With any luck, the PlayStation 4 could breathe some life into the otherwise moribund world of video game consoles.
Gamers who have been decrying the current state of the sequel-addicted industry, where it's one similar shooter after another, may have something to look forward to with Sony promising to introduce new concepts, capabilities and franchises with the launch, coming toward the end of 2013.
As expected, the PS4 will have more horsepower under the hood and better graphics on the screen, which will bring it up to par with many current PCs. But, as Sony executives stressed at the announcement of the new console in New York on Wednesday, there's more to next-generation games than just better technical specifications. After all, technology has advanced rapidly since the previous batch of gaming machines arrived six years ago, with social media, online interaction and media sharing now the norm.
"Success relies on reconceptualizing how gamers want to play," said Sony Computer Entertainment group chief executive Andrew House. "The demands for a new platform were clear."
In that vein, the PS4 will have social media and sharing baked into its core. The redesigned controller will have a "share" button that players can press to start recording their gameplay. They'll then be able to share the video on Facebook or Ustream, with other possible partners – perhaps YouTube? – to be added later.
Players will also be able to connect to each others' consoles and spectate on games. In some cases, they'll also be able to take over a game on another console – say, in helping a friend get past a part they're stuck on – although Sony didn't elaborate on the specifics of how that will work.
The PS4 will also build on the "connected platform" idea that debuted last year with the launch of the PlayStation Vita portable system. A handful of games released for the PlayStation 3 so far have interoperability between it and the Vita, meaning that they can be saved on one and picked up on the other.
Mr. House said the goal is to make all PS4 games cross-compatible with the Vita, so that they can truly be played everywhere. The key to making this happen will be Gaikai, the cloud gaming company Sony purchased last year. By taking games and housing them on central servers, Gaikai can stream games to any compatible device, which could also include Sony smartphones. The PS4's suped-up guts, meanwhile, could also be capable of downgrading graphics and processes so that games can play on lesser-powered systems such as the Vita.
One of the more intriguing possibilities during a long cavalcade of developers talking up the PS4's capabilities was Media Molecule's demonstration of a 3D sculpting game. Company representatives used the PS3's wand-like Move motion controller to freely sculpt shapes and models in three-dimensional space. The smooth, fast rendering was only made possible by the PS4's beefed-up processing capability, they said.
If such an application could be hooked up to a 3D printer, it would eliminate the need to learn complicated computer-assisted-design programs and literally put those abilities into users' hands. It would be a great way for kids to easily make and print their own creations.
All of that aside, the PS4 will still primarily be a machine on which game developers hope to make a lot of money. Shooter sequels are thus inevitable – developer Guerrilla Games, for one, was on hand to announce the latest instalment in its PlayStation-exclusive Killzone series, Shadowfall.
Yet, publishers also see new consoles as a golden opportunity to debut new games that will hopefully turn into new series, known as "intellectual properties" or "IPs." Yves Guillemot, co-founder of France's Ubisoft, took to the stage on Wednesday to announce that Watch Dogs – a new techno-thriller being developed by the company's Montreal studio – will be released on the PS4.
"Being able to show the game with new graphics, new [artificial intelligence], the possibility to be connected, is really going to help the industry move forward," he said in an interview. "It gives lots of energy to the creators and consumers, who see an opportunity to have different experiences than what they're used to."
Jonathan Morin, creative director on the game, said the PS4 version will also likely have extra features that will take advantage of the new touch screen on the controller.
"When you're given the chance to do a new IP, as Ubisoft has given us, you should push the technology from an innovation perspective," he said. "You should use any new tech that shows up."
Where Sony is differing from rival Nintendo, which launched its own next-generation console – the Wii U – in November, is that it is focusing on these sorts of new IPs. While Sony showed off primarily new games during its press conference, a number of Wii U games so far have simply been reconfigured versions of previously released titles for the PS3 and Microsoft's Xbox 360.
Not surprisingly, the Wii U hasn't sold as well as anyone had hoped. Nintendo last month cut its sales forecast to March by 20 per cent. Mr. Guillemot also said that while the first few months of sales were okay, "January was not at the level at which we expected." The sluggish sales were part of the reason why Ubisoft recently decided to delay Rayman Legends, which was supposed to be a Wii U exclusive, to the fall, when it will be released on all consoles, he added.
The baton now passes to Microsoft, which will be the last of the big three to unveil a new console. A successor to the Xbox 360 is also a near certainty for the end of this year.
The software giant recently touted the entertainment capabilities of its existing console, indicating that the next machine is likely to have a heavy focus on video content. But with button-mashing fun still at the core of any such device, the company will also be under pressure to show off its vision for next-generation gaming.