The long wait for the PlayStation 4

Earlier today, I said on Twitter that I was surprised at the number of complaints from tech pundits that Sony didn’t announce a price or more exact specs for the PlayStation 4 at its announcement event, and I pointed out that there would be a good eight months or so before it actually launches, so this stuff didn't need to be announced yet.

Gary Marshall tweeted back to say: “That’s the problem right there. Ridiculous gap between launches and shipping.”

We’re all used to Apple announcing something and sticking it in the shops just a few days later, with many other companies doing the same thing these days (BlackBerry Z10 was in stores pretty much the same day it was revealed). But for consoles, I don’t think a long lead time is unreasonable, because each one isn’t just a new gadget; it’s a new development platform.

New platforms don’t tend to launch so quickly, because developers simply need time. Windows releases go out to developers long before they're released properly. The iPhone SDK was announced in March 2008, but didn’t launch until July that year. Any new hardware is built on the same base as is was then, so developers need to put in minimal support, but that won’t be case for the PS4 – it’s an entirely new architecture compared to the PS3 (or the Xbox 360). Some developers have already had time with the dev kits, we know, but consoles are malleable in these early stages, with the amount of RAM and the hardware clocks speeds all likely candidates for tweaking. These again slow development down.

A console isn’t like a phone or a tablet or a laptop. It isn’t part of an environment where the sands are constantly shifting – new phone releases overlap each other constantly, driving a release cycle that’s reliable but takes relatively small steps. Announcing a tablet eight months early just guarantees that another manufacturer will catch up or overtake you by the time you get to release. Consoles don’t have that disadvantage (Sony knows Microsoft can’t leapfrog it without without a commensurate rise in costs), meaning that announcing eight months early is a chance to work on building your hype and excitement.

Crucially, a console is not a multi-purpose device. Pretty much its sole selling point is its games roster, and the release needs to be crafted around building up to that. Announcing now has given Sony three big opportunities to show more games between now and launch: GDC in March, E3 in June and TGS in September. It’s enough time for smaller studios, who may not have had early dev kits, to make progress on a game for the launch window.

It’s easy to think of the show on Wednesday as an Apple-style launch event, but I think it’s more like the first salvo in a marketing campaign. Yesterday, we saw the concept. At E3, I think we’ll see the hardware. At TGS, we’ll probably get a final price and date. I also think Sony wants to push new online services on the PS4 more than it ever has before, which is an education process, and again needs time.

There was also a lot packed into the conference, even if it was mostly a bit dull. Lots of developers, lots of spec talk (despite some claims to the contrary) and lots of concepts. But think about what’s yet to come: Naughty Dog, for example, were totally absent – I think we’ll see a next-gen Uncharted reveal after Last of Us ships. Insomniac games might’ve gone multi-platform, but I bet we’re due a next-gen announcement from them. What about Rockstar and GTA V? I’d put money on a beefed-up port. Announcing the console this early gives time to space these announcements out, and maybe even produce playable demos closer to release, to take the excitement to the next level.

In the tech world, eight months is a long time. But without a throng of constantly updating competitors breathing down its neck, and with the confidence that its platform is solid, I think Sony has the freedom to use this time effectively.

Lastly, there's the issue of price. Nintendo has already had issues with a strong Yen causing pricing problems for the Wii U and 3DS, with the exchange rate cutting into the amount of profit it makes from overseas. With the world economy the way it is, I think Sony would be mad to announce global prices this week that it hopes will still hold up at the end of the year.

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Leaving that aside, here are some random thoughts on the event:

I’m pretty positive about the specs, including the fact that they’re so close to PC specs, which has earned scorn in some quarters. Development costs are so high, now, that if won’t make thing easier for developers, publishers will look even more to boring, homogenised franchises instead of exciting new ideas.

I think Sony made a mistake not showing off the hardware. It’s missed out on the chance for hundreds of thousands of news stories to use a picture of it to illustrate their stories. There’s no icon, no object of desire for people to focus on. The design could have been instilled as the vanguard of the next generation, but no.

It feels like Sony is going to push the idea of the PS4 as a gaming ‘hub’, with streaming mobile gaming spreading out from it. I think this can be a strong value proposition, but is going to be total arse on most home networks. The Wii U controller uses Wi-Fi to stream video, but its own private, direct, wireless-N connection. Without that kind of commitment to the cause, remote play may relegated to just another feature instead of a key selling point.

The 8GB of GDDR5 RAM is great. Massive bandwidth, loads of space. I don’t know how much might be used some of the video or background features, but we should be looking at beautiful, near-photorealistic textures.