There's no end to the griping about the conspicuous absence of a physical manifestation of Sony's PlayStation 4 at last week's "unveiling," but that's not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it just may be the key to the entire next generation of gaming consoles.
Arguments about a lack of finalized hardware design aside — ask Microsoft how that rushed, concave housing for a space heater like the Xbox 360 worked out — Sony seems to have hinted at where Sony wants to take the PlayStation: Into the cloud. No console in your house, no cables running all over a corner of your living room, just a wireless controller and a television bigger than a ship container. Glorious!
There have been plenty of clues that Sony wants to take the next generation online entirely, but has been constrained by what I feel is a misguided consumer attachment to in-home hardware and software. The PSPgo was the first real step in the hardware arena, a fairly unsuccessful misstep in a media-free future that looms somewhere in the distance, shapeless and undefined. The PlayStation Network followed much of Xbox Live's example, sure, offering digital-only titles and downloadable content, but Home was a swing and a miss, largely failing in its mission to create a sustainable online community. At least it's free.
But now we have PS4, which has gained detractors by not being backward compatible and only adding a couple of seemingly pointless bells and whistles to the Dualshock 4 controller (do we really need a touchpad and color-coded light bar?). What it does have is a focus on sharing content online, and on playing the console's game on mobile devices on the fly, and on encouraging you to not have any disc media whatsoever. This from a company that attempted to sell us UMDs and has invested countless yen on Blu-ray!
It's been a long time coming, this media-free environment. Sure, Sony says PS4 discs will be playable on other PS4s, quelling fears of console-locked source coding, but Shuhei Yoshida, Sony's head of worldwide studios, tipped the company's hand to the U.K.'s Guardian:
"We're shifting our platform more and more to the digital side — PS4 will be similar to PS Vita in that every game will be available as a digital download, and some will also be available as a disc," Yoshida said, in what sounds a lot like an admission that the physical Blu-ray is already being prepped for long-term burial. It seems after years behind the curve, Sony is looking at what its target audience wants, and what it wants is less stuff cluttering up the house.
"As more and more services and contents become available digitally, we'll have more of an option to create attractive packages," Yoshida said when asked if the company was shifting to a non-ownership model like Netflix or Spotify. "So hypothetically we can look at different models — like a cable TV company. We could have gold, silver or platinum levels of membership, something like that. We can do subscription services when we have more content — especially now that we have the Gaikai technology available. With one subscription you have access to thousands of games — that's our dream."
Going out of house to pair with online service Gaikai is a great first step, because Valve's upcoming Steam Box already has the benefit of a PC subscriber base of more than 50 million, greater than Xbox Live. Catering to developers who wanted a system architecture more like a PC instead of the PS3's powerful but oft-maligned Cell processor will no doubt help the console draw in tons more third-party support, as well.
But the important thing is that after years of trying to make the video game console the nexus of the family entertainment center, the stars may just now be aligning for Sony. A generation of gamers used to the perpetual rental model — of having access to media anytime, anywhere, but owning none of it — will drive this next generation of machines. The next logical evolution after no physical media would be no machine at all, just you and your Internet connection.
If Sony can push that tipping point and close the book on the endless cycle of bigger, better, faster hardware that costs more and more money (rumored price for PS4 is so far between $400 and $600, depending on the size of the hard drive), then we may finally get to see innovation take off. And get more shelf space, to boot.
— Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt*. Feel free to challenge his opinions at email@example.com.