Has Sony really bucked the trend and made its most developer-friendly console yet?
When Sony unveiled its PlayStation 4 at a high-profile event in New York last month, one message was clear.
The machine, insisted several Sony execs, is a platform designed first and foremost for developers, and created with input from the development community, with an SCE team working for five years with studios globally to craft a system architecture that satisfies the demands of games makers everywhere.
The PlayStation 3, and other Sony gaming formats before it, was infamously difficult to develop for, and notoriously unwelcoming to many studios, meaning getting the PlayStation 4 right is key to Sony in its fight to win the next console race.
"We wanted to hear from developers,” insisted Mark Cerny, speaking on stage at the PlayStation 4 launch event.
“We spoke to dozens of the best teams in the world. We wanted to know what was important to them. We wanted to make them happy, because if they were happy, we knew we could unleash the creativity and innovation that would result in a true next generation experience. Our goal is to create an architecture that will facilitate the expression of their ideas."
And, Cerny insisted, the PlayStation 4 would not take its current form without games developers’ involvement.
"Their comments were invaluable in crafting the system specs,” he said.
“We were able to create, in PlayStation 4, a platform by game creators, for game creators. It is a powerful and accessible system, and it has a deep feature set to support the ongoing development and evolution of gaming itself. The architecture we chose is like a PC in many ways, but supercharged to bring out its full potential as a gaming platform.”
But do his comments hold water, and how does the global games development community feel about the PlayStation 4, its specifications, and the opportunity it offers developers?
And, most importantly, will it get right what the PlayStation 3 got wrong?
Certainly, there are many developers that seem convinced by Sony’s new offering, with studios like Climax being quick to praise the PS4’s advantages over the PS3.
“In terms of the ease of PS4 development, it's much easier to develop for,” offered Simon Gardner, CEO at confirmed PS4 developer Climax, speaking to Develop.
“The tool chain is an advancement over the PS3 and everything about it is slicker, simpler and much more developer-friendly. We were very pleased with the 8GB of memory, and the compute shader system is very powerful.”
And Gardner is not alone, with others queuing up to praise the PS4.
"We're most impressed by Sony's change of attitude toward their platforms,” stated James Marsden, MD of Velocity developer FuturLab.
“PS3 launched with Sony's first-party publishing having a strong preference toward triple-A showcases, and a pretty blunt disregard for anything less than that, including 2D games, whereas now they're much more supportive of good ideas and fun, well-designed games, regardless of production value.”
And over in the world of triple-A games, Ubisoft were predictably optimistic, standing as they do as a registered PS4 developer. But like Marsden and Gardner, Yves Guillemot, co-founder and CEO of Watch Dogs developer Ubisoft, did recognise failings with the current generation.
In particular, he alluded to the PlayStation 3’s infamously troublesome developer accessibility.
"PS4 is a great machine; we'll be able to make things look fantastic," Guillemot told Develop.
"Because the teams are working hard on their projects, I think we will see good things from the start. Sure, in two years engineers will figure out how to do a lot more. But these machines are easier to build on than before, so we should be able to reach their potential quicker."
Guillemot later added that he believes PS4 will enable more creative games design.
"They have so many features that they can play with,” he said. “It's easier to be a creative person with new consoles, because after four years of people using all the capacity, it's harder to be innovative. With PS4, we will see new ideas and new ways to approach gamers. And that will excite consumers and excite creators."
THE WAIT IS OVER
Others chose to deliver a more mixed opinion of the PlayStation 4, including Daniel Kaplan, business developer at Minecraft creator Mojang Specifications.
"I really didn't have a clue on what to expect other than more of the same, but a fine tuned experience," Kaplan told Develop, before reiterating the sentiment that the PS4 corrects several of the current generation’s failings.
"Sony has fixed the issues with waiting time which in my opinion is quite a disaster on consoles today; waiting on updates, having to update before starting a game, being unable to download at the same time you are playing, etcetera.”
Kaplan also chose to criticise the DualShock 4 as being crowded in terms of inputs and lacking in elegance, but still had much good to say about the PS4.
“I’m really looking forward to the recording features,” he said, referring to the console’s focus on social elements and sharing of gameplay experiences.
“Video recording is something that has been huge for Minecraft on YouTube, and I hope that it will be a great success for other developers too. I’m still uncertain about the cloud gaming features, but if they can pull it off it will be great."
Long-standing UK outfit Blitz Games Studios, itself a confirmed PS4 developer and middleware provider, clearly feels utterly optimistic about the PS4, mirroring the perspective of numerous games companies Develop spoke with.
