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PlayStation 4, Xbox One - 20th Century Gadgets in a 21st Century World

by November 22, 2013

The next-gen game-console war officially begins this week when the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One officially hit the market. My own mission to land a PS4 on its launch day was a success; my new PS4 console now has a home in my home theatre system and is sure to be a source of unadulterated electronic entertainment joy for years to come. But despite the childlike excitement of unboxing a PS4, I couldn't shake the feeling that I was indulging a 20th century pleasure in a 21st century world.

Research firm HIS has determined that the PS4 is selling for just $18 more than it cost Sony to build it. That’s an improvement over the PS3 launch, which was sold at a loss in 2006, but it seems the manic consumption in the face of shortages experienced with the PS3 launch are a thing of the past. PS3 only sold about 200,000 units in its first two weeks. Sony has announced that over one million PS4 units were sold during the first 24 hours of the North American launch.

In my corner of the world, hoopla over the PlayStation 4 launch was surprisingly mute. I walked into the local big-box electronics store soon after it opened early on the morning of November 15th and it was kind of sad to see the place almost completely devoid of customers. I had called in days prior to confirm my order and they told me to expect long lines and that I probably shouldn’t even show up until afternoon.

But when I arrived there were no lines, just over-caffeinated salespeople trying to hook me on one of those stupid 3-year service plans and a PS4 bundle. My town wasn’t exactly clamoring for the PS4 with the same party atmosphere that gripped the PS3 launch so many years ago. I’ve seen more visible public enthusiasm over the launch of a new dental procedure. Not that I’m complaining, though - I got my pre-order filled in record time and was on my way home for setup.

Research firm HIS has determined that the PS4 is selling for just $18 more than it cost Sony to build it.

In the interest of full disclosure: Yes, I bought the service plan that was pitched to me while I picked up my PS4. I’ve long been of a mind that three-year in-store service plans are usually a scam. It’s a sucker’s bet that an electronic device will break in its first three years of life. Manufacturer’s warranty generally covers the first year at no extra charge and that first year is the danger zone when a defect in the unit is likely to surface. But after that first year, you’re statistically good for at least the next four before high-current power-supply components, batteries and moving parts start to fatigue, making the three-year term a gamble in favor of the seller.

Please, don’t judge me too harshly for biting on the in-store warranty. After my Xbox 360 red-ring-of-death experience and subsequent month’s wait to get it fixed - all the while fiending like a junkie for next-gen games I couldn’t play - I wasn’t taking any chances.

The Directionless Console

Nobody can deny the launch of the PS4 has been a smashing success for Sony. In about a week, Xbox day-one numbers will trickle in, sending the first volley in a popularity contest that’s sure to drag on for years.

No doubt the PS4 is a great machine. It’s as stylish as an angry sports car and compact with an efficient new UI that will be familiar to anyone who used PS3 XMB. Even the first-round games that are notoriously ill-suited to the new graphics technology available look and feel just a cut above their PS3 counterparts. In another year, we’ll really see what games developers can do with the platform.

But I'm afraid there is something missing that speaks to a general decline in the game-console. To borrow from a quote about a great American novelist, rumors of the gaming console’s demise have been greatly exaggerated since at least the days of the original Nintendo. It’s my contention that as long as there’s couch-potato demand for a lean-back home entertainment experience, as opposed to the lean-forward desktop computing experience, a market for a console of some kind will continue to exist.ps4-oppo

However, in the face of competition from a variety of sources, consoles may start to lose some of their mainstream appeal. The rise of so-called casual gaming - cheaper mobile bandwidth and the miniaturization of computers into mobile devices - has conspired to change the face of video games since the launch of PS3. Rounding out console competition in streaming media are low-budget set-top-boxes, Blu-ray players and many HDTVs, all of which have built-in streaming capabilities with access to services like Netflix and Hulu.

