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The state of console gaming, part 4: Sony

I argued on Wednesday that Microsoft has good reason to make the current generation of systems persist as long as possible, and I reckon Sony is thinking along similar lines. The PlayStation 3 arrived at the same time as the Wii in 2006 but nearly a year after Xbox 360. Sony led the way in the previous generation-in the preceding five years Sony sold about twice as many PlayStation 2 systems than its competitors sold Xboxes and GameCubes combined-but had its work cut out to catch up with Microsoft's early head start in the current one.

However, Sony had an important advantage. By biding its time, it was able to release what was-and still is-the most powerful living room game console ever created in the form of PlayStation 3. It had the most raw horsepower, the most storage, built-in HDMI and Wi-Fi connectivity, and, perhaps most importantly, it was one of the first-and best-Blu-ray movie players on the market.

Of course, this tech came with a hefty price tag: US$600 for the deluxe model. And-thanks largely to those extremely pricey Blu-ray components-word had it that Sony was losing a bundle on each unit sold. It was a mighty machine, to be sure, but its high price caused the PlayStation 3 to stumble out of the gate. After leading the market for ten years, Sony suddenly found itself in third place in worldwide hardware sales-a position which, with 47 million systems sold as of the New Year, it retains to this day.

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As the years passed, Sony, like Microsoft, rolled out a steady stream of firmware and hardware updates and upgrades designed to decrease costs, improve the user experience, and increase the platform's lifespan. Most-like an improved online PlayStation Store, support for third-party video services, a subscription plan called PlayStation Plus that conferred discounts and bonus content to those who signed up, and refreshed hardware in the from of the smaller and less expensive PlayStation "slim"-were greatly appreciated by Sony's customers, though some changes-such as the discontinuation of Linux support and the abandonment of backwards compatibility in newer systems-rankled a few feathers in the PlayStation community.

The changes haven't been as extreme as those the Xbox 360 underwent-even last fall's PlayStation Move control system felt familiar, largely because players had already experienced the Wii's remote and nunchuk controllers, which were similar in design-but gradual changes have resulted in PlayStation 3 gamers experiencing a greater sense of stability and continuity through the system's life.

It may have had a slow start, but thanks to price drops and perseverance the PlayStation 3 is now experiencing steady, healthy sales with spurts of growth. And with each console sold comes a new software buyer, which is where the real money in the games business has always been. So, after all the hard work and investment put into PlayStation 3, it's time for Sony to spend a couple of years reaping the profits. That means the Japanese company is perfectly happy to ride the crest of this generation for as long as it feasibly can.

But don't be fooled; Sony will not come to market behind Microsoft, its primary competitor for hardcore gamer dollars. Sony and Microsoft may not be as motivated to launch a new platform as speedily as Nintendo, but Sony will work to ensure that its next platform arrives in the same season as Microsoft's, if not sooner. That makes me think we'll see PlayStation 4 in 2013. That said, if Sony feels certain Microsoft won't roll out its next console until even later, it may follow suit.

Since it's likely at least a couple of years away, predicting what Sony's next platform will be like is difficult-at least aside from general prophecies about transistor sizes and processor speeds that I haven't the technical experience to make.

So let's examine something more concrete: Content delivery.

Of the three big game hardware manufacturers Sony conducted the boldest experiment in purely digital distribution 16 months ago with the PSPgo, a handheld system that relies entirely on downloadable content. It has not performed well in any market. This suggests that, for a wide variety of reasons (a few of which I mentioned in the second part of this series) people aren't yet ready to give up on disc-based games. I suspect PlayStation 4 will likely offer a robust online store at which consumers can purchase anything in digital format that's available on disc-something they cannot do with the PlayStation 3-but it will assuredly also sport the latest generation Blu-ray technology.

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Because Sony has shown affinity for digital distribution we can also assume that it will offer consumers robust onboard storage; a hard disk or solid state drive between 500GB and 1TB in size, or even larger if the console doesn't arrive for a few years and storage prices drop quickly.

I imagine that some form of motion control-likely the next iteration of PlayStation Move-will come in the box. Like Microsoft, Sony will continue to serve core gamers with traditional controls. Hopefully, though, it will take the opportunity presented by a new console to redesign its aging Dual Shock controller, which has lately become host to all sorts of after-market snap-on gizmos to make it more comfortable.

Will Sony attempt to introduce some sort of game-changing new experience along the lines of the Wii remote and Microsoft Kinect? Doubtful. Given Sony Computer Entertainment's unique position of being part of one of the world's largest consumer technology companies, it's more likely that it will use the next PlayStation to advance existing company agendas, much like PlayStation 3 helped usher in the Blu-ray era. Whether that means pushing hard on the stereoscopic front (Sony makes 3-D televisions, after all) or some other product that we can't yet imagine is up for debate.

Expect, too, that Sony will deliver a wide variety of firmware features meant set the PlayStation 4 experience apart from Microsoft and Nintendo's next generation offerings. That means new multiplayer features, new content partnerships, and more customization options. PlayStation 3's PlayStation Home-a virtual world for PlayStation gamers to wander around and interact with one another-has been a bit of a bust, but I suspect we'll see Sony apply the lessons it's learned and take another stab at something similar, perhaps integrating it with the dashboard in some clever way.

Also, a subscription of some sort may end up becoming a requirement for online play. Sony continues to advertise the fact that all PlayStation 3 games are free to play online, but one can't help but believe it has been salivating over Microsoft's lucrative and all-but-compulsory Xbox Live subscription program, which continues to grow and make Redmond lots of money.

In the end, Sony's next system is perhaps the most difficult to predict, if only because I can't see PlayStation 4 significantly deviating from the path set forth by its predecessors. I'd wager that it will be the most technologically sophisticated game console of the next generation, if only because Sony enjoys sitting high on the technology throne. I suspect it will also be the most expensive, though not nearly as pricey as was PlayStation 3 when it first arrived. The only certainty I can foresee is that it will not be the last to arrive. Sony simply can't afford to let that happen again.

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Some readers might be wondering why I haven't discussed the notion that the next generation of consoles might include devices that are more or less hollow shells akin to set-top boxes that act as conduits for content, with massive server farms crunching game data in the cloud and streaming it to homes. This has proven a popular idea (OnLive already offers such a service in the U.S.), but according to network gurus and computer engineers I've spoke with over the last few years there are simply too many barriers-bandwidth, lag, and software licensing, to name just a few of them-for this to work on a broad scale and satisfy core players used to precise and immediate controls. I had the opportunity to try playing a game streamed over the Internet last year using a system still in development, and it was not a terrific experience. Streamed games may be the future, but they won't play much of a role any time soon.

That means there will be at least one more generation of video game consoles as we currently understand them. I've taken only a very basic stab at guessing what the that generation might be like and when it will arrive. I hope to see readers making some of their own predictions in the comments sections of these posts.

In the meantime, we're entering the current generation's golden age, and we should take time to enjoy it. Hardware is getting cheaper every year even as free firmware updates provide us with new experiences. All three systems have massive libraries filled with great games, and many fantastic older titles are dirt cheap. And with half a decade of experience with current platforms under their belts, game makers are churning out some of the best games ever made.

Regardless of which system you choose, it's a great time to be a console gamer.

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