Sony Corp. is betting the future of video game consoles has less to do with games and more to do with the gamers themselves.
The electronics giant unveiled the latest edition of its PlayStation console on Wednesday, marking the first major upgrade of the hardware since the PlayStation 3 was released in 2006. But beyond the greatly improved circuitry and processing power, the PlayStation 4 appears designed primarily to help Sony catch up in areas of the consumer market where it has fallen behind in recent years – social networking and mobile gaming.
The success or failure of the PS4 will have a significant impact on the entire company. Not only is the PlayStation brand vital to Sony's attempt to dominate all living room entertainment, but the company's ability to perfect social and mobile features will also determine whether its tablets and smartphones resonate with consumers. In addition, Sony is looking to reverse the tide in the console market, which has seen declining sales across almost all brands.
"The stakes are high for what we're about to show you," said Andrew House, president and group chief executive officer of Sony Computer Entertainment. In building the PS4, he added, "ease of access regardless of location or device has been an absolute priority."
Evidence of Sony's attempt to cash in on the mobile and social markets is clear throughout the PS4's design. The console's controller has a built-in "Share" button, which lets gamers quickly record and broadcast footage from their games. Users can also jump in and play other users' games remotely.
The PS4 is also closely tied to the PS Vita, Sony's newest (but so far commercially disappointing) mobile game console, allowing users to quickly switch from playing on a TV screen in their living rooms to playing on a mobile screen.
Video game console-makers are starting to suffer from a version of the challenges facing traditional desktop computer makers. Over the past half-decade, many gamers have opted to take their hobbies mobile, playing video games on smartphones and tablets. Some of gaming's greatest hits during that time period, including such titles as Fruit Ninja and Angry Birds, were designed primarily for mobile touchscreens.
That shift among consumers has hit Nintendo Co. Ltd. particularly hard, since the company has tailored much of its hardware and software to casual gamers, who are also the most likely to prefer playing games on tablets or smartphones instead. Nintendo is also the most gaming-specific of the three major players – Microsoft Corp. and Sony both design consoles that are more accurately described as media hubs, combining online movie rentals, games stores, high-definition entertainment and other multimedia offerings, whereas Nintendo tends to focus primarily on game play.
Over the years, video game consoles have come to reflect the wider electronics landscape, incorporating more and more of whatever products and services are popular at the time. The original Nintendo Entertainment Systems and Sony's first PlayStation were almost exclusively gaming machines. But subsequent versions (as well as Microsoft's Xbox consoles) started to include the ability to play high-definition movies, watch TV, and interact with friends through social media. Most recently, the consoles have also started copying features from the mobile industry. Nintendo's latest console, the Wii U, uses a kind of tablet as a controller, combining game play on the larger TV screen and the smaller controller screen. Console developers have also focused heavily on cloud-like services, letting gamers save games and access content online.
So far, none of these features have done much to slow the steady decline in console sales. Microsoft's Xbox 360 continues to lead overall sales, but like the PlayStation 3, it is now more than six years old (Microsoft has released upgraded versions of the Xbox 360 in recent years). The only new major console, Nintendo's Wii U, has sold well below expectations since its release in November of last year.
"Definitely the trend in gaming devices nowadays is toward smaller, more mobile devices," said Nick Graham, a video game design expert and professor at the Queen's University School of Computing. He added that the kind of high-end games that inevitably become marquee titles on traditional consoles are often too complex and expensive for casual gamers.
"Fewer and fewer people are interested in or even capable of playing high-end console games," he said. "You're also facing a couple of bucks on iPhone versus $60 for a game on a console."