I’m going to start this article with a disclaimer…
I’m someone who loves the gaming industry, the technology, the communities, and the games. I’ve been gaming since the Atari 2600 days but I really fell in love with gaming during the 90’s and like most of my generation, gaming stuck as a hobby into my adulthood. If you’ve read my previous article “A Brief History of the Console and the Future of Gaming” you can tell I’m not biased. I find the gaming industry and the technologies that drive innovation fascinating.
In this article I’m going to be focusing on Sony with a view of how they are lining up for the next generation including touching on the position they’ve enjoyed this generation, their IP roadmap, and what technologies they’ve focused on for the future.
The PlayStation 4 Generation
Let’s begin by reflecting on this generation. Sony launched the PlayStation 4 in November of 2013 and straight out of the gates they took advantage of Microsoft slipping up with the messaging around DRM and TV subscriptions. The lack of clear messaging surrounding the Xbox One immediately gave the PS4 the upper hand. Microsoft never really recovered in terms of momentum, but it did force their ecosystem to innovate as they continued to listen and positively engage with the gaming community. That’s been a real benefit for the industry as a whole which I’ll touch on more later.
Sony launched with 26 titles on the table with 6 being exclusive to the PS4 including the cross-buy indie title Flower, and the graphical showpiece Killzone Shadow Fall. As console launches go it was a success with Sony selling 13 million consoles in the first year. The success of the PS4 this generation has largely come as a result of their internal studios and a solid line-up of quality IPs that gained momentum beginning with the PS3 – Uncharted, The Last of Us, God Of War, KillZone, InFamous, etc…not to mention the introduction of new IPs such as Horizon Zero Dawn, Spider-Man, and Bloodborne. But this success doesn’t just happen overnight. It takes time to establish great IP’s. From a business perspective it’s the most risky part of any generation – what studios to acquire, what IP to invest in, and the all-important release schedule. There’s a lot to factor in and a lot that can go wrong. Does anyone remember Haze? Exactly.
In addition to Sony’s first part studios and AAA IP’s they also made moves to secure timed exclusives with major third parties with the likes of the Call of Duty franchise. This has been key to their momentum this generation. The more of an install base you command, the greater your leverage with third party studios and content exclusivity. There have been large gaps in Sony’s big AAA exclusives landing on the digital shelves so to bolster the catalog of games we’ve seen exclusive relationships with Activision, Square Enix, and others being leveraged.
With the end of this generation in sight, Sony is releasing a flurry of major titles to mark the occasion with the likes of Final Fantasy VII, The Last of Us Part II, and Ghost of Tsushima. It’s a deserved swan song for the PS4. This generation was a phenomenal success for Sony.
PlayStation Services in the Next-Generation
So what position does this put Sony in for the next generation? Usually, at this stage we start to hear more about what’s coming next. Microsoft has been really transparent about their intentions for the next Xbox. The community engagement has been great; showing confidence with what they have lined up for the consumer. We’ve even seen an in-depth teardown of Microsoft’s new powerhouse by inviting the Digital Foundy crew to go hands-on with dismantling and re-assembling the new hardware.
By contrast, Sony has been very quiet to the point of just drip feeding and teasing information. There have also been some strategic leaks of features and patents relating to the PS5 and its functionality. It’s not the normal approach we’ve seen from the massive Sony marketing machine, but if you look at the social media impact these leaks have generated, it’s clearly a strategy that works.
So then, what do we know about what Sony has planned for the PS5? Well, this is where things get really interesting and it’s all down to the popularity of digital content and your console ecosystem i.e PSN / Xbox Live. I for one just purchase my games digitally. I didn’t begin the generation that way. I have purchased some games on disc but the vast majority are all digital downloads and that’s going to be my preference going forward. I mean who needs a steel-book right Porshapwr? But in all seriousness, from the start of this generation to where we are now, digital downloads have rocketed in popularity with 83% of all game sales worldwide now being digital. For Sony, 53% of all game sales are now digital via PSN. It’s a trend that has a steep adoption curve and ties in nicely to the wider availability of faster home internet connections these days. It’s the future – well sort of.
This is something that will be a big factor in how we adopt the new generation of consoles as digital downloads are sticky. They tie you into that specific eco-system and if you’ve invested a lot in it, you’re going to want to take that investment/library with you. It will influence your choice. To that point, the messaging surrounding the next generation of consoles has been consistent when it comes to backwards compatibility. We can thank Microsoft for this focus as they really have set the standard for what’s to be expected going forward, particularly when carrying your investment from this generation into the next.
