Sony’s Worldwide Studios boss Shuhei Yoshida was only stating the obvious when he told the audience at EGX that the “climate is not healthy” for a successor to the company’s struggling handheld console, the PlayStation Vita, but sometimes even the obvious makes for an interesting statement, depending upon who’s stating it.
The likelihood of another handheld console from Sony turning up in the foreseeable future is considered to be incredibly low by almost everyone, and it’s notable that there’s never been so much as a whisper about what such a successor might look like or comprise; it’s so vanishingly unlikely to come to pass, why even bother speculating on what might be? Yet for commentators and analysts to dismiss the notion of Sony carrying on in handheld is one thing; for such a senior figure at the company to seemingly join in that dismissal is another. The final step of the long and strange handheld journey which Sony started with the announcement of the PSP’s development all the way back in 2003 won’t come until the Vita reaches its official end-of-life, but Yoshida’s statement is the moment when we learned for certain that the company itself reckons the handheld market is past saving.
It’s not that there’s any lack of affection for the Vita within Sony, including Yoshida himself, whose Twitter feed confirms that he is an avid player of the system. Even as weak sales have essentially rendered AAA development for the Vita financially unsustainable, the firm has done a great job of turning it into one of the platforms of choice for break-out indie hits, and much of the success of the PS4 as a platform for indie games can be traced back to the sterling work Sony’s team did on building relationships and services for indies on the Vita. For that alone, it’s a shame that the console will apparently be the last of its line; there are some games that simply work better on handhelds than on home consoles, and some developers who are more comfortable working within the limitations of handheld systems.
Yoshida is right, though; mobile phones are the handheld killer. They may not be as good at controlling the kind of games that the PSP and Vita excelled at, but mobile devices are more powerful, more frequently updated, carried everywhere and heavily subsidised by networks for most users. Buttons and sticks make for wonderful game controllers, as Yoshida noted, but when the competition has a great multi-touch screen and accelerometer, a processor faster than most laptops only a few years ago, and is replaced every couple of years with a better model, the best set of buttons and sticks on earth just can’t compete for most consumers. Even if Sony could release a Vita 2 tomorrow which leapfrogged the iPhone 6S, within a year Apple, Samsung and others would be back out in front.
That’s not to say that this battle can’t be won. Nintendo has still managed to shift a dramatic number of 3DS consoles despite the advent of the smartphone era – though in typically Nintendo style, it chose not to play the competition at their own game, favouring a continuation of the DS’ odd form-factor, a 3D screen and a low-cost, low-power chipset over an arms race with smartphones (and, indeed, with the Vita). Crucially, Nintendo also pumped out high quality software on the 3DS at a breathtaking pace, at one point coming close to having a must-buy title on the system every month. Nintendo’s advantage, as ever, is its software – and at least in part, its longevity in the handheld market is down to the family-friendly nature of that software, which has made the 3DS popular with kids, who usually (at least in Japan, the 3DS’ best performing market) do not carry smartphones and generally can’t engage with F2P-style transactions even if they do. Vita, by comparison, aimed itself at a more adult market which has now become saturated with phones and tablets.
So; is that the end of Sony’s handheld adventure? Trounced by Nintendo twice over, first with the DS’ incredibly surprising (if utterly obvious in hindsight) dominance over the PSP, then with the 3DS’ success over the Vita, Sony nonetheless carved out an impressive little market for the PSP, at least. Vita has failed to replicate that success, despite being an excellent piece of hardware, and 12 years after news of the PSP first reached gamers’ eager ears, it looks like that failure and the shifting sands of the market mean Sony’s ready to bail out of handhelds. With the stunning success of PS4 and the upcoming PlayStation VR launch keeping the company busy, there’s seemingly neither time, nor inclination, nor resources to try to drive a comeback for the Vita – and any such effort would be swimming against the tide anyway.