"Sony's PS4 platform, and their continued commitment to supporting developers and fostering innovation, means that the space of possibility for new game experiences isn't just mere conjecture,” insisted Blitz studio design director John Nash, speaking with Develop.
“For us the real excitement will begin when the second, third and fourth wave of titles hit, hopefully taking full advantage of the unique features of the Sony PS4.”
TOOLING UP THE PS4
Other middleware providers working to support the new Sony console shared Blitz’s enthusiasm with tools giant Havok giving a passing nod to the current generation’s demands on developers.
In the last few weeks a raft of third-parties, including SpeedTree and NaturalMotion, have announced availability of their tools for PS4.
“It’s a great honour to be in on the ground floor of a powerful new platform like PlayStation 4,” Havok MD David Coghlan told Develop.
"Expanding our tools and middleware to support the new system will mean developers can focus less on reinventing the wheel and more on crafting truly amazing next-gen gaming experiences with ambitious new ideas and captivating new worlds to explore.”
And if the era of ‘reinventing the wheel is over,’ then engine providers like Epic, which supports indies and triple-A outfits alike with it’s various offerings, should see the full breadth of its industry customers able to realistically consider making games for the PS4.
“We are thrilled to build onto our long-established success with PlayStation,” said Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic Games, in a press statement. “Unreal Engine 4 is expertly designed for the next generation of games development and the outstanding power of PlayStation 4. The demonstration offers a preview of what developers can accomplish using our tools to create games for PlayStation 4.”
If nothing else, Sony appears to have by and large convinced the games development community, with many already boasting experience with the PS4 reporting a positive experience, unlike that seen with the PS3. The platform holder must now deliver on its promise, and questions remain about accessibility for indies, but, all in all, it seems developers are eager and optimistic.
To the dismay of some consumers, Sony did decline to show the form factor of the PS4 – presumably with a view to release more information at a later point – and the exact release date and retail price currently remain a mystery. All that is known is that the machine will be available to the public in ‘at least’ one territory by Christmas this year.
Late in February, having previously named 53 European studios as confirmed PS4 developers, Sony has now revised the list to 30 companies. Studios no longer named include Mojang and Angry Birds’ outfit Rovio.
There were additions though, including Hitman’s IO Interactive, DmC studio Ninja Theory, DayZ developer Bohemia, 2K Games, Sumo Digital and Witcher 3 creators CD Projekt. No changes were made to the lists of US or Japanese developers.
Regardless, optimism abounds, summed up neatly by Caspar Field, co-founder and CEO of indie Wish Studios.
“PS4 was intelligently pitched as developer-friendly, internet-friendly, powerful, social, and accessible – all of those were the right buttons to press,” he told Develop.
“It was smart to save the case design and price for later in the year; it's the services, positioning and controller that matter most. Sony has played its cards smartly.”
What about indies?
At the New York unveiling, Sony executives repeatedly said the new device and its online functions are designed for indies, too.
SCE SVP of Worldwide Studios Michael Denny in particular used some of his on stage time at the event to promise support for small teams.
But each reference to independents was fleeting, and as such questions remain from teams without the capacity for triple-A production.
How high will the dev costs be for PS4? How will the marketplace and the submission process function? Develop spoke to Denny in person, pressing him on the indie issue.
“At PlayStation we want the broadest content we can possibly have, so, of course, we want the best big triple-A games, and the biggest genres out there. But we also want other content as well,” said Denny. “We want broader content and interesting content, and often that comes from smaller indie communities. We’ve always been open to indies.”
That should come as some encouragement for studios keen to harness the power of the PS4, many of whom have already set their hopes high, as typified by comments provided to Develop by Paul Taylor, Joint MD at studio Mode 7.
“PS4 looks like a much more practical option for indie devs than past Sony consoles,” he said. “I really appreciate what they've done in terms of its architecture. Also, there are loads of ways for players to share content, which helps out teams with smaller marketing budgets. All round, it looks like a good thing. I hope Sony will continue their proactive and supportive dealings with the indie community in the future."
Similarly, James Marsden, MD of FuturLab is optimistic about the future of indies’ relationship with PlayStation 4.
“Of course, they need their triple-A showcases, but Sony are doing a great job supporting indie developers, particularly on PS Vita,” he said. “The message that indie is important for Sony on PS4 took center stage with Jonathan Blow, so we're sold, and hope to get our hands on a PS4 development kit as soon as possible."