Tag Archives: Durango

PlayStation 4 And The Necessary Hardware Divide

PlayStation 4 and the Necessary Hardware Divide

It’s been over a week since the PlayStation 4 announcement/event/meeting/whatever Sony is calling it nowadays, and there’s been a lot of interesting fallout. Tech industry folk were disappointed that they didn’t get to see the actual console, game industry folk were excited at the proposition of new games, and developers loved the thought of an x86 architecture. There’s been a question, though, that’s floating around. It comes and goes in the middle of conversations but it never seems to be the point of any of them, perhaps because it’s an arcane inquisition of parents and People That Don’t Understand.

Why do we need a new console?

Back when we were jumping from 8 bits to 16 bits and 16 bits to 32 bits, the reason for a hardware refresh was obvious and almost immediate. No one really ever questioned the notion of selling a new machine to play new games. The developers did their thing and the consumers got their stuff, so it seemed rather moot to battle this established (albeit relatively fresh) order.

This latest generation of consoles, though, doesn’t provide that same immediate revelation of existence. To most people who don’t care about streaming games or spend an inordinate amount of time demoing and downloading games or even just reading about the industry, the thing that stands out most when comparing consoles is the graphics. It’s definitely an incredibly superficial thing to do, but what else is there to judge beyond the surface when all you know is that Mario is a plumber and Sonic is a hedgehog?

And that PS4 event didn’t show much that those not in the know wouldn’t understand. Knack is interesting because it will ostensibly support thousands of complex objects in any given scene instead of the current few hundred. That Media Molecule thing is cool because of its technical implications for development processes and opening people up to a digital artistic medium. But nothing showed would categorically WOW the muggles.

That’s not to say, however, that it’s limited to people interested in games that don’t understand the hardware cycle. This goes beyond the parents that ask their kids, “What do you mean a new machine? Are you saying you have to buy new discs? But you’ve got dozens already!” Let alone that the concept of backwards compatibility is a somewhat unprecedented concept in the world of consoles (it used to be that you just assumed anything you owned before wouldn’t work with anything you bought later; the fact that the N64 and the SNES both used the same power adapter was HUGE and that the PS2 could play PS1 games was nothing more than a happy accident), the features of a console are as intrinsically tied to the hardware as the hardware itself.

We have Xbox Live, the PlayStation Network, the eShop, and all the social stuff that is tied into that: wallets, trophies, achievements, digital libraries, friends, etc. And all of that, in some ways, is interoperable with the new stuff because they all exist in both spaces; your friends list will undoubtedly transfer over seamlessly.

But what, then, to make of features that don’t match up? The streaming capabilities of the PS4, for example, simply would not be possibly on the PS3. The simultaneous download/play can’t happen either. That is enabled by the hardware, and the hardware is the console. That necessitates the new machine.

You would be surprised, though, that purely software-related aspects have similar clout in that regard. Most of the features of the 360 and the PS3 are nothing more than bolted-on odds and ends that served only fill in cracks that emerged in the dam. Digital downloads were originally intended to be only things in the vein of Geometry Wars—tiny 200MB titles that would works more like Flash games than full retail products. But now the Marketplace and the PlayStation Store both offer full disc-based products, whopping 19GB whales like Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, and neither system’s infrastructure or interfaces were made to handle that.

The 360 has cloud saves but don’t seem deeply connected to the system on any significant, fundamental level. The same goes for PlayStation Plus features on the PS3. PSN has poorly integrated social features simply because they were originally designed to be poorly integrated. For all the complaints you have about how Facebook is disorganized and feels disjointed switching between profiles and photos and events et al., the same can be said about the ecosystems of the 360 and the PS3: they’re nothing more than haphazardly stacked debris to meet the incessant demands of innovation, renovation, and fun.

