So, now the cat is out of the bag regarding the PlayStation 4, it can truly be said that the next generation of gaming is on its way. Sony’s conference on Wednesday last week turned heads and guaranteed that titles like Killzone: Shadow Fall, DriveClub and Infamous: Second Son are on every sane gamers must-play list.
All these new games and discussions about the PlayStation 4’s capabilities and added social functions are all very exciting, however we wanted to look at the reality of being a PS4 owner in the first year of the young consoles life. It will likely be a long time before active users of PS4 exceed that of those playing on current-gen consoles, and as gamers we can’t just expect that as soon as the new PlayStation and Xbox models launch people will instantly stop playing the older machines. People will still be buying PS3 and Xbox 360 consoles and games this time next year, the people playing these games online will likely dwarf those early adopters of the new console. The fact that the next generation of consoles may not represent the quantum leap over the previous generation that we saw 6 or 7 years ago is also an important factor to consider.
When the last console generation launched, with the Xbox 360 back in 2005, the gaming world was a very different place. The difference in graphical ability between the PS2 and Xbox 360 was immense, in a similar way to the gulf in quality between the PS1 and PS2 (and arguably the Dreamcast). Therefore any launch games designed for the Xbox 360 were likely not playable in any form on consoles of the previous generation. Alongside the big-name exclusives like Perfect Dark Zero, Project Gotham Racing 3 and Kameo (all long-forgotten now of course – will the likes of Knack go the same way?) Third-party games were mostly multi-format only to the degree that a PC version of the game may be available. Take a look at Quake 4, Call of Duty 2 and Condemned: Criminal Origins, all titles that looked and played very similarly to the ‘High’ graphical settings of PC’s at the time and would not have been possible without losing the core of the game on PS2 or Xbox. When the PlayStation 3 came out a year later it was a similar situation, although by that time of course multi-format games were generally shared with Microsoft’s console.
So what does all this mean for the launch period of the PlayStation 4, and likely also the next Xbox? As I mentioned earlier, this new generation of consoles seems to offer a fantastic level of graphical fidelity; amazing lighting, impressive textures and mesmerizing particle effects amongst other tricks, and certainly the PS4 with its integrated second GPU and 8GB of DDR5 RAM is a powerful machine - probably more so than when first rumored a year or so ago. It isn’t however THAT much of an increase over what we have available today. The games that are being shown off like the aforementioned Killzone and DriveClub would be possible on the PS3, only not looking nearly as pretty.
What we have for the first time then is the opportunity for publishers to release multi-format versions of games across both console generations, giving gamers roughly the same experience. In this way they can maximize profits by both targeting the cutting edge gamers who have jumped on board the new generation immediately, as well as those still content with their existing machine for the time being. As it has already been confirmed that the PS4 will not be backwards compatible with either disk or digital PS3 games, this again means that many thousands of gamers will be sticking with their PS3 for the time being.
Games like Watch Dogs, Diablo 3 and Destiny are all confirmed to be coming to the PS4 as well as PS3 (and Xbox 360 in most cases), and other titles like Star Wars: 1313 and possibly the next Metal Gear Solid are also rumored to be doing the same. How will these titles differ on the new consoles as opposed to running on tech that will be coming up for eight years old? Well, I would assume that the difference would be akin to playing a modern PC game like Sleeping Dogs or Crysis 3 for example on low/medium graphical settings as opposed to ultra. In this way PS3 owners will still get the same basic game as their PS4 counterparts, but gamers on the newer system will see vastly improved graphical options and perhaps exclusive levels and effects. Take the Watch Dogs demo for example. It is easy to imagine a PS3 version running basically the same engine, only with less realistic texture effects – less particles for example when the police car crashes into a shop window or sparks fly to catch the felon of-guard. The difference in graphical fidelity between PS3 and PS4 games will also likely not make much difference to the average gamer. For those folks, cost is usually a major driver and if they can still play the same games as next generation consoles, even with less awesome graphics, they’ll probably do so.
Will these extra details matter? Those social elements mentioned above like the ‘Share’ Button or viewing your friends game may make a difference to some people, but again is it enough to convince the average Joe on the street that he needs to play the next Call of Duty on PS4 instead of PS3? In the first few months of the consoles life, the main reason for purchasing a PS4 will remain those exclusives. Killzone: Shadow Fall and DriveClub will most likely be launch titles and both look amazing, enough to sell systems by themselves. When you throw in improved versions of games like Watch Dogs and Destiny then you make the deal sweeter for gamers, however there will always be some who consider that they can get pretty much the same game as their friends, but for their existing system rather than shelling out $400 for a new one (or whatever the price turns out to be). In this case we may be looking at 2015 or so before the next generation really takes off and gamers start leaving their existing system behind for one that plays home to gaming experiences they just cant get anywhere else.