Descent to the core

Descent to the core
Rick Gibson

By Rick Gibson

April 26th 2013 at 10:30AM

Rick Gibson ponders who the PS4 will serve, and if it has what it takes to thrive

Sony’s PS4 reveal may at first glance have appeared a little rushed – little visible hardware, some new peripheral hardware, some tech demos and UI tweaks – not vast amounts to get consumers excited.

As the dust settles, industry reaction becomes more considered and Sony’s top brass open up, we look at how strategic decisions for PS4 return Sony’s focus to a single target market – the core gamer.

Sony’s developer-centric drive has been widely covered. Sony, still smarting from Vita’s failure to sign up sufficient stand-out content, correctly discerned that developers care little for form factors, but instead about what games they can develop, at what cost, and increasingly what assistance the platform can give in distribution. The performance of demos, almost all of them in core genres, look pretty good, certainly enough to interest the hardcore fan.

Despite hype around specs, it’s clear PS4 will be cheaper to develop for than feared. Where some developers reported up to 50 per cent increases in development cost between PS2 to PS3, the uplift between PS3 and PS4 is greatly less, reassuring studios that the fiddly intricacies of PS3 development are being tackled.

Component costs have always driven Sony’s policy of slow, unrushed hardware SRP reductions, and management will be unwilling to repeat the uncomfortable experience of being forced prematurely to lower Vita’s prices.

The shift from proprietary to off-the-shelf tech  – dictated by financial necessity as much as strategy – has also reassured developers that retail prices at launch should be reasonable.

CASTING A WIDE NET

Sony’s focus on the service behind the platform has also impressed. Worldwide Studios continues to cast a wide and generous net out to small and mid-scale developers. Although the number of studios that can scale up their production values from small-scale games on PSN to full-scale retail titles will remain small, core consumers have shown they will subscribe to PlayStation Plus, within which small-scale titles are important components.

The process of self-publishing, setting one’s own prices from $0 upwards and helping developers onto the platform needs more flesh on the bones, but this recruitment drive has already attracted mega-studios Bungie and Blizzard, historically Microsoft/PC-exclusive studios.

The core gamer has always been the initial sales focus for new console generations, a trend bucked successfully, if only for a single generation, by Nintendo. What’s changed in the market since Wii is effectively a market correction, demonstrated by Wii U falling awkwardly between core and casual markets.

The mass-market gamer is simply harder to reach and monetise today; in parallel the core gamer is increasingly accessible and spending more. Worldwide Studios’ boss Shuhei Yoshida, describing a mass market playing at lower cost on mobile devices, admits that it will be hard to convince many such gamers to spend extra money on hardware or high-end games. The conclusion seems to be to focus on the core gamer, get core developers on board and address the mass market later.

The addition of extensions such as remote play on Vita, the touchpad controls and smartphone viewing are puzzling. Like EyeToy, Move and PS3-to-PSP links in Gran Turismo, these optional extras have so far triggered some innovation but little to change the market.

Instead they have fragmented the user base into subsets offering features that cost developers more to develop and port between platforms. For instance, what innovation has there been that properly uses Wii U’s second screen? Surprisingly little so far sets Wii U titles apart, let alone changes how games are made.

SHARE AND SHARE ALIKE

Some social and mobile developers have derided the Share button, but they ignore video’s popularity with core audiences and the constraints of PlayStation’s closed platform. Video of video games is huge.

YouTube’s single biggest channel is Machinima, with over two billion monthly views. PS4’s record, upload, share abilities, while not breaking new ground in social marketing or functionality, are easier than previous iterations and will prove more popular. Sony’s integration of Gaikai may be as far as a closed platform could reasonably have gone without letting everyone in and breaking Sony’s basic business model. Core gamers have always had higher tolerance to friction and PS4’s rapid game restarts, sharing and game stream viewing are well targeted.

So Sony’s bets have been clearly placed on the table. If PS4 can satisfy the core gamer while keeping development costs down for a slate of high-profile launch titles, Sony will have the balance right.

A good reveal of the form factor, acceptable pricing and more polished games at E3 will get core gamers salivating and put Sony in good position for the inevitable duel with Microsoft. We wait to see whether 720 will return to its core gaming roots, or will attempt a more mass market, Kinect-influenced strategy.

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