“It is important to give off a sense of consistency for products within the PlayStation brand. It is a must for anyone who sees [the logo] to immediately and positively think, ‘That’s PlayStation.” – Jim Ryan, President and CEO of SIE
PSN and PS Now are going to be instrumental in Sony’s success next generation. At a very basic level, it’s a simple as that. We are moving more towards a GaaS model (Games as a Service) and that puts the ecosystem to the forefront of the user experience. Look at how we view our television content. It’s mainly on-demand with the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime, and YouTube being immensely popular. The user experience of instantly having access to your content when you want it and how you want it, has become the norm. But access to your games library in the same way is lagging behind in that user experience at this point in time. That will all change next generation and here’s why.
“We are cloud-gaming pioneers, and our vision should become clear as we head toward launch.” – Mark Cerny, PlayStation Lead Architect
For Sony, PS Now has been quietly building momentum in the background with the addition of hugely popular first-party titles now being available. I recently decided to try out Spider-Man for the first time. I didn’t have to wait to experience the game. I streamed the game while I downloaded the title in the background. It was a Netflix-like experience and that’s something that we are going to become accustomed to next-generation. Living in a house where everyone games, the main TV in the living room is in demand most of the time. So after just 10 minutes of playing I was kicked off the console. So I decided to take my Spider-Man experience to my PC. I simply logged into the PS Now app and began streaming the game where I’d left off. This is something I could get very used to, especially when the service is rolled out to phones and tablets. In terms of convenience, it’s a game changer.
PS Now is only £8.99 ($9.99) per month with no contract and it offers more than 800+ games from the PS2, PS3, and PS4. 300+ of the PS4 titles are downloadable if you want to experience a given title in the best quality available, but there are some caveats. Currently, streaming games is limited to 720p but there are plans for this to be upgraded in the near future to 1080p and 4K. Also, you need a good internet connection, especially if you are going to download and stream at the same time.
PS Now will be a big part of the Sony experience going into the next generation and it’s going to be interesting to see how this service evolves along with the PS5. I cannot help but think what PS Now would look like if it wasn’t for Xbox Game Pass. Competition forces innovation and PlayStation has definitely changed the PS Now offering to compete with Game Pass. In the end, it’s a win for the gamer. I don’t think we will see day and date being the norm for Sony’s big IPs though, at least not until PS Now has a bigger install base. At that point, it might be viable to do so. That said, I have Netflix and Amazon Prime but I still go to the cinema for that big blockbusters experience. However, I can see streaming being used to jump straight into your new title while it downloads in the background for PS5 only, and that’s a feature I’d really like to see. It makes sense that PS Now will also gain more attention from third party studios and indie developers in the future, especially if you consider the install base you’d instantly capture if Sony decides to modify the PS+ subscription and add PS Now to the mix.
Enter the PlayStation 5
So what about the PS5 itself? What’s the proposition? What makes it a compelling story for the next generation? Let’s break this down.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you will have seen the constant debate surrounding the PlayStation 5 specs. Well, at least the specs we’ve been told about. Sony decided to reveal some of the PS5 key specs via a pre-recorded event featuring none other than Mark Cerny himself. If you’re a technology guy like myself, you would have found this fascinating but to those who don’t care for a specs sermon, it’s a tough 52 minutes to endure. We’ve also seen the unveiling of the new PS5 controller – the DualSense.
PlayStation 5 Spec Overview
⦁ Custom CPU: 8x Zen 2 Cores at 3.5GHz SMT
⦁ Custom GPU: 10.28 TFLOPs, 36 CUs at 2.23GHz, RDNA 2 architecture
⦁ Custom Sound Chip: Tempest Engine Co-Processor 3D audio
⦁ Memory interface: 16GB GDDR6 / 256-bit
⦁ Memory bandwidth (single pool): 448GB/s
⦁ Custom Internal storage: Custom 825GB SSD
⦁ Custom IO controller: 5.5GB/s (raw), typical 8-9GB/s (compressed)
⦁ Expandable storage: NVMe SSD slot
⦁ External storage: USB HDD support (PS4 games only)
⦁ Optical drive: 4K UHD Blu-ray drive
⦁ The Duel Sense Controller – Haptic feedback, Adaptive triggers, Built-in Mic
So what does all that mean? In short, it means we’re going into the next generation with a bang and a very capable console. We’ve been given a snapshot of Sony’s design philosophy but not to the level of detail we’ve had from Microsoft and the Xbox Series X. To me, that’s a bit disappointing. But what we do know is that Sony has prioritized different aspects of the console compared to what Microsoft has, and for the tech junky it’s going to be a fascinating ninth console generation. We know we have a new CPU and GPU, more RAM, a ridiculously fast SSD, and a greater focus on 3D audio.