I would not go so far as to say that Sony is dropping out of handheld and portable gaming entirely, though. I think it’s interesting, in the context of Yoshida’s comments, to note what the company did at TGS last month – where a large stand directly facing the main PlayStation booth was entirely devoted to the Sony Xperia range of phones and tablets, and more specifically to demonstrating their prowess when it comes to interacting with a PS4. The devices can be hooked up to a PS4 controller and used for remote play on the console; it’s an excellent play experience, actually significantly better in some games than using the Vita (whose controls do not perfectly map to the controller). I use my Vita to do simple tasks in Final Fantasy XIV on my PS4 while the TV is in use, but it wouldn’t be up to the task of more complex battles or dungeons; I’d happily do those on an Xperia device with a proper controller, though.
Remember when the Vita launched and much of the buzz Sony tried to create was about how it was going to interact with the PS4? That functionality, a key selling point of the Vita, is now on Xperia, and it’s even better than it was on the devoted handheld. Sony’s phones also play Android games well and will undoubtedly be well-optimized for PlayStation Now, which means that full-strength console games will be playable on them. In short, though the Vita may be the last dedicated handheld to carry the Sony brand, the company has come a long way towards putting the core functions of Vita into its other devices. It’s not abandoning handheld gaming; it’s just trying to evolve its approach to match what handheld gaming has become.
It’s not a perfect solution. Not everyone has or wants an Xperia device – Japan is the best performing market for Sony phones and even here, Apple is absolutely dominant, with iPhones holding more than half of the market share for smartphones. If Sony is being clever, though, it will recognize that the success of the PS4 is a great basis from which to build smartphone success; if the Xperia devices can massively improve the user experience of the PS4, many owners of those devices may well consider a switch, if not to a new phone then at least to one of the Xperia tablets. It might also be worth the company’s time to think a little about the controllers people will hook up to the Xperia to play games; I love the PS4 controller, but it’s bulky to carry in a bag, let alone a pocket. If the firm is serious about its phones and tablets filling the handheld gap, a more svelte controller designed specifically for Xperia (but still recognizably and functionally a PS4 pad) would be an interesting and worthwhile addition to the line-up.
Nonetheless, what’s happening with Xperia – in terms of remote play, PS Now, and so on – is an interesting look at how consoles and smartphones might co-exist in the near future. The broad assumption that smart devices will kill off consoles doesn’t show any sign of coming true; PS4 and Xbox One are doing far, far better than PS3 and Xbox 360 did, and while the AAA market is struggling a little with its margins, the rapid rise of very high quality indie titles to fill the gap left by the decline of mid-range games in the previous generation means the software market is healthier than it’s been for years. If consoles aren’t going away, then we need to be thinking about how they’ll interact with smart devices – and if that’s what Sony’s doing with Xperia and PlayStation, it’s a strategy that could pay off handsomely down the line.
Sony is denying that its PlayStation Vita is dead in the water, despite ignoring it during its E3 2015 presentation.
Slim PlayStation Vita went on sale in February and was greeted by a loud sounding yawn by the hand-held game community. Since then we have heard very little about it, and like most of the world, including Sony, did not really care.
PlayStation Europe boss Jim Ryan insisted to Gamespot that the system is still selling well and has “hundreds” of games in development.
“We’re still selling respectable quantities. We have a hundred games in development, and you might say, ‘Well yeah but they’re all indie games’, but many of these games review very highly. Also the PS4′s Remote Play feature is something that is valued a lot.”
Ryan also insists that the handheld market still exists, despite being gutted by tablets and smartphones.
He admitted that it was not as big as it used to be, but hell what these days is.
” A much smaller market than when the DS and PSP were in their glory days. But that market still does exist,” he added.
Despite his enthusiasm we don’t hold out much hope.
Word we are hearing is that Sony is planning to discontinue the PSP (or PlayStation Portable) and will end shipments later this year. If this ends up coming to pass, the handheld console which was a first for Sony, was launched way back in 2003 at E3, but it took some time for Sony’s first portable console to be available worldwide.
The PSP has gone through several revisions including the removal of the Universal Media Disc (UMD) and the release of a revised version known as the PSP Go which was a download only version that was a total failure and quickly killed off in 2011. A very popular revision of the console known as the slim and lite version known as the PSP-2000 sold quite well and it was followed by the PSP-3000 version which was tweaked and available in several special edition versions.
