Why a Playstation 4 would be suicide for Sony

Having coffee with Ben yesterday, we reckoned the rumours about  the PS4 sound pretty awful.

Firstly, that it will squash the market for second-hand games.  All games will be registered to a given user, whether they were downloaded or bought on disc. This is what happens with Steam on the PC. So trade-ins are useless – the the second owner of a disc saves themselves a big download, but they’ll still have to pay Sony again to play. The only reason customers are willing to spend £40 for an entertainment product is because they know they can reclaim some of that value through a trade-in. Before the UK’s game retail chains started going bust, that trade-in value is usually in the order of £28-32. So that gives you an idea of what most people are really willing to pay for a brand new game. Take that capability away, and Sony will see sales crash until they bring their prices down. It pulls a profitable rug from under HMV, and the last remaining high street stores for their games. It’s anti-consumer pricing model, and in 2013, it won’t fool anyone. Steam shows that at the right price, customer-locked games can work, but that price is a lot less than £40.

Secondly that it won’t be backwards compatible with PS3 titles. It’s a magnificent achievement that my first-generation PS3 can play all Sony-branded games dating back to 1995 – my PC can’t do that. Not everyone cares in the long run, but it affects when a consumer chooses to “jump ship” and partition their back catalogue. It’s not just the big investment in a new console with few games that makes people hold off. It’s the extra living room space, doubled-up controllers, even missing TV inputs, that makes even a rich customer hold off.  And Sony wanted the PS3 to be their customers’ main entertainment device. So they are not just asking people to upgrade their games machine, but for a lot of families, their DVD player, Netflix, iPlayer, photo viewer and so on. Wherever that “living room hub” strategy succeeded, Sony have dug themselves a bigger hole when it comes to upgrades.

Thirdly (the reason for the lack of backwards-compatibility, I imagine) – developers will have to re-tool for a more PC-like architecture. Those developers who are committed to a next generation might sigh with relief at a more conventional computer than the PS3 & PS2 ever were. But they also must partition their efforts and (at this stage) be funded handsomely by Sony for doing so – all of this adds to the cost that the consumer will be hit with when the thing launches.

It doesn’t help Sony to have unconfirmed rumours flying around their next console and they probably didn’t want this to be the first news about the Playstation 4; but still, what could possibly be in it for the customer?

The “living room hub” stuff was sewn up in 2011 – both major games consoles now feature all the online TV and films you could ever want, and a raft of smaller, quieter DVD players provide all of that for well under £100. Nobody except gamers need a Playstation or XBox.

Nicer graphics? There’s a graphics whore in any games buyer, but playing Call of Duty 3 on a 42″ LCD in Ben’s normal-sized living room, it’s hard to see a single pixel that hasn’t been buffed to perfection. We’ve hit the point of diminishing returns- better graphics needs a larger screen, and a larger room.  3D has been a joke that the entertainment industry foists on the film & game-buying public once a generation for the last 50 years. In the long run, nobody pays extra for stupid glasses and a headache.

Exclusive titles? Sony can’t afford more than a handful – one way or another they will have paid Naughty Dog for the loss of income they could have made making Uncharted for the 360, and that kind of loyalty won’t come cheap.

Using the PS Vita as a controller? Making it more expensive still? Look Sony, we understand copying Nintendo’s waggle-sticks 4 years too late, but if Nintendo told you to jump off a cliff, would you do it? Don’t. Please.

Technically,  this can be no more than a Playstation 3+. There is no secret sauce or innovation that hasn’t already happened on the PC. A few more pixels, a bit more speed, a bit more RAM, and (unless they are completely barking mad) those standard components had better come a lot cheaper to the consumer than the PS3′s £400 launch price – can they make a locked down PC for £150 at launch? That seems like a minimum.

But why go to the huge risk of marking it as the end of the line for the PS3? Why not put out a “Playstation 3+” – quadruple the RAM, slim down what can be slimmed down, and have games titles support an “enhanced mode” for owners of the new consoles? God knows that some developers can’t make their games work on the PS3 and no wonder with only 256MB RAM. Give developers a “plus” platform where they can make the same games with less effort, less cost. Customers can maintain their catalogues and upgrade their consoles when they’re ready. Sony can stop trying to think of big-bet “revolutionary” features, and concentrate on selling more hardware, and more games.

The reason Sony ought to be scared, paring back its plans? Apple’s £100 AppleTV  will   surely become a gaming platform before the PS4 launches, and legions of developers will jump on it with their titles costing pennies. They have investment in chip fabrication, graphics technology and whatever tiny technical advantage Sony might still have over a cost-conscious AppleTV will be obliterated by a tidal wave of cheap, accessible, fun video games. My friends at Revolution make more money per unit from selling their back catalogue to iPad owners for £4 than they ever did selling to Playstation 2 owners for £40, and I know they’re not the only ones. Sony will have to pay and pay and pay to get those triple-A titles, as many developers find they can go it alone, without publishing contracts.

I hadn’t even thought about the long load times, the clunky patches, the huge OS updates, and  the 10 splash screens that stand between a PS3 owner with a disc in his hand, and the experience of playing the game. Unless you pay them £40 a year, they won’t let your PS3 update its operating system automatically. They issued six huge mandatory updates in the last 12 months. Each one stopped my PS3 from logging into the network until I’d downloaded and applied it, costing 30 minutes each time, and stopping me from playing a game I wanted to play.

Sony should be sinking their money into fixing their rotten buying and playing experience, and enhance what they’ve got. They were still losing money on the PS3 two years ago, after the console had been out five years! Why would they not want to extend it just as it is making a profit? There just is’t enough value left in any wholly new video game console, for Sony or anyone else to ask consumers to chuck out their investment again. I’m certain it’ll kill Sony if they try.

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