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.

Remember the rapture this slide caused?
Remember the rapture this slide caused?

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.

Knack is pretty, but pretty doesn't always sell.
Knack is pretty, but pretty doesn’t always sell.

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.

Rematch

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.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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16 Comments

  1. Benjamin Willert
    0

    Who’s to say, I love Xbox and live but I plan on getting a PS4 down the line maybe a year or two later. Either you do or you dont or get both like most of us plan to do eventually. What matters are the games.

  2. How awesome would it be if nintendo brought out a mainstream console, eg. with a normal controller, and better hardware. I would actually really consider getting one =) i loved nintendo 64 and gamecube, but then the wii and wiiU kind of turned me off nintendo… i just really hope their next console is normal, that would be awesome =)

    • Brandon Merriman

      I don’t see a problem with the Wii U Pad as a normal controller (other than battery life). Have you used one? It’s more comfortable and lighter than it looks.
      Ironically though, Pikmin 3 is superior with a Wii Remote. So, I think they actually have two great control styles right now depending on what and how you play.

      Hardware is an issue though…you and me both are hoping for that.

  3. Outstanding post! I think in the long run SONY cares more about beating Microsoft into the dirt this year then turning a profit at system launch. So far so good.

    • NovaTer
      0

      Sony need to turn PSN into a business model instead of a charity to many PS fan expecting stuff for free. Sony could be making massive profits if they wasn’t always trying to undercut MS, I hope the PS4 does well though I will probably pick one up when the exclusives start rolling out the next Gran Turismo is an instant pick up for me!

      • Darrell
        0

        First off, most biz don’t expect to turn a profit in the first few yews… I really don’t think Sony is worried about that short term– they are concerned about gaining a larger install base in the states. It’s pretty much a given that they will out sale X1 or = it in any other territory. But I reason to believe they may be concerned about the long term.

        PS3 sold for 600 bucks at launch– and Sony was selling it at a loss from what I remember– this was due to a combo of new tech and years of R&D. PS4 will be sold at a loss– but not as great as the PS3. Specifically, they saved money in R&D by going with less custom parts and this was a smart move.

        Where does Sony make up that money? Not so Simple, PS+ a $50 a year subscription… How much is this offset by the fact that you get access to ridiculous amount of free games. I bring this up b/c most console lose money on hardware and make it back in software sells. But, I’m willing to bet they figure out who would have bought those games by that time have– except for a few… Thus making more money off of PS+.

        So Sony is betting a $100 per console, selling if for 400 instead of 500- and they should easily move 10M+ in the first year (1B). How many PS+ subscribers are there right now, 10M+? Whatever it is, it will most likely go up now that it is required to play online. 10M x $50= 500M.

        Personally I think Sony is doing the right thing with PS+ to play online- to stabilize their cash flow, But I’m having a hard time seeing how and when they will get in the black with their current biz strategy.

        Ranting aside, this is a very well-written article, thank you for the read.

        • Phil Fish
          0

          It’s not free if you pay for it mongloids. Sony gets more money than you’ve spent on those games were bought (the ones you like/play at least).
          PS+ is a glorified rental service that charges more for rentals and only deluded apologist would think otherwise.

          • Phil Fish
            0

            if they were bought*

          • Brandon Merriman

            First of all, take your vitriol isn’t appreciated.

            Secondly, Sony has to pay out a sum to publishers most of the time in order to put the games up for free. Check out my source at game trailers, it explains the process a bit. I don’t think, therefore, the subscriptions are going to cover it. Their finances suggest they are breaking even since their numbers year for year have not changed. I would love to be wrong on this count if you have proof.

            At any rate, I think their irresponsibility with plus on vita is proof enough that their approach with Plus on PS3 and PS4 will not be profitable. They are putting up many indie games (the ones they need to recoup their losses on too), and they just pushed out a new PS3 first party lineup including LBP karting (which is relatively new), Uncharted 3 (a AAA which will always sell) and XCom (admittedly, most people probably bought this on steam sale by now). It’s all so risky, especially when we see Microsoft being niggardly with their own free games program, and they are the ones who’ve been profiting.

  4. Burning Kay
    0

    Sony used the PS3 as a Trojan horse to win the blu-ray vs HD DVD wars a few years ago. Now every single Hollywood production company and Studio pays them for every blurray release, including the Record labels for live releases on bluray. Microsoft also pays them for blurray royalty fees. Sony will do fine, wait and see.

    • Brandon Merriman

      The profitability of blueray might prop them up financially, but it’s irresponsible to continue a gaming business losing money just because they are selling a lot of phones or selling their headquarters. I wouldn’t run my business that way. Yet, Sony is a risk-taker, evidently.

  5. selene gil
    0

    Is it just me… or is would it be the ultimate twist if Sega returned to the console scene now?

    One can dream…

    • Brandon Merriman

      I’m more than happy with them bolstering Nintendo’s line-up with titles like Sonic:Lost Worlds. Plus, the PC port of Sonic Racing has turned out to be one of the best and most widely available racers ever. I like where they’re at, and they are profiting off that place.

  6. I predict that in 5 years the gaming industry is going to be dominated by Microsoft, Apple and Google/Amazon. Nintendo will go 3rd party and Sony will end up selling off its games division piecemeal to the remaining competitors.

  7. Kevin Wong

    For one, I think Playstation+ for online multiplayer is extremely problematic, it shuts people out of game culture and it prohibits stuff like Journey from ever existing in the first place.

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