Much of the talk about next-gen consoles, the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, has been about how they don't really do much that's different from their predecessors. Sure, the game graphics are nicer, and the social media hooks are baked in from the start, rather than shoehorned in years later, but is that really revolutionary?
After spending some time with both new systems, I've realized there actually is a killer app, a feature that's compelling enough that it can actually sell systems. No, it's not the HDMI pass-through of your cable TV signal to the Xbox One (although that's the most forward-looking feature of either console), nor is it the ability to start playing downloadable games while they're still downloading.
No, the killer app for next-gen consoles is the live gameplay streaming any gamer can set up and broadcast around the world. The PlayStation 4 partners with streaming game video provider Twitch for this, with Ustream as an option as well. Microsoft recently announced an Xbox One Twitch app, but the ability to stream your gameplay live won't be available until early in 2014.
The mechanics of setting yourself up as a broadcaster on the PS4 are covered in this how-to article, but the takeaway is that it's incredibly easy, which is what makes it so compelling. Even signing up for a Twitch account can be done with a few button presses from the PS4. Gameplay streaming has been around for a long time, with Twitch as a prime example (or the huge category of watch-me-play videos on YouTube), but what turns this into a killer app is that it's built in and set up for you from Day One, with no additional hardware or cables required.
As presented, the live game broadcasts are nearly an exact clone of one of the best features from cult-favorite streaming game service OnLive, which makes it an interesting coincidence that Sony now owns OnLive competitor Gaikai, with plans to eventually use it for server-side gaming (with game content streaming to you in real time, much like Netflix does for movies). By my count, that makes for two great next-gen console gaming ideas that OnLive helped set the stage for.
For a console with nearly unlimited options for Web browsing, streaming or downloading video and music, plus games, I'd argue that the most compelling thing to do with a new PlayStation 4 is simply browse the list of live broadcasts, via an icon prominently displayed by default on the main PS4 menu bar.
It's the ultimate manifestation of microbroadcasting, a sharable live-action selfie. Even in the early days of the PS4, some broadcasts had hundreds of simultaneous viewers. For the most part, we watch not to see someone else playing a game, but to hear the running commentary from the player, via the system's headset or built-in camera microphone.
Are we going to find the next great sportscaster by listening to people play NBA 2K14? Probably not, but the best broadcasts are addictively compelling, offering a mix of show-off ranting that inevitably evolves into unguarded personal moments as the minutes tick by.
Several of my colleagues and I gathered around a PS4 late last week to watch an anonymous broadcaster play NBA 2K14 for a few hundred viewers. Following along with the gameplay and the gamer's stream of consciousness, expletive-laden commentary kept us transfixed for a good 20 minutes. There's no quicker way to expose someone's id than to put a game controller in their hands.
'Gimme the biggest McNugget'
It's those unguarded moments that are the most surprising. I've heard personal conversations when gamers forgot their microphones were on, including a dietarily disturbing snippet of conversation where someone requested the "biggest McNugget" from someone else in the room. Is "Overheard on Twitch" a Tumblr or Twitter viral hit in the making?
It's form of video voyeurism, sugar-coated by the stated purpose of sharing fun, exciting game moments, but it really serves the same purpose as oversharing on Twitter, Vine, or any other virtual public forum. To share, overshare, then share some more. Forget the future, in the present everyone can already be a livestream star for 15 minutes.
To be sure, you'll hear plenty of explicit language, racist terms, and everything else that makes people uncomfortable with personal broadcasting. It's unavoidable, unless you choose not to watch live game broadcasts, or set the parental control levels on your console to lock them out. Charitably, there's an element of performance art to it, but it's more likely you'll simply click onto the next stream if a particular broadcaster crosses the line.
The PlayStation 4 has promoted this feature from long before its launch, while the more secretive Xbox One only announced Twitch integration in the days leading up to its release, and the broadcasting feature won't be available on the Xbox for at least a few more months. But whichever console you eventually end up on, try browsing the live gameplay streams from individual gamers, and you'll find it hard not to to go back there for another look every time your console is turned on.