Since PSP games can be played on the PS Vita that came from the PlayStation Store, that also had to factor into the company’s decision as well. Word is that the decision to end the sales of the PSP does not and will not have any effect on the PlayStation Vita which will continue on as Sony’s portable gaming platform. Due to the included streaming gaming support that is included with the PlayStation 4 using the PS Vita, it is unlikely that Sony will be planning to discontinue the PS Vita anytime soon, but a lower cost hardware revision is likely in the cards at some point in the near future, sources tell us.
Total sales of the PSP in all of the console revisions is over 80 million consoles worldwide according to a number of sources.
Several Sony stores in the US have discounted the 3G PlayStation Vita by $100, with some branches asserting that it’s because the 3G machine is due to be discontinued.
A news story at Joystiq discovered the price cut, which extends to many but not all of the Sony stores in the US. Wi-Fi only models have not been discounted.
Sony employees from Denver, Las Vegas and New Jersey told Joystiq that the model is being taken off the market, but others were uncertain. Nobody was able to say whether the model would be replaced by a 4G machine or if we’d only see Wi-Fi only Vitas in the future.
The 3G package, which includes an 8GB memory card and a PSN voucher now costs $199.97 and comes with a data plan contract – which would seem to run contrary to any discontinuation rumours. However, if a 4G Vita is in the works, continuing data plan deals with networks would make more sense.
Sony has been contacted for clarification on the story and whether any price cut will become global.
The fact that Sony didn’t show the actual PlayStation 4 hardware at the press conference yesterday has met with more than a little wonder. The company did show off the new DualShock 4 controller, but didn’t show even a mock-up of the final PS4 console, and this has made many question Sony’s decision to announce the PS4 at all.
Sony will apparently debut the actual PS4 hardware in June at E3, according to a number of sites on the Internet. This seems to be logical, because if Sony doesn’t have it finished by then they have little hope in producing enough to make the launch for this holiday season.
The delay of the actual hardware showing as well as lack of pricing details has presented an interesting dilemma for retailers that are anxious to start taking pre-orders. GameStop, for example, has announced that PowerUp Rewards members can join what they are calling the “PS4 First to Know List,” which will give members the latest information on the PS4 and PS4 related titles as well as the all-important pre-order details when they become available. While getting on the list does not guarantee you a PS4, it does at least make sure that you should be in the loop when the retailer expects to start taking pre-orders for the PS4.
Sony will be ending the free online lunch with the launch of the PlayStation 4. As we have been suspecting for a long time, Sony will be moving to a subscription model just like Microsoft with Xbox Live Gold.
According to our sources, just like Microsoft’s Xbox Live, PlayStation 4 users will be locked out of the majority of the good stuff without a subscription. The subscription service is expected to be called PlayStation World, according to our sources. Like Xbox Live, it is suspected that updates to both the console and PS4 games will be free.
What is not clear about Sony’s new strategy is if similar to Microsoft, it will restrict access to third party services like Netflix behind this subscription model; or whether Sony will stick to just the online features that are directly related to the console, such as online play and perhaps the compatibility streaming that has been talked about.
All eyes will be on Sony next week, as the company intends to show the world the future of the PlayStation business during a New York press event. While we get a glimpse of the upcoming PS4 hardware, it’ll be interesting to see what Sony does to keep consumers invested in its current PS3. It’s likely that a price drop will be announced either at the February 20th event or shortly thereafter.
In fact, analyst Michael Pachter believes we should expect a PS3 price cut in the near future, he tersely responded, “February 21st.” In a second email, he told us that it should come down to $199 and that Microsoft will probably match that price on Xbox 360 by this year’s E3.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that PS3 will see a price cut next week, but it’s certainly a safe bet that Sony will cut the MSRP before the PS4 hits the market. Sony’s strategy thus far has been to bundle in more games and bigger hard drives, and the company briefly sold PS3 bundles for the low price of $199 during last year’s Black Friday period. Most bundles now are selling for $299 (there’s a $269 Uncharted 3 bundle) but it wouldn’t surprise us to see a $50 cut and new bundles soon, especially with God of War: Ascension coming in March and The Last of Us in June.
