Here it is! Sony's big announcement about the brand-new PlayStation 4! If the press is to be believed, it's everything you could ever want! It has better graphics, a whopping 8 GB of memory, new and innovative features, and let's not forget, lots of new games! So why, then, do I think the PlayStation 4 had the most disappointing console announcement in recent gaming history?
Parental advisory: this article contains significant ranting and features opinions which some may find unpleasant. Viewer discretion is advised.
It Will Be Awesome
If there are a few words that were said more than any others during Sony's press conference, they were variations upon "PlayStation 4 will be awesome, you'll see." The problem, as is so common in bad writing, is that you shouldn't tell your audience when you can show them.
The PlayStation 4 announcement was, in part, underwhelming for me because it was underwhelming. There was so much talk of new features, but they were all vaguely defined and amounted to corporate business announcements without any concrete, direct implications on how it would actually affect the final game or consumer experience. There was talk about how games would touch us like no others before, how they would trigger emotions deep down inside us that we had never before felt, yet there was not a single game that even bothered to show an emotional center.
The power of the PlayStation 4 brings more expansive and impressive skyboxes than ever before!
This is a problem that is almost inevitable for any console announcement because there is only so much developers have to actually demonstrate, and most of the stuff they do have ready in time for big announcements tends to consist of target renders, tech demos, or rushed gameplay concepts which, if the person in charge of the camera were to turn the angle just a little to the left, would reveal a vast landscape of unfinished content.
At the same time, though, consumers are smarter and more educated about the entertainment products they buy than they have been in the past. They are more analytic, more attentive, and most importantly, are not willing to buy your snake oil because you tell them it will cure blindness, deafness, ingrown toenails, baldness, diabetes, etc. without actually being able to see it for themselves.
What's more, we received no details on critical issues like pricing, long-term business plans, online infrastructure, or even branding and what the hardware itself will look like. For a product announcement, there was surprisingly little actually demonstrated. While it's nice to see a press conference focused mostly on games instead of embarrassing stage acts for once (not that that stopped a couple brave souls), I was under the impression that the goal of a product announcement was to provide relevant, important, detailed information that was heretofore unknown to the public. Instead we have... well, very little.
All said and done, the already underwhelming press conference was made even less appealing because it was done to a chorus of voices insisting that the PlayStation 4 is truly the greatest thing to ever hit the games industry.
The Same Old
I mean absolutely no disrespect to developers or publishers around the world when I discuss this, who have certainly poured thousands of hours of blood, sweat and tears into making some of these impressive demos for the PlayStation 4 press conference, and videogames in general. Indeed, there are some truly stunning-looking demos to be seen. However, the fact is that I was thoroughly unimpressed with what was displayed because it amounted to the same old stuff we have been getting for the last 7-8 years already.
What do I mean by that? Oh, a racing game, where the reflections on the cars can use a 50% downsampled real-time reflection of the racetrack instead of a 75% downsampled reflection! Oh, a linear first-person shooter which is so generic and predictable that it can be called like a sports broadcast! Oh, an "impressive" tech demo that compares favorably to an NVIDIA presentation made in 2002! Oh, Assassin's Creed 5: Desmond Edition!
I thoroughly realize that these demos are not indicative of what is possible from the console, but at the end of the day, there is nothing on the PlayStation 4 that looks any more interesting visually, mechanically, or emotionally than anything going on in the current generation. That bodes poorly for a company marketing itself as bringing souped-up next-gen visuals, gameplay and immersion.
A console announcement should make a splash and wow gamers with what they never thought possible. Regardless of success, Nintendo's Wii, WiiU, and 3DS all made their marks upon announcement because they promised a world people had never seen before - that is what gets players truly excited. All I'm seeing from the PlayStation 4 so far is graphics lifted from 5 year old PC games (Crysis, ArmA, etc.), and gameplay that looks just as, if not more dated.
The Realism Fallacy
Most importantly, it really boils down to a problem that has been heading for the games industry fast and hard for a long while now, which is that photo-realistic graphics are not viable, are not sustainable, and are not desirable. No matter what those nice teleprompt-reading men on stage would have you believe, pushing the graphical envelope does not make for better games, and the sad fact is that despite its 4-year-old PC specs, the PlayStation 4's new hardware does not enable anything new mechanically that can't or hasn't already been done elsewhere.
The proof is in the pudding. What did the demos consist of? A target render of Killzone 4 (making it the second time a Killzone game has been used as a sacrificial lamb for PlayStation's projected visuals and failing to deliver), which consisted of 50% cutscene, and whose mechanical depth amounts to off-brand whack-a-mole. A slightly more vibrant, visually impressive version of Grand Theft Auto. An indie game from Johnathon Blow which seems mechanically interesting, but could have been done on a smartphone and would have been just as engaging.
No big developer in a position to truly take full advantage of the PlayStation 4's hardware has any interest in real innovation in pushing graphics forwards. The game budgets are too big - at least 2x bigger than they are this/last generation, and marketing's going to be even bigger - to allow for anything but an absolute sure-fire success. Developers who already have big mainstream success shipping multi-million sellers do very little innovation to gameplay itself; their work is much more centered on coming up with new microtransaction models, expanding audiences, and so on.
Meanwhile, smaller indie developers are the last ones to have a need for the hardware on the PlayStation 4 - few of them have even managed to vaguely tap the potential of the current generation, and most of their games don't really need to in the first place to achieve success. Those developers are far more concerned with creating interesting art and novel gameplay mechanics, because that's their bread and butter - surprising people with new ideas.
30,000 polygons! You hear that?! We're gonna be rich!
David Cage's presentation was in itself a microcosm of what I consider one of the biggest problems to face the games industry in the next decade. His comparison of early film technology to gaming is contentious to say the least, and makes several claims about the nature of both cinema as well as videogames that it deserves its own full, lengthy critique. I'll cover my objections here in brief:
What we have here is a colossal misunderstanding of why and how players engage with videogames. David Cage, based on the way he is selling his product (and conducting himself in discussions with press), does not appear to appreciate that the emotional responses gamers have to videogames are the result of interaction with play mechanics and systems, of which graphics are an abstract representation.
This fallacy, unfortunately, is at the core of much of the PlayStation 4 press announcement, as well as some of the games on display, and it is the primary reason why I could do little but sigh in quiet disbelief while watching it. It's not a problem exclusive to the PlayStation 4, to the developers I've mentioned, nor is it something that those very same developers, publishers and manufacturers are not aware of. What it is being is validated, and its negative consequences ignored.
I'm sure the PlayStation 4 will be a great console with dozens of excellent games. Losing the memory limitations of the current generation in particular is a huge boon for developers, who won't have to make the same technological compromises to achieve their goals. The live video streaming via the "share" button is also a huge boon and something that could really make e-sports and live LPing more mainstream.
But, as far as actually selling the console to me, and to gamers around the world? It was weak. Here's a console announcement from which the most detailed information we can take away is: it will have slightly better graphics, it will have more multimedia and online features which may or may not work, may or may not cost extra money, and may or many not be readily available to everyone. Oh, and don't forget the exclusive Bungie DLC! And don't forget the Move!
Ultimately Sony have succeeded in doing what I thought impossible: they announced a product that everyone knew was coming, and showed lengthy demos, yet didn't answer the most critical questions: what will it cost, what will it look like, and what truly new gaming experiences will it offer us. While this announcement may have stirred some interest, it answered nothing and provided even more questions, all the while highlighting what I feel are some negative trends in the games industry.