It's been weeks since the PlayStation 4 event underwhelmed many people. Myself included. But as time has passed, my mind's become clearer as to why, exactly, I was so disappointed. It's a challenge for the PlayStation 4 to overcome, but it's also a challenge of all "next-gen" consoles.
I hate the term "next-gen" as much as anyone else, but that's what happens when you have one piece of hardware sit out on the market for six or seven years while you anticipate what the Next Big Thing will be. "Next-gen" doesn't happen with phones or tablets quite as much because there's always new hardware. Every year brings improvements. Your choice is to pick when to wait and upgrade.
The PlayStation 4 can succeed. Of course it can. But it has to avoid the problems of the Wii U thus far. And the PlayStation Vita. It needs to be "next-gen"...but in ways that matter.
Challenge 1: The current gen of consoles has been really good
It's kind of amazing, but somehow there were three consoles that all achieved excellent things, and significant levels of success. Whether you picked a Wii, Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 back in 2005 and 2006, things turned out pretty well for you. They produced excellent libraries of games, and significant platform support.
So, now you have games like God of War: Ascension, Tomb Raider, BioShock Infinite, and tons more to make this generation still feel very much alive.
This generation of gaming hardware has also gotten better over time, thanks to bold software updates that have added apps and video functions.
Game consoles have become excellent at being entertainment boxes: streaming Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, cable-accessory apps like HBO Go, and playing DVDs and Blu-rays...or even being part of a home media server. They stick around and find a way to be useful. That's what's happened to my PS3 and 360: they're how my son watches TV shows.
Challenge 2: Getting a foothold (the Vita/Wii U problem)
I've been playing with both the Wii U and PlayStation Vita -- or, trying to. What continues to bother me about both these systems is simple: their lack of lots of good games. The Vita has grown a small batch of strong games, but not enough.
How did both these systems fail thus far in their admittedly early lifespans? In part, chiefly, by not having enough games. Also, I think, by not making hardware that's clear to use or fun to use (an odd GamePad with short-lived battery and laggy system software for the Wii U, and too many odd features and extra controls on the Vita). Both do an odd job at being backward-compatible with games, too.
Challenge 3: The world of gaming's changed (iPhone, iPad, Android)
Looking back on the period of gaming from 2006 to 2013, what was it characterized by? Improved game graphics, sure, but that's not the key part. The iPhone and Android devices, and all their mobile games, debuted during that same period. At the same time, the Wii and Nintendo DS popularized casual games; mobile devices (and platforms like Facebook) furthered them.
The connecting point between mobile and consoles from that period is online. Good games became online games, to a degree, that no games beforehand really achieved. Co-op, leaderboards, social-network taunting, DLC, downloadable games and apps, user-created content, and MMORPG-like player-leveling in games like first-person shooters: this what next-gen has meant, for me, over the past seven years.
Mobile handsets and tablets are excellent at always-online gaming. They've reinvented pricing models and spread the acceptance of downloaded content versus physical media, including DLC and in-game purchases. To many people, they've become the gaming platforms of choice.
Those challenges are daunting and not clearly insurmountable. But, here's what Sony can do to make the PS4 as desirable as possible to gaming obsessives and everyday folk alike.
Priority 1: Start with great games
If I'm going to make a dream list for what I'd like to see in a new PlayStation, I'd start simple: good games. Lots of them. Imaginative ones. Ones that push the envelope, and also deliver on expected franchise follow-ups. God of War, Wipeout, Killzone, LittleBigPlanet...you get the picture. Sony smartly launched new exclusives with the PS3: Uncharted, LittleBigPlanet, and Infamous, just to name a few. New, exclusive games need to be a major part of the PlayStation 4's launch.
It's idiotically obvious. Yet, look at the Wii U: of all its launch games, only a few weren't ports. The exclusive, new content consisted mainly of Super Mario Bros. U, NintendoLand, and ZombiU. That's not enough. Not for the PS4.
If there are enough great, unique games for the PS4, people will want to buy it.
Priority 2: Be a superior home entertainment device
The PS4 can't leave out the other part: be really good at being a TV accessory for home entertainment. Home theater is Sony's wheelhouse. The high quality of the PS3's included Blu-ray player matters. The PS4 needs to command a similar level of entertainment hardware respect. It doesn't need to be more like a PC; it needs to do something different than its competitors.
If it can also find a way of introducing other, better home theater features, so much the better. So far, few of those features have been unveiled other than vague promises of 4K video compatibility, and the streaming-media apps announced so far mirror what are already available on the PS3 and Xbox 360.
Priority 3: Show imagination
I had lunch with a friend who asked me why video game studios aren't making more imaginative games. I tried to explain about vibrant indie developments, games like Journey, but...he's right. From the outside, the video game industry looks like it's been repeating itself too much. That's fine for an older console playing out its life, but for a new piece of hardware, game developers need to dream bigger. It might not happen overnight, but it's the only way to build excitement.
Sony's event back in February was big on talk about imagination, from luminaries like David Cage and Media Molecule. But the actual fruits of imagination weren't so apparent. Great games don't need to be graphics powerhouses, but they need to make you sit up in your chair and feel emotion. Good movies often start with good ideas and use special effects to execute them. Bad movies do it the other way around. The same is true with a lot of game sneak previews I've been seeing: lots of effects, lots of action, yet few new ideas. The last games that made me truly excited were Journey and the demo of BioShock Infinite. Grand Theft Auto never had the best graphics around, but it had an idea -- and a story -- that was impossible to resist.
I remember being blown away by the original PlayStation, and the Dreamcast and Nintendo 64. They introduced 3D graphics that hadn't existed before. Gaming hardware doesn't always experience those types of leaps; instead, the PS4 needs all the developer imagination it can get. I just didn't see enough of that a few weeks ago -- but I'm hoping for it.
Priority 4: Back-burner the gimmicks
As for high-end, technology-pushing features, like Gaikai streaming, Remote Play, and all that? Those are secondary. Sixaxis, Move, and all the random extras (loading other operating systems, PlayStation Home) weren't what made the PS3 worth getting. I like the PS3 as a machine to play games I can't play anywhere else, and to play Blu-rays. Sure, there might be a great killer app for that Share button on the PS4 controller. But I doubt it.