Nowadays, what we call hardcore games run budgets and pull profits that make Hollywood films envious. Games are big-business media that rival music and movies. The gadget-buying public has spoken and consumer habits are trending toward media consumption across a multitude of platforms. Gaming, too, must become more ubiquitous than any one company’s console. The 21st century demand of cross-platform freedom-of-choice isn’t going to be satisfied by Sony’s PS4-to-Vita capabilities.

It’s hard to believe that in an era when music and movies can be transferred across various devices and platforms, game hardware manufacturers are still fighting over console-exclusive game titles. It’s a reversal of the very trend that modern consoles helped create.

Sadly, the PlayStation 4 feature set seems more like it was developed in a boardroom than by a visionary engineering team. 

The New Big Business

Now that gaming is a much more serious, high-stakes business than the industry might have imagined when the Xbox 360 launched in ’05, consoles are being designed differently, too.

The PS3 had a certain gleeful enthusiasm for technology behind its design. PlayStation Development Lead Ken Kutaragi was free to use a brute-force approach to packing technology into the PlayStation 3. How else could you describe stuffing every cutting-edge electronics technology available in ’06 into the box?

The result was a marvel, to be sure, with 1080P through HDMI, a Blu-ray player, multi-memory slot, built-in wi-fi and Bluetooth. It could even play back SACD, and just for kicks it contained an entire secondary processing chipset to make it backward-compatible to PS2 games. All that technology at the time of launch forced Sony to sell the PS3 at a loss, which by subsequent iterations of the device (which dropped many of the original PS3’s features), proved to be not the most profit-motivated business decision.

But there was no question PS3 was built with a no-holds-barred love for modern set-top-box technology and maybe a tinge of Sony’s ego. PlayStation 4, on the other hand, is a different story.

Sony PS4Sadly, the PlayStation 4 feature set seems more like it was developed in a boardroom than by a visionary engineering team. True, PlayStation 4 has hit all the right notes in design, UI and of course raw horsepower; but it comes together in a package apparently more concerned with promoting Sony’s recurring revenue streams than in satisfying the gadget lust of its fans.

PlayStation Network no longer offers free online gaming but is now a pay-to-play service like Xbox Live - with fewer key features.

At the time of launch Sony failed to include DLNA or MP3 support. But Sony’s subscription-based movie and music streaming services get a prominent icon at the top-level bar of its new UI. The implication is that you don’t need DLNA or MP3 to stream your own movies or music when you can simply subscribe to Sony’s services on top of the monthly fee you may already be paying for PSN.

It’s purely wishful thinking that consumers, even PS4 fans, would be willing buy their way into a Sony  Entertainment gated community.

Sony President of Worldwide Studios Shuhei Yoshida has confirmed that his company will add MP3, CD and DLNA support in a future patch. He admitted that the company never intended to include those features, but only relented after an online outpouring of bad blood from fans and negative press. This must have really hurt the new console’s reputation at such a delicate juncture in the product’s lifecycle. Sony’s about-face is proof that the blogosphere has the power to make things better in this world.

To a Better World – With More Gaming

After a weekend of non-stop setup, configuration and play with a Sony PlayStation 4, I haven’t lost the childlike excitement over gadgets and gaming, and I probably never will. As long as there are pixels that need to be zapped and the twitch fibres between my brain and my thumb haven’t completely seized, I’ll be there, just like I was for Space Invaders on Atari back in the early ’80s.

I’ll even adapt to a gaming industry being less niche and more big business. But this industry stands warned about pushing its niche of hardcore fans too hard in promoting recurring revenue streams or in killing off the used games market. These may not be the most critical global issues of today, but I and others like me will be there to protest perceived injustices in consumer electronics. Yes, the keyboard sometimes can be mightier than boardroom greed.


About the author:
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Wayde is a tech-writer and content marketing consultant in Canada s tech hub Waterloo, Ontario and Editorialist for Audioholics.com. He's a big hockey fan as you'd expect from a Canadian. Wayde is also US Army veteran, but his favorite title is just "Dad".

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