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The Guns of Navarro: The Curious Case of Sony Computer Entertainment

With the announcement of the PlayStation 4 almost assuredly coming up in just over a week, Alex can't help but wonder if Sony's games division is actually ready for the next-gen.

One way or another, February 20th will be remembered as an important day in the legacy of the PlayStation brand. As we have been oft-reminded by every single news writer in the industry for the last few weeks, this is the day that Sony will presumably unveil the PlayStation 4, the culmination of years of work and the earnest beginning of the next generation of consoles. For all of you about to dive into the comments section with some variation on the old "BUT WHAT ABOUT THE WII U" protest, don't bother. We're not having this conversation right now.

I would love to believe in you, Sony. I really would. But you'll have to forgive me if, judging by recent history, I have some trepidation about doing so.
I would love to believe in you, Sony. I really would. But you'll have to forgive me if, judging by recent history, I have some trepidation about doing so.

There is, of course, the smallest of small chances that the upcoming press event isn't about Sony's next console, but that in and of itself would be memorable, if only for the sheer volume of crestfallen faces we'll see immediately afterward. To not unveil the PS4 now would be tantamount to admitting Sony is nowhere near ready to show what it has, and by all accounts, that doesn't seem likely. So having acknowledged such a slim-to-nil possibility, let's now move on and talk about what we're likely going to see.

We don't write console rumors as proper news stories around here, usually for a variety of reasons. For one, even in the most seemingly accurate circumstances, the rumors are often based on spec or development hardware, which is often being revised as development goes along. Two, save for those rarified situations where people seemingly have good, solid intel, most other console rumors are Grade A horseshit.

All of that said, we're close enough now to the probable announcement that the stockpile of recent rumors probably at least holds something close to the truth. Here's a quick once over of what we sort of maybe possibly almost know so far.

It will likely be quite powerful, though that won't necessarily be the focus. Multiple rumors have placed the system's processor (at least at the current devkit level) as being a 4x Dual-Core AMD64 "Bulldozer," with an AMD R10xx GPU, 8GB of system memory, and 2.2 gigs of video memory. Technical specs give me migraines, so you'll forgive me if I don't spend more time trying to break down what all of that means. Suffice it to say, it will have some horsepower. However, as we saw with the PlayStation 3, sheer horsepower does not a successful console make. The PS3 has never captured the level of worldwide ubiquity achieved by its two predecessors, partially due to a mixture of cost, various examples of shoddy or lackluster marketing, and strong competition from Microsoft (and, for a time, Nintendo). So with the PS4, there's going to have to be something else, some other key factor that can bring wayward players into the fold. Such as...

A controller that features a touch-pad, more flexible user account signing, new media device connection capabilities, and a partridge in a pear tree. Of all the crazy hardware rumors out there, this is the least crazy-sounding thing I've heard. A PlayStation controller with touch-pad functionality just makes a hell of a lot of sense. The Vita may have, in some respects, simply been a test-marketing campaign for people's interest in such tech. Keep in mind that nobody's saying the PS4 will have a straight-up front touch screen, but more likely something akin to the Vita's rear touch pad. Again, this is all speculative, but it all seems likely. Elsewhere, we have what will likely be a new system for allowing multiple users to sign into accounts, and a bit of bandying over the idea that the PS4 will connect to a variety of handheld devices, making the system more of a definitive living room "media hub."

All of that sounds really great, except for one key detail...

It's probably going to be fairly expensive. No, not $600 expensive, but probably north of the $400 range, at least in Japan. Yen-to-dollar transitions in price are rarely 1-to-1, but $399 for a new base-model console from Sony doesn't sound outrageous. Pricey, but not completely insane. Of course, there's still plenty of room for them to jack up that price for more premium models.

There are other ideas being kicked around as well, but these are the most persistent, most constant of rumors, the ones that seem most likely to come to fruition in some capacity. I won't presume to say without having even seen the console whether it has any chance of success, but based on what tentative info I've read thus far, I think the hardware sounds like it could be very cool.

This dumb thing was the last Vita-related commercial I saw on television. That was nearly three months ago.
This dumb thing was the last Vita-related commercial I saw on television. That was nearly three months ago.

But is that going to be enough for Sony? Probably not. After all, the Vita, which is also unquestionably a very cool piece of hardware, has not made much impact at retail since it launched in the US last year. So much of that can be easily attributed to a lack of proper marketing for the device, not to mention a dearth (but not total lack) of quality games for the system. There are good games for the Vita, but none of them have been pushed the way, say, a Call of Duty Black Ops: Declassified has been. In fact, apart from that wretched game, I can't remember the last time I saw an ad for anything related to the Vita anywhere.

This is what worries me most about the PlayStation 4. Not the specs, not the price, not even the games, necessarily. I'm just not convinced Sony has its shit together enough to promote this thing properly.

Actually, to digress for a second, I am a tad worried about the games as well. It's not that I don't trust such Sony luminaries as Naughty Dog, Guerrilla, and Santa Monica studio to offer up entertaining, blockbuster experiences that will almost assuredly be ready for the system's launch window. And I expect there will be several games from smaller indie devs as well--after all, for all of Sony's missteps during this generation, one of its greatest strengths has been its courting of interesting independent games for the PlayStation Network store.

