The battle royale has begun, sort of.
Sony today presented details of its upcoming PlayStation 4 console — including its controller, games and related services — that will challenge Microsoft’s next Xbox and Nintendo’s Wii U.
Sony demonstrated the hardware at a press event in New York that I followed on its webcast. Highlights included stunning new games and social features triggered by a new “share” button on the console’s controllers, but Sony declined to show the actual console or disclose its price and release date other than “holiday 2013.”
Two Bellevue companies were prominently featured in the event. Sucker Punch Productions, a studio Sony acquired in 2011, showed a provocative new version of its “Infamous” superhero game set in Seattle, and Bellevue’s Bungie showed a bit more of “Destiny,” the cooperative sci-fi game it’s developing for the PlayStation and Xbox platforms.
From this vantage point, Sony’s event ended up feeling like a high-voltage tease, setting up the next wave of PlayStation announcements later this year. Presumably, Sony will share details at the E3 game industry conference in June in Los Angeles, where Microsoft is expected to unveil its new console.
Meanwhile, Sony is playing with gamers and journalists who were anticipating big news Wednesday and flooded the company’s webcast and press site, which sputtered several times from the global audience.
“Today marks a moment of truth and a bold step forward,” Andrew House, chief executive of Sony Computer Entertainment, said in his opening remarks.
Then he talked up the handheld PlayStation Vita, which hasn’t lived up to expectations, and mobile games being distributed to mobile devices through the PlayStation Network.
“Every facet of PlayStaiton will continue to become more powerful,” he said.
Sony has “reconceptualized” how the “next generation gamer” will want to play, he said, explaining that Sony is renewing not just hardware, but its broader gaming platform.
House said the PlayStation 4 represents a shift beyond just a box to a “leading authority on play.” It’s higher fidelity, displaying more realistic content, and emphasizes connections beyond the console through other services and devices.
Mark Cerny, lead system architect, said the platform was developed by and for game developers. The architecture is like a PC but “supercharged to bring out its full potential as a gaming platform.” The central processor is x86 based. There’s an enhanced graphics processor, 8 gigabytes of GDDR5 high-speed unified system memory and a traditional hard drive.
The PS4 has a new dualshock controller with an integrated touchpad, as revealed through a series of recent leaks. Also new to the controller is a “share” button and a color-coded “light bar” that identifies players. Buttons and triggers are similar to the current Sony controller; the new one also has a speaker and stereo headset jack.
Sony also is giving the PS4 a camera and motion sensor in a horizontal case that looks a lot like the Kinect accessory for Microsoft’s current Xbox. Called the PlayStation 4 Eye, the device includes four microphones and two cameras that can log players in by recognizing their faces and detect players’ positions. It works with the PlayStation’s ”Move” motion sensing controllers.
Cerny said the processing power is an “exponential leap” over its predecessors, but the PS4 was designed to be simpler to use, with a new interface and reduced lag time for accessing content. That’s partly through a new suspend/resume capability that lets players restart a game instantly by pressing the power button, rather than waiting several minutes to power up the console and game.
Social capabilities of the system include hardware features like the “share” button on the controller and dedicated compression hardware that captures, compresses and uploads video excerpts from a game play session when the share button is pressed. The console supports a picture-in-picture feature for video chats during a game.
Cerny said conversations via the PlayStation network can be continued on other devices, such as Vita and tablets, via Sony apps.
Sony also is making it easier to turn games into spectator sports. The share button can be used to broadcast play to friends. Game developers are also being given tools to add more spectating features, such as the ability to let friends drop in tools or weapons into a level of a game you’re playing.
“Remote play” is also a big feature of the PlayStation 4. In Sony’s presentation, it explained how you can shift a game from the TV to the Vita’s 5-inch screen for remote play. Sony has been trying to combine Vita with console play for several years; perhaps it will finally happen with the PS4. Sony’s using technology from the Gaikai cloud gaming service, which it acquired, to let the PS4 function as a game server feeding the Vita.
Cloud technology also will be used to enable the PS4 to play PlayStation 3 games, which aren’t natively supported by the new console. The plan also is to let non-Sony devices play its console games through a cloud-streaming system that’s still being developed.
A demonstration of Guerilla Games’ PS4 shooting game ”Killzone Shadow Fall” showed the high fidelity of the new console, which rendered nearly photorealistic people in its scenes before the action broke out.
Evolution Studios showed a vivid, team-based racing game called “DriveClub,” which the studio has been hoping to build for 10 years.
“We’ve literally waited for the technology to be available to deliver our vision,” the studio’s representative said.
The game involves teams of players who race other clubs around the world, via Sony’s network. Companion apps on phones and tablets can be used to set up a racing challenge with particular cars and locations and send them to other players.
Details are accurate down to the pattern of suede fibers on the upholstery and rainbow patterns that remain when you polish the headlight covers.
The most gripping demo – at least from this perspective — was given by Nate Fox of Bellevue’s Sucker Punch Productions. Fox talked about being tear-gassed by police in 1999 (presumably during that year’s WTO riots), about the proliferation of monitoring by police and the sacrifices people make for a sense of security.
“Our security comes at a high price — our freedom,” he said. “Now, picture how things would change how the world would react, if a handful of people developed superhuman capabilities.”
Then Fox showed a clip from “Infamous Second Son,” a sequel to the company’s hit superhero game for the PlayStation 3.
The game is set in a futuristic version of Seattle, and the clip showed the havoc that unfolds from the perspective of police monitoring security cameras aimed at checkpoints around Seattle Center. Perhaps a later chapter will include the city’s new waterfront camera system.
Sony then showed demos of what can be built with the PS4, including a hyperealistic rendering of a person, showing emotions as well as physical details:
Capcom demonstrated a new game engine called Panta Rhei, which it’s using to build a medieval game tentatively called “Deep Down:
Then Square Enix demonstrated its PS4 game engine running a modern adventure/fantasy game and talked about how easy it is to develop games for the new console.
Sony seems to be trying to assure people that the PS4 debut will be smoother than that of the PlayStation 3 in 2006. Developers struggled at first with the complex PS3 architecture, leading to a limited number of games initially and a slower launch.
Ubisoft co-founder Yves Guillemot said the games will be playable in different places, with different people, and be richer and more unbelievable. He said the PS4 platform will bring millions of new customers; he then introduced a game called “Watchdogs.”
Continuing the contemporary, political feel of Sucker Punch’s title, “Watchdogs” gives players access to surveillance and tracking systems in a realistically rendered version of Chicago. In the demo, the player could tap into these systems to discern the identity of nearby people and then choose to exploit the information or provide vigilante justice on the street.
Sony also brought on stage Activision’s Eric Hirshberg, who played a video with Bungie co-founder Jason Jones and clips from Bungie’s upcoming shooter “Destiny.” Then a team of studio managers from Bellevue came on stage in sportcoats, saying that they’ll provide exclusive content for the PS4.