New consoles, however, give manufacturers a chance to start over. More than anything, the PS4 is a blank slate for Sony (and presumably the Durango will serve the same purpose for Microsoft). All the backend architecture of Live and PSN can be rebuilt with little to no regard for the current setup. Servers will run and APIs will work, but it all works as a Band-Aid that only translates old to new. They will build a shiny new monolith that serves to only cast a shadow over the old one, information flowing in and out of its seemingly endless and impenetrable facades.

Which gives rise to the question of what happens when it ends? When the old Live and PSN stuff is finally scuttled and swept under the rug, what happens to your stuff? Well, that ties back to the notion that backwards compatibility is a modern invention. The amount of hardware devices that feature full backwards compatibility is severely outnumbered by those that don’t. Pre-PlayStation consoles, anything ever played on a phone, arcade cabinets, and now most of Nintendo’s handhelds all serve to only play one specific section of gaming history. PCs appear to be the only safe haven for collection and storage of classics and artifacts.

Evolution is a necessity, and these consoles are evolving. The fact that we have new hardware is just a fact of owning consoles. The question of why we need a PS4 and a Durango is largely pointless. What we should be asking instead is are consoles necessary? That ability to evolve does not guarantee existence. Could we be witnesses to the extinction of a breed of hardware?

That’s a question for another time.

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Arriving First And Finishing Last

Arriving First and Finishing Last

We are standing on a bridge. This bridge connects two things that are both familiar to us and altogether alien, simultaneously in the way you’d expect and not expect. The first is the seventh generation of video game consoles: the Xbox 360, the PlayStation 3, and the Wii. It has changed so much since the 360’s launch in November of 2005 that it’s hardly recognizable anymore. The Dashboard no longer has blades, PSN is actually providing value now, and the Wii has come down from its sales pedestal. The entire breadth of that generation is several journeys put side by side and end to end.

The eight generation is just beginning, but it’s a culmination of feelings we’ve long become jaded to. In all, we’re just looking forward to three console launches and we’ve already been through one, and that single event was as lackluster as opening your birthday present to find a countdown to your next one. The console itself is decent enough, but multiple times a year now we are subject to this gnawing sense of been there, done that. Every year we have one or more big Apple product to buy. In 2011 we got the Nintendo 3DS and just last year we got the PlayStation Vita. We are numb.

And now that we’re supposed to also anticipate Valve’s onslaught of hardware offerings and a plethora of specialized Android devices, it all kind of feels like being caught in a blizzard rather than enjoying some fresh powder.

The old trio has grown long in the tooth, though. We’re tired of what the 360 and PS3 has to offer. The Wii has long been collecting dust in the corner. The services and the hardware are more tiring than endearing at this point. We’ve gone through multiple rounds of new controllers and full-on console replacements. We are worn.

So to look forward past the bridge and greet things like leaked Orbis and Durango specs with cynicism is strange. We are tired of where we’re leaving and nervous about where we’re headed. The bridge is our limbo, an imprisonment of our own design. What do we have left when we hate where we’re going and loathe where we’ve been when we should only be looking forward with unfettered optimism?

Perhaps, my fellow travelers, we’re looking at this all wrong. Perhaps we’re trying to get excited about the wrong things. Our mindset is one of the hardware age, and that seems to be all but done. Up until the beginning of the PS2 era, video game experiences were intrinsically tied to the platform. There’s a reason why such vivid imagery pops into your mind at the mere mention of 8-bit and 16-bit gaming when I have said nothing about any particular game or year. This tethered concept began to wither away with the PlayStation and the N64 and never seemed to come back after.

Yet we still have such strong mental images and emotional ties to the current set of consoles. Some games, sure, but it’s mostly and ethereal sense of personal investment. It’s hard to put your finger on it because you’ve rarely had to articular just why things fallout the way they do beyond yelling in YouTube comments about fanboys and haters.

What you’re associating your experiences with is the software innate to the platform, such as firmware and services. Internet irrationality aside, when you boot up a 360, a certain feeling comes over you, a sensation of corporate structure and rigor. It’s comforting, in a way, to know that every movement of yours is guided and purposeful, if overtly monetized and scrutinized. It’s changed, though, since the launch with the blades. Those sliding slabs felt more utilitarian, more like you were there for business and not pleasure. Now it’s a mix of both.

