, with the dearth of Vita titles attributed to PS4 development, that a lack of solid exclusive titles is a crux for argument, but they are unfortunately struggling to find favorable impressions. Knack was the first game showed off on the PS4, and the appeal of its platformer roots was instant. But, detractors have proven that the gameplay is overly simplistic, with less-than-stellar combat and brain-dead platforming. Perhaps developer Mark Cerny has tried to distill his memories of Ratchet and Clank or Crash Bandicoot and come up with the ultimate Mario-killer, but Knack appears to be the least common denominator instead, and hardly a must-have. The problem of Playstation All Stars rises again.
Driveclub is another issue: a racing game from the creators of Motorstorm, it appears to have all the makings of driving supremacy, except that Sony already has Gran Turismo. Therefore, the flaws of Driveclub are especially glaring. Its hopes seem to hinge on an arcade influence and online play, which have succeeded before, but again, aren’t system sellers.
Of course, there are experiences arriving from established franchises, but nothing rewriting their history, which is par for Sony’s current course. It’s safe to assume that Microsoft is employing a strategy of pushing established franchises like Halo, but considering that the Xbox’s population of fans is larger, they may profit more off of a stagnancy of innovation. Perhaps Killzone: Shadow Fall or Infamous: Second Sun will push enough copies to propel the console to supremacy, but without review scores, the jury is out.
After every tock of E3, there is a tick of Gamecom, the premier entertainment expo in Europe. It isn’t usually a big deal for the American audience, except when the big three have a chip on their shoulder. Sony and Microsoft have both thrown keynotes into the ring, promising more content for their burgeoning platforms which will sincerely sell you for this holiday.
Sony will have a time of it winning anybody over, with indie dominance only tentative, hardware only marginally superior, new IPs struggling, and Playstation Plus sapping zeroes right off of their income. The consumer is taking just as big a risk as Sony with their $400, but if everyone bets on Playstation, they’ll be here to stay. Otherwise, Sony’s finances are showing that they may not recoup a loss this generation.
But, while the battle with Microsoft is waged via PR and the press, their developers are the key to defeating the resting juggurnaut, the Wii U, which lies dormant until the holiday. Super Smash Brothers is returning with aplomb on multiple platforms, and Sony can’t afford to live through Playstation All Stars again without a more sincere effort. But, maybe the key to defeating Nintendo is not to go after their fanbase and copy their masterful designs; the success of Playstation All Stars is a testament to nostalgia, after all, not gameplay. Sony’s sons and daughters must be treated with the same reverence as Super Mario or Link. Games with the polish of Ratchet and Clank or Uncharted must continue into the next generation, and new IPs must be hotly pursued for the same reasons: an identity is necessary in order to overcome the samey Xbox and the scintillating Wii U. Without All Stars, Playstation is nothing, and the fans will fade away.
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