PlayStation 4: Why it won't be what you expect
1st Dec 2011 | 11:00
Henry Ford - father of the now-ubiquitous mass-produced car - once quipped that if he actually asked people what they wanted, they'd just ask for a faster horse.
Ask Dave Public down your street what he wants from the PlayStation 4 and he might well come up with a similar response: a faster PlayStation 3.
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But this is space-year 2011. Will lashing two last generation consoles together and sticking a bigger number on the side cut it for a manufacturer besieged on all sides by competitors and innovators? Worse still, is bigger actually better any more?
The rubber band-powered rise of far less-powerful gaming devices such as Nintendo's DS and Wii, and more recently Apple's iPhone and iPad, has ruined playground disputes forever. It's a brand-new phenomenon in an area traditionally powered by technical innovation. Will this generation of gamers even know how powerful their devices are, let alone care?
But for us in the business of soothsaying, power is a good place to start. The PS4 won't drop everything to focus on pure processor grunt, but it will be notably more powerful than the five year-old PlayStation 3. There are two schools of thought on how the company will achieve this extra punch.
The first is a continuation of their current efforts. The PS3 is built on the bespoke 'Cell' processor, funded by Sony at great expense - it lightened their wallet by several hundred million dollars. The factories that make the processor carve an even greater chunk out of their bank balance: in December 2010, Sony bought the majority stake in the Japanese factory for a stonking 1.1 billion dollars.
To jettison that setup would be financial insanity - especially when a future version of the Cell CPU could, according to those in the know, more than double its capability to 500 gigaflops. That's 300 more gigaflops than PS3 can manage and, as we all know, the more gigafl ops something has, the better it is. At gigaflopping, anyway.
The second option is madder, and involves Sony ignoring all that good advice. Nvidia are known to be working on a monster graphic chip codenamed 'Project Denver,' with a timing that would allow a clever console manufacturer to jump on board at an early stage. Project Denver is ARM-based. That doesn't mean you'll be wearing your PS4 - ARM is a system architecture common on mobile phones, and one Nvidia hope to scale up to very high-end machines. With smartphones becoming universal, compatibility could be as important as power.
This architecture switch would be of vital importance to developers working on PlayStation 4. The Cell chip in your PS3 is widely regarded as a devious little bastard, despite its potential. Put simply, the 512Mb of PS3's memory is rigidly halved between system RAM and video RAM, whereas the Xbox 360 allows developers to use all 512Mb for whatever they fancy.
This means PS3 devs can't just divert memory resources into, say, graphical wows when the AI needs are small. It takes more careful planning than that to get the best from it, and that takes time - and money. Hence the initial prevalence of disappointing ports.
REAL AS IT GETS
Atari founder Nolan Bushnell recently argued there shouldn't be another console generation, as the PS4 and Xbox 720 would be "So close to photorealism that it doesn't matter." When both would pump out as-good-as-looking-out-thewindow graphics, what would draw either developers or gamers to one or the other machine?
A straw poll of developers, culled from PSM3's recent interviews, suggests all would happily embrace a more powerful console - but that their main desire was for a system that made game development quicker. An ARM-based architecture would suggest an easier time, but even if Sony do stick with Cell, a simpler, more forgiving architecture is surely forefront in their minds.
Publishing a successful console game in the modern age is an issue of two things: money, and time. Publishers are loathe to spend cash on titles that might not sell, even though that's potentially harmful in the longterm; even if they've got cash in the piggy bank, tying up talented creators for four years just to turn a minimal profit doesn't make sense.
The system now only rewards the top tier of triple-A titles, and if that model continues, the market will simply stagnate amid copies of Call of Duty, Assassin's Creed and FIFA. The PS4 must tackle this tricky reality by encouraging creative risk and experimentation through ease of use and - ironically for a luxury electronic item - a lack of expense.
If, come PS4, publishers are still even releasing physical media. The recent launch of OnLive in the UK has proved that a cloud-based, discless gaming option is viable, if a little wobbly on less-than-perfect internet connections.
Sensible wisdom would suggest Sony should unhook their claws from the kind of easily scratched shiny things that have held our games for the last decade, and rely instead on imaginary internet beams and tiny spots of data to stream our games from either a cloud service such as OnLive's, or a fat, solid-state hard drive sat under our televisions.
But, as with the Cell, Sony has its hands once again tied - they've already plunged millions into the development of Blu-ray. They fought hard to smother Toshiba's rival HD-DVD format with a beautifully-rendered pillow before it could even grow up, and they're not likely to abandon it now. PlayStations are the greatest driver of Blu-ray sales going. It's inconceivable they'd drop it from PS4, yet the world may have moved on already.
COST OF PROGRESS
That's not to suggest the console manufacturers won't eventually ditch physical media - but Sony CEO Kaz Hirai seemed to suggest that Blu-rays had another decade in them. Back in August of 2010, he cited net infrastructure problems in Sony sales territories as a reason to stick with discs for now.
Even with that less-than-ideal infrastructure, expect the PS4's hard drive to be way larger than PS3's as standard. Developers are increasingly keen on installing as much as possible, rather than running games entirely from the disc - loading and streaming gains are palpable - suggesting perhaps the inclusion of a solid state drive either as a boot drive for a typical hard drive, or as the main device. Solid state drives act like giant USB sticks, and read from memory far more quickly and quietly than the whirry clunking of a traditional, moving-parts-included hard drive.
However, solid state drives remain expensive: to outfi t each PS4 with one large enough to handle all the installs, patches and DLC packs would bump price up notably - as did the inclusion of Blu-ray in PS3. But the potential is great: built around a solid state drive, PS4 could be a book-sized (remember them?) device you can chuck in your bag and plug into any TV, mega-graphics and all.
That's if the base machine doesn't already come with a screen. The release of Vita indicates Sony aren't ready to give up on a dedicated handheld, but Nintendo's Wii U is set to bridge the gap between handheld and console: PS4 could also shake the reliance on the TV and become a constant presence in your day.
The Wii U comparison also extends to control. Sony remain quiet on whether a pad, a Movelike wand or something new will be the primary interaction with their new machine. There's only one technique we can rule out: brain power. SCE's US research and development manager - Dr. Richard Marks - reassured players that "The brain interface thing is too far." It's probably for the best, given our brains.
Notably un-ruled out is touchscreen. Since PS3's launch, a new generation has simply come to expect it: with Sony's phone background in Xperia Play (and their acquisition of phone-making Sony Ericsson arm) we could easily be swooping and pinching things on our PS4s come launch. And the date for that launch?
Any time from 'tomorrow evening' to '2016' to 'never,' according to the rumours. So we look to the people who'll actually be working with the technology for the best guess: Bethesda's Todd Howard, creator of Skyrim (he had help) pointed to 2014 as the dawn of the new generation, and that seems a safe bet to us. We don't know exactly what we'll see then, but pull together the facts and we can make an educated guess - it's going to be very different.