The PS3 boot-up has gone largely unchanged as the XMB has gone largely unchanged. It still opens to a congealing orchestra warm-up and fades into soothing shapes and colors. The association with the console at first glance is elegance. But once you start using it, the connection changes to futility. System updates, game patches, an impossible-to-navigate store, etc. All these things fight against your desire to elevate this to a classy affair.

That is until recently when PlayStation Plus made a compelling argument for a better pay service over Xbox Live and the PlayStation Store got a redesign to finally look and function as nice as you’d always hoped it would. Over the past six years, Sony has been working hard to turn around its PS3 image and the public opinion, and it’s been paying off. It’s no longer “that one with the Ratchet games” but now it’s just the PS3.

As far as the Wii goes, it’s almost perfectly analogous to a salad; light, bright, and healthy. Also, incredibly boring if you’re not a Food Network chef. Eventually you grow tired of it. You know that it’s good for you to play (the sprightly gameplay, easygoing facade) but it so rarely changes to something exciting that you eventually put it down. Maybe for a week, maybe for a month, but eventually you put it down for good. Or at least until someone comes along and tells you to add raisins or chicken and then you’re ready to go again.

Notice that for the most part, none of what you associate with these consoles has anything to do with the hardware. The closest you get is with the Wii, but it still stands that the intrinsic association with the console is elsewhere. Different from the days of Atari and Commodore and the NES, the mental ties you make are largely comprised of the things surrounding what you played instead of those within the realm of how you played. That’s because at this point, service is king. Or rather, the services offered.

The very simple reason that the 360 beat out the PS3 this generation is because Xbox Live was far and away the superior online service from the beginning. The playing field has been leveled since then, but even PSN’s $0.00 price tag couldn’t compete with Live’s cross-game chat, achievements, and a coherent ecosystem. And on the console, the mere fact that you could sign into multiple accounts in multiplayer games didn’t even make it a fair fight. The one-year head start was an advantage, sure, but no amount of time could give such an insurmountable plus as being a better software service.

The Wii had a compounded problem of not offering a wide enough range of games or enough high quality games while being a conduit to a service that would have better fit in 10 to 15 years ago. Friend codes were an absolute swing and a miss, and to even say that Nintendo went up to bat is a generous concession. Worse yet, it seems as though they haven’t learned their lesson and now Wii U accounts are basically tied to the console they’re created on. And they have restricted M-rated games to “adult hours.” And so on and so on. Nintendo has already shown its hand in its eighth generation services, and it seems content to once again be in a distant third place.

According to the leaked Orbis specs, though, it seems as though Sony is learning. The highlight is that users can now sign into multiple accounts at once just as you can on the 360 and everyone can individually earn trophies, a major coup in terms of reappropriating the weapons that defeated you before. Sony had previous underestimated the social aspect of modern gaming and seems to be adjusting (it has a Share button, for goodness sake, and I doubt that it’s for the Share Care Bear).

If you examine the leaked docs, you’ll notice that the specs are nearly identical, something that can’t be said for this generation’s 360 and PS3. The hardware is secondary to the experience; Microsoft and Sony have realized that it’s the software wars that matter now. And it’s not just for the consumers. The developers matter, too, as they will choose what is easiest to develop for second and most profitable first. Or maybe not, but it doesn’t really matter because one follows the other. The next generation must court users with services and developers with users, but users will also be drawn to what developers put out there, so if a console is easy to develop for and not full of Cell processors that are hard to wrangle, then it’s a double win.

We are past the concerns of hardware. Past a minimum line and we don’t care; all that matters is that it’s good enough. The more tangible product is the software, the stuff you interact with which interacts with the hardware. The abstraction has become the game and now we’re going to see who plays it better. This is not a bridge from the PS3 to PS4 or the 360 to the 720; this is a bridge from hardware to software, and I’m not sure everyone is going to make it across.

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