By jasondaplock 54 Comments
Everyone has had passing thoughts about when the next generation of consoles will show up and what will make them stand out from their predecessors. I’ve decided to organize my thoughts on the matter into a blog mini-series about the three home console rivals (or two rivals and one unimpeachable overlord, if you prefer) and try my hand at some basic prognostication.
Feel free to skip to the goal if you just want the predictions, or just read the bold text if you’re a lazy jerk on the internet. Up first, Sony’s PS4.
The PlayStation 4
The Call for Change
When Yamauchi got on the podium and apologized for Gran Turismo 5’s less-than-perfect framerate, I could feel buildings of hardware designers in Minato cringing. The lead designer of a first-party flagship had declared the PS3’s graphics potential exhausted.
This siren call had been coming and it doesn't somehow mark the end of developmental progress by any means, but processing power was the biggest push for the PS3 at launch behind Blu-Ray support. Losing that bullet point leaves the PS3 in a rough spot as it only stands out in one other regard: as a media center. This strategy, looking at the numbers, can only get them so far.
Between trophies, the PlayStation Store, and Home, Sony has been treading water since launch to provide a comparable online experience to Microsoft’s; whether they’ve succeeded is a verdict I’ll leave you to give. In equal “me-too” fashion, the Move just arrived on the scene as a better version of the Wiimote. The Move in particular exposes Sony’s most glaring weakness as a console designer: everything they do is improvement rather than innovation. Nintendo comes up with the amp, and Sony makes one that goes to 11. They never grasp for new ideas , opting to wait and tweak the ideas as they show up.
Modern console architecture is pretty much identical across the board now--CPU, GPU, optical media drive, home page, wireless controllers, online game distribution, USB interfaces, in-console storage. When those variables were in flux, making the PS2 use DVD’s was a huge deal. That trick doesn’t work anymore, and Sony can’t just innovate by having bigger and better numbers anymore. Unfortunately, their track record shows that they disagree with this sentiment. As such, I will not account for the possibility that they realize it here.
Sony also has an overbearing need to look high-brow. The old PS3 bleeds discretion and class, as does the first iteration of the PSP. Their commercials are cringingly postmodern. This behavior naturally deters both experimentation and new customers. I happen to love the distinguished black look of Sony’s products (the commercials are another story entirely), but most people just don’t care about stuff like that and its hurting their business to cater to discerning ponces like me.
Sony’s goal feels the most straightforward of the three: they want a superior graphical experience and they want to match or best Xbox Live’s online services. The PS3 is already a pretty solid home media center, and improving upon its feature set would be an in vivo process anyway, so I won’t go into it here.
If other branches of Sony Corp have any sway at all on the video game division, 3D will be a must for the PS4. Every BRAVIA developed from here on out will be a stereoscopic display, almost guaranteed. PlayStation has always emphasized the single player experience and glasses-bound 3D is nothing if not a one-man endeavor. This is probably Sony’s most alluring angle as cross-product integration with TV’s can give them an additional edge, if handled properly.
Sony won’t release a new machine unless the visuals are game-changing. For purposes of defining game-changing power, a reasonable (and simple) objective would be for games that ran at 30 frames per second in flat 720p on the PS3 to run at 60 frames per second in stereoscopic 1080p on the PS4. Number crunching pegs this as a ninefold increase in performance (twice the frames x 2.25 times the pixels x twice the screen renders = 9). 3d tech shortcuts, advanced shaders, economy of pixel scale, and expanded texture sizes aren’t accounted for by this formula but as an approximation it will do.
Barriers to Success
This kind of graphical might is already alive and well in, you guessed it, the high-end PC market. NVIDIA CEO Jen-Hsun Huang stated during Sony's pre-show press conference at E3 2005 that the RSX GPU that drives the PS3 is twice as powerful as the GeForce 6800 Ultra and it has been compared to a Geforce 7900 GTX. That card is six generations old (8000-9000-G200-G300-G400-G500). In extreme geek terms, we weren’t even using unified shaders back then. Even without upgrading the CPU, the PS4 could make the 9x goal on an optimized version of NVidia’s next card. I imagine NVidia is pushing Sony hard to get to market so they can restore their revenue, which has been dangerously low in the recent past.
Not touching the CPU might even be the right way to go. The Cell processor in the PS3 is so much more powerful than the rest of the machine that it’s wasteful. It has being used in arrays for supercomputing. Efficiently programming the Cell is a huge pain because of its peculiar architecture; it has one main core and 8 "synergistic" cores. As anyone who plays games on PC is aware, multithreading is relatively new technology for games and is far from perfectly implemented. However, with the help of scaling technology being developed by companies like Valve and Id, this power will be more useful in the next generation. It is fast enough to comfortably scale to meet the needs of the next-gen GPU, significantly reducing the necessary jump in GPU performance to get to 9x total performance. Using identical architecture would also go a long way in preventing another backwards compatibility debacle.
Sony could abandon their current community services in favor of superior ones tomorrow. Seriously. Trophy support is still a half-assed affair years after its inclusion. Games and movies are both tied to e-mail accounts that use money rather than points for exchanges and could be shuffled into a new interface without incident. “PlayStation Home”? “Integral to the PS3 experience”? Never in the same sentence. The problem is that any software engineering could just be done on the current console. This element cannot justify new hardware. However, it may still be used to push new hardware and that might be an appropriately obnoxious move in the interest of pimping the next model.
When is the PS4 hitting store shelves?
My guess is late 2012. Why should they wait? If Sony’s first-party games aren’t getting people to buy the PS3 anymore, nothing will. Blu-ray players are dirt cheap now, a bevy of streaming boxes are hedging the PS3 out of that market, and pretty much everyone agrees that the PS3 and 360 are equivalent graphically. It has lost most of its individuality and the faster Sony can step up their game, the better. They have also worked on a 6-year development cycle since the beginning, supporting the previous platform until it dies off completely. The competition would also be caught offguard; Microsoft just blew half a billion dollars promoting Kinect and spent a good deal more developing it. Microsoft's gaming division probably lacks the funding to develop another console right now, making an earlier date even more appealing as Microsoft wouldn't be able to match it. As such, I predict an announcement Q2 2011, and a release Q4 2012 unless Sony is working a much grander project than I suspect.
Will a drive toward 3D and superior online be enough to float a console? I doubt it, but Sony supports peripherals apathetically and if anyone is going to stick with the DualShock form factor into the foresee future, it will be Sony. I would love to be surprised, but I foresee a fairly vanilla improvement in the PS4. To honest, though, I’d be happy just to have a console that actually uses my screen.
As a disclaimer, the PS3 is the only home console from this generation that I personally own. I have so many friends with Wii’s and 360’s in close proximity that all I’ve needed is GameFly and an XBox Live account to see the world of games in its entirety--such are the perks of collegiate life. Still, this partial ownership undoubtedly colors my perspective at least a touch.
I’m sure there are a billion typos and errors in this blog. It went way longer than I expected and the next two will almost certainly be shorter.
I also reserve the right to edit the original article to make it look like I thought of everything the first time.
You have the floor. Yes, you, the one at the computer/phone.