The general reaction to the PS4 announcement here at the tech2 office is that of disappointment. Many of my colleagues own the PS3 and, being hardware geeks, they quite love the idea of a bespoke Cell processor lurking under the bonnet. However, the recently announced PlayStation successor's shift to the x86 architecture comes as stark contrast to its legacy of pushing the hardware envelope. Saying that the PlayStation loyalists are underwhelmed would be an understatement. The geeks here rue the fact that the PS3 successor seems to be nothing more than an upper mid-end PC that clearly doesn't deserve the PS4 moniker.
The sentiment here seems pessimistic; with some even going so far as to calling this the last generation of traditional consoles as we know it. But is that really the case, or is this just post-announcement paranoia? I believe it's premature to predict the end of consoles, whereas my colleague Shunal plays the devil’s advocate. I guess there's no better way to tell than for us to duke it out and let the argument take its natural course.
Nachiket: Sony's strategy harks to a genuine need to scale down budgets in the video game industry, considering how a typical AAA game can cost anywhere between $40 to even $100 million. Despite pumping dollars on the wrong side of a billion, almost all video game majors such as Ubisoft, EA and Activision are have been surviving on razor-thin profit margins falling well under the 5 percent mark. These numbers portend a grim future, especially in the wake of Hollywood VFX player Rhythm & Hues filing for bankruptcy despite an Oscar win. This is a perfect example illustrating the perils of an industry (VFX, in this case) operating on ridiculously low margins. There’s a real chance that the video game industry head down the same route. At any rate, it is not uncommon to hear about prominent video game studios shutting shop with an alarming regularity as well.
The PS4 may seem underwhelming spec wise, but the PS2 prevailed despite being the slowest
Under such circumstances, it's prudent of Sony and Microsoft (rumoured to incorporate AMD chipset as well) to ship consoles with similar architectures. Such hardware parity not only makes life easier for game developers, but also brings down development costs while providing consumers with uniform experience across platforms. This also translates into more games across platforms, which can only be good for gamers, video game developers, platform owners and the industry as a whole. This underlying theme of austerity may seem like a step back from the PS3's naked display of untapped power, but its prudence is apparent considering the disturbing trend of diminishing returns for the additional millions being pumped into the video game industry.
Shunal: It can be argued that this manner of downsizing seems more like a damage control measure than an actual step towards the future of consoles. The future then looks bleak in the wake of the current market where gamers have been spending their lunch monies on $600 smartphones—all quad-core monstrosities complemented by competent GPUs to boot. The inevitable failure of the PS Vita aptly illustrates the thinning line between a hand-held console and an omnipotent smartphone with an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink versatility. Just like multi-megapixel smartphones have made point-and-shoot cameras redundant, the contemporary gamer doesn't see the logic in buying a separate hand-held console.
The advent of OUYA and similar Android-powered consoles running games off the Google Play Store points to this confluence of hardcore controller-based and touch-based casual gaming. Once again, there's a wide disparity in the way this development is interpreted. This can be viewed as the beginning of the end of hardcore gaming as we know it, with a major push towards all things casual.
Nachiket: Let’s just say that if jumping to conclusions were an Olympic sport, you’d be our best shot at a gold medal. Jokes aside, the proliferation of casual gaming only points towards an emergence of a new demographic—one that can exist alongside the traditional gamepad and keyboard/mouse crowd. I believe you have gotten it all wrong. It’s naive to believe that long-standing PC and console gamers have surrendered their controllers/mice for touchscreens overnight.
Hand-helds such as Vita may have conceded defeat to smartphones, but consoles have nothing to worry about
Until now, only the geekiest would spend obscene amounts of money on dedicated PC hardware/consoles mandatory for gaming. Gaming, therefore, was a hobby restricted to a niche. However, in the last few years, powerful smartphones have become fashionable status symbols being lapped up en masse by geeks and non-geeks alike. The multi-core CPU and GPUs powering contemporary phones have finally given ordinary people access to sophisticated video games. What we are looking at here is a widening of the consumer base, which doesn't necessarily translate into cannibalisation of traditional console model.
At any rate, someone who's grown up gaming with these traditional input solutions is highly unlikely to drop his mainstream console and embrace a smartphone just like that.
Shunal: You simply have to take a look at the Wii to see how casual games can cannibalise the sales of more traditional hardcore games. One of the highest selling games for that system was Wii Fit, which made the money that hardcore games—such as No More Heroes and MadWorld—generated from the console seem like chump change. And while you are right about someone raised on a traditional gaming platform being a very unlikely candidate to opt for touch controls, you have to keep in mind that at the moment, more people have a smartphone than a console. The majority is definitely on the side of touch controls, as crappy as they may be at the moment.
Nachiket: Wrong! No More Heroes and MadWorld were both Wii titles or, more importantly, ultra violent beat ‘em ups developed for a platform that’s primarily targeted at children. It’s a no brainer that these games didn’t do as well as similar games created for PS3 and Xbox 360—platforms with a viable audience for the genre.