“The only problem is that PC technology is significantly behind PS5. It’ll take some time for the newer, PCIe 4.0-based drives with the bandwidth required to match Sony’s spec to hit the market.” – Richard Leadbetter, Digital Foundry
New operating system features have been teased with the focus on being able to see what your friends are up to in real-time and then instantly hop into their session as easy as you would start watching a different show on Netflix. Then when you and your buddy have escaped the gulag and finished killing it on Warzone, you simply hop straight back to where you left of on Knack 3 – quick and snappy for the on-demand generation. A.I. features have been teased that will provide in game assistance as well. It will be interesting to see just how far Sony will go with the digital assistant approach, but I must admit the thought of asking the PS5 to start a party or send a message in the same way I use Siri now is a game changer. But the real icing on the cake is what all this tech will be able to achieve when it comes to game worlds and new experiences. Factor in a well-oiled first party stable of studios and you’re in for one hell of a ride.
“We don’t want the player to have to boot the game, see what’s up, boot the game, see what’s up. Multiplayer game servers will provide the console with the set of joinable activities in real time. Single player games will provide information like what missions you could do and what rewards you might receive for completing them – and all of those choices will be visible in the UI.” – Mark Cerny
So What’s the Plan?
Sony definitely has a different view of what a console generation is all about when compared to the plans Microsoft has shared surrounding their next generation vision. Microsoft is commendable in their intention to supporting older hardware for a period of time. Meanwhile, Mark Cerny has stated he’s a fan of the traditional console generation and by that, he means quickly drawing a line in the sand and moving your install base to the new hardware.
This sentiment has also been echoed by Jim Ryan in a gamesindustry.biz article, so with that said we get a sense that Sony is going to want to transition to new hardware as quickly as possible. If you’re going to do that, and do that at a fast pace, you only have a couple of options.
You make a desirable piece of hardware and then line-up a roster of exclusive first party titles. You then secure a bunch of third party timed exclusives to make the whole package a really attractive proposition and a reason to upgrade.
Sony’s strategy is as simple as that in terms of intent. The real magic is all in the details. Sony will want to time the release of its precious first party content as there is no point in releasing everything up front in one go. So it’s best to temper our expectations in that vein. Although I see holding a company to ransom and leaking footage can influence a release date after all #TLOU2. Next generation we will see a steady stream of familiar exclusives; a new Horizon Zero Dawn, Spider-Man, and God of War, coupled with a generous helping of timed exclusives from the usual third party suspects.
It’s a tried and tested formula but the difference next generation is your digital library, the digital investment you’ve made in the preferred platform of your choice, makes the ecosystem very sticky. You also have the influence of PS Now and Game Pass that is only going to gain more traction next generation and is a great mechanic to entice the casual gamer to your platform. The ecosystem will be king!
“These are gamers who are networked and sticky and engaged and passionate about PlayStation to an extent that we’ve not seen in previous generations. As we move towards the next-generation in 2020, one of our tasks — probably our main task — is to take that community and transition it from PlayStation 4 to PlayStation 5, and at a scale and pace that we’ve never delivered on before.” – Jim Ryan
Looking Into the Future
The future of Sony’s next generation experience will be a familiar tale, one that’s been refined over the last the past 25 years. The landscape may have changed with the advent of the online world but the core message remains the same. That core message is the “games” and this is what Sony has put at the heart of their consumer strategy starting way back with the PS2. It’s Sony’s biggest investment and crown jewel. The steady stream of those next chapters in their library of AAA IP is what keeps the gamer coming back through the generations. This formula also introduces new IP and new experiences over time. Sure not everything is a success but when your core value to the customer is that blockbuster experience, you’re given the freedom to evolve along with the technology that’s available at the time.
The PS5 will deliver on the promise of a true generational leap in performance and introduce the gamer to those new experiences along the way. The new OS with its focus on quickly being able to access games will play to the generation who can only spare a few minutes in their busy schedule to connect with friends or watch how someone got past that part in the game you’ve been stuck on. PS Now will start to gain more traction and we might even see more VR titles with a new PS VR 2. But like all the major platforms, Sony’s future lies in the cloud. But not just yet. We still have a fondness for that piece of plastic we put under our TV. Eventually, in the not too distant future, that box won’t matter to us gamers, as we will get our gaming fix just like we get our Netflix; on-demand, when we want, on whatever we want.
It’s safe to say with Microsoft back firing on all cylinders, Nintendo just being well…Nintendo (and that’s always cool) the gaming industry has never been in better shape. Whatever you game on next generation you’re going to see bigger more detailed worlds, more immersive storytelling, new gaming experiences and probably a Knack 3. It’ll be grand!