But beyond those big names and a few small studios that have thoroughly bought into Sony's plans, I don't really know what else the console maker has to work with these days. The last couple of years has seen Sony shutter or cut ties with numerous studios. Internally, S.O.C.O.M. developers Zipper Interactive, Pursuit Force and Little Deviants dev BigBig Studios, and WipeOut franchise runners Sony Liverpool have been closed. Then there are the third-party devs, like Eat Sleep Play (Twisted Metal), Sanzaru (Sly Collection, Sly 4), The Workshop (Sorcery), Lightbox (Starhawk) and SuperBot Entertainment (PlayStation All-Stars: Battle Royale). Each of those studios has produced (or was at least in the process of producing) a major game for Sony, and in each case, said game was sent off to retail without much marketing behind it. And in several of those cases, Sony has cut ties with the studios following those games' underperforming at retail.

That's about as hostile a potential working relationship for any developer as I can picture. Sure, publishers close or cancel contracts with developers all the time, but Sony has practically made it habitual. In some cases, like Twisted Metal and Sorcery, it's likely that Sony simply didn't have a lot of confidence in those games. But titles like Battle Royale, Starhawk, and Sly 4 have never seen a great deal of negative press, nor was there anything to suggest that Sony had misgivings about their development. Hell, PlayStation All-Stars was practically Sony's only major holiday release last year. Yet, like so many other recent Sony-published games, it was shuffled off to retail with no fan fare, no significant marketing campaign, and no indication that higher-ups at Sony even really cared all that much.

Then again, it'd be hard to share such feelings given that much of Sony's PR team was gutted before the holiday season even began.

Following every major sports season, you can always tell which teams are about to begin a "rebuilding phase" by how fast and furious the firings come. Older players with expensive contracts are often jettisoned as the team begins gathering funds and resources to try and rebuild itself through the draft and farm talent. I mention this because it feels for like the last year or so, Sony's been jettisoning expenses in preparation of what's to come with the PlayStation 4. Except that instead of just letting old contracts expire and cutting a few chunks of fat at the tail end of the cycle, it's been passively letting every major PlayStation 3 and/or Vita game of the last year wander onto the field and get beaten half to death without providing any notable support whatsoever. Games like Journey have certainly managed to gain attention, but only through rabid support by the press and extremely positive word-of-mouth from fans. From a marketing standpoint, Journey's success was practically a work of divine intervention.

There are only two ways to view this. Either Sony is hoarding money and resources for a massive, blitzkrieg marketing assault starting around E3 and culminating with the system's launch (maybe) this holiday, or Sony has simply lost any sense of direction, drive, or enthusiasm for its own game division, and simply doesn't have the confidence necessary to push a new console into the marketplace with the proper support it requires.

Sony could literally invent a way to send burritos digitally through your console and to your living room, and I still think they'd have a hard time figuring out how to properly market it to people.
Sony could literally invent a way to send burritos digitally through your console and to your living room, and I still think they'd have a hard time figuring out how to properly market it to people.

Truthfully, I believe the former far more than I would believe the latter. This has been a supremely weird closeout to the PlayStation 3 era, and the Vita's unceremonious dumping at retail certainly hasn't given anyone the impression Sony really cares all that much these days about its own welfare in the marketplace. But a new console generation is something different. This is Sony's potential opportunity to wipe the slate clean and go balls-out crazy on the next Xbox. This is their chance to make a wholly compelling argument for why people should make Sony's all-purpose gaming and media box the logical and exciting choice. That's incredibly important, because if any of the more interesting Durango rumors hold true, they'll have to be extremely convincing to drive market share away from Microsoft. Changing perceptions can be an enormously difficult thing, but when everybody's got a new machine to shill, all bets are off.

Especially in a generation that some industry prognosticators are deeming the last of the home console dinosaurs. I don't necessarily believe that, but I wouldn't outright dismiss such a claim, either. So many things could go so very, very wrong this gen that in a worst-case scenario, I could easily this being the last time we, as an industry, collectively go crazy over a slate of shiny new boxes to play with.

You hear that, Sony? This is quite possibly your last legitimate chance to impress the world with your home hardware, and take back the crown of the most played console brand of the market. In the parlance of one of my favorite shows on television, RuPaul's Drag Race, Microsoft and Sony are about to lip sync for their lives, and right now, we don't even know if Sony has bothered to memorize the words.

I guess all that's left to say to Sony at this point is good luck. Oh, and don't fuck it up.

--A

P.S. Please join me in wishing our own Patrick Klepek a speedy recovery from his recent bike accident, wherein he jacked up his shoulder something fierce. His suffering is both a lesson in the fragility of man, and the extreme necessity to keep an eye out for potholes. Get well soon, Scoops.

P.P.S. Also join me in well-wishing Tested's Will Smith, who is apparently getting an appendectomy. Can everyone I know please stop needing surgery? Not into this trend AT ALL.

Alex Navarro on Google+