Why Not Showing the PS4 Console Was Actually a Good Thing

I’ve been reading a lot of press about Sony not showing the actual PlayStation 4 box at the system’s own unveiling – and a lot of it seems to be bad or confused press. It’s as if there’s a belief that Sony’s trying to hide the product it’s selling for some sinister reason. As if when people buy a PlayStation 4, that’s what they’re really paying for.

Of course, any gamer should know that that’s patent nonsense. What we’re buying isn’t a box. What we’re buying is the ability to play the games we crave, to tap into a set of services designed to make that game experience even better, and to connect with a playerbase that we feel as though we belong to.

Sony didn’t leave out the box from the announcement because they’ve got something to hide. They left it out because it isn’t important. What’s important are the games.

ps4-game-pricesI lost count of how many times Sony talked about putting the priorities of gamers and game developers first during the PS4 unveiling, but I imagine it must have totaled in the several dozen range. And they brought a ton of games to the table: Knack, Drive Club, inFAMOUS: Second Son, Deep Down, Watch_Dogs, Diablo III, The Witness, Killzone: Shadow Fall, Final Fantasy (due “this year,” none of that Versus XIII infinite delay nonsense), and – to everyone’s surprise – Destiny, plus a really really large list of third-party developers.

That’s a whopping ten confirmed games, almost all with trailers, and it isn’t even E3 yet.

This is hugely different from the announcement of PlayStation 3, where there was an overwhelming focus on tech specs (the impressive ones were marked by way too many exclamation points!!!), fancy hardware architecture graphs, and tech demos. It wasn’t until the 38 minutes in that we saw any actual real-time footage – and it was just an Unreal Engine 3 demo, not an actual game.

Even the bona fide games that were shown looked and felt like tech demos. EA Sports infamously repeated the same footage over and over and over again to demonstrate how it could make a more realistic boxing game, and Square-Enix debuted a Final Fantasy VII HD tech demo that by now everyone should know is not going to turn into a game.

It’s not that the PS4 unveiling didn’t have these moments – Quantic Dream and Square-Enix showed off tech demos, after all – but they certainly didn’t overwhelm the presentation to the same extent.

ps4-specs-listWhen Sony did focus on PS4 specs, the information was light and easy for both gamers and developers to understand – larger memory, larger hard drive, and a CPU and GPU on par with today’s gaming PC – and then they quickly moved right back to the games themselves.

Even when Sony talked about services, the discussion seemed entirely focused on the game experience rather than a broader “entertainment” experience. Social networking: yeah, you can share screenshots, a feature offered by Nintendo’s Miiverse, but you can also stream live footage or short gameplay clips from your games. PlayStation Network: you can instantly hop into your friends’ games, instantly see when your friend has picked up a new game, instantly do pretty much everything. PlayStation Cloud: Sony’s so confident in their platform’s future that they’re making “try before you buy” an integral part of the proposition. Oh, and they’re aiming to achieve backward compatibility with as many games from all three previous PlayStation platforms as possible via the cloud. Snazzy.

All of this seems to point to games being the focus of PlayStation 4, not other features as was the case for PlayStation 3 in its early years. Will the emphasis on games be as pronounced in the actual life of the system as it was for the original PlayStation and PlayStation 2? That remains to be seen. But what I do see from Sony is an effort not to repeat the mistakes that were made with the PS3 launch – and that’s a very good thing.

zelda-hd-tech-demoHow does this stack up to other next-generation consoles? While we haven’t seen the next Xbox yet, we have seen Nintendo’s Wii U. During its reveal, the spotlight was on the new controller – but as we saw with the GamePad’s debut video, it was clear that Nintendo was aiming to have Wii U work together with the existing framework for both Wii and HD games, as well as touch screen play. We saw New Super Mario Bros. as the subject of a demonstration for Off-TV Play, Wii Sports as an example of how two-screens can interact together, and The Legend of Zelda showed off the system’s visual capabilities.

A number of demos appeared as well, to show off the new controller’s diversity, but though many of them wound up as real games – either as Nintendo Land attractions or in the form of New Super Mario Bros. U – in the end, we only saw a handful of actually confirmed games, and none of these announcements came from Nintendo. All that focus on making a system that adds value to the game experience, and no groundbreaking upcoming titles to showcase that value.

That’s why we’re noticing today that Wii U is struggling. The most-anticipated pieces of the software lineup – Zelda, Smash Bros., and so on – still haven’t been shown, and the system was revealed almost two years ago! There’s still a lot of lingering confusion among the public about whether it’s just a controller or a full game platform, and who can blame them? The system hasn’t established a distinct identity built around software, so naturally all people are going to see is the controller.

PS4 so far doesn’t appear as though it’s going to have this problem. Its first E3 isn’t even here yet, and there’s already a clear pipeline of games – many of them launch titles, including Watch_Dogs, Killzone: Shadow Fall, and whatever Final Fantasy is in the works (Versus XIII, finally?).

And I’m sure at least a dozen more will be announced at E3. That’s an exciting thing to expect from a just-announced platform.

It’s good that we haven’t seen the “box” for the PS4. That means the system’s identity is, at least at present, entirely built around its games – right where it belongs.