Sources are reporting that Sony is planning to announce Killzone 4 as part of its reveal of the PlayStation 4 console. Developers at Guerrilla Games have been lucky enough to see the latest in its shooter series to be announced alongside of the latest Sony hardware reveal.
According to those who can’t seem to keep quiet… Killzone 4 is said to be the first title for the PlayStation 4 to show off an excellent example of what the new console is able to do. The game itself is said to be stunning and looks much better than what we have seen in previous generations of the game.
As for a release, apparently Killzone 4 will be announced and it will arrive for the PlayStation 4 yet in 2013; but it will be late this year before you will be able to own it.
A new report by GameTrack shows that America is still the Western world’s gaming superpower. We US gamers still outnumber our UK counterparts, they play across more devices and mediums, and they also show the largest appetite for online gaming.
Thanks to the study, run by Ipsos nMediaCT, we know that almost half of the American gaming audience (48 per cent) play online games, compared 42 per cent who played packaged games. And while it’s still easy to think of big MMOs like World Of Warcraft when online gaming is mentioned, 27 per cent of that online gaming in the US is through browsers. 31 per cent also played games through apps on their phones and tablets, a figure that seems surprisingly low considering most people have a mobile phone capable of hosting those apps.
By comparison the UK gamers are still traditionalists, with packaged games still the biggest part of the audiences’ gaming diet, followed by online and apps. In the online category play is distributed evenly over downloads, social, multiplayer and browser.
This order of importance for packaged, online and app games is mirrored by France, Germany and Spain. In monetary terms, packaged is still the most important player, although the report notes this share is falling in both the UK and Spain.
What is also interesting is how many gamers in each country play all three, packaged, online and apps. Again, Americans are the most button happy, with 17 per cent. The numbers are significantly smaller elsewhere, with a paltry 5 per cent in the UK, 3 per cent in France and Spain and 2 per cent in Germany. It’s a stark reminder that outside the hardcore market gaming everywhere and anywhere isn’t too much of a concern to your average person. Although this may be a generational difference, according to results gathered from the younger participants.
“Amongst kids, gaming across categories is more common than it is amongst adults, pointing to a future gamer comfortable playing across different platforms. Kids’ convergence is strongest in the UK, where 36 per cent of kids play all categories,” says GameTrack.
“This is some way ahead of Germany, where for example, only 9 per cent of kids play all three categories. The US doesn’t have quite as much difference between adults (17 per cent) and kids (22 per cent) playing all three gaming types.”
When it came to devices, it’s a draw for computers and consoles as to which machine is the most popular device for gaming in the UK. Smartphones, handhelds and tablets followed. In the US, perhaps reflecting, or even causing, their love for online and browser titles, computers come first, followed by consoles. In fact PCs came top across all the listed countries.
As well as what they were playing and how, the report focused on how many people were playing. The UK comes in third on that score, with 35 per cent, equivalent to 20 million people, stating that they had played a game in the last twelve months. In second place was France at 49 per cent (29 million people) and the US boasting 165 million with 68 per cent.
The study surveyed over 6000 people per country, using a mix of interviews and online surveys, and included both adults up to the age of 64 and children aged six and over. This added up to around 24,000 interviews per quarter across Europe alone.
Sony is proudly announcing another Playstation 3 milestone. The outfit has managed to sell 70 million units over the past six years. Interestingly, Sony also claims that it sold upwards of 15 million PlayStation Move controllers to date.
Sony unveiled the PS3 six years ago and back in 2006 it was way ahead of its time, with 1080p support and Blu-ray to boot. In fact, it does not sound too outdated even by today’s standards.
However, the good old PS3 is ageing and Nintendo’s Wii U should give it a run for its money. However, it is still unclear when Sony plans to introduce the fourth-generation PS3. The economic crisis forced Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo to revise their upgrade plans, so the PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii ended up in service a lot longer than initially expected.
However, even when we get to see the next-gen Playstation, the Playstation 3 will probably remain on store shelves for years to come.
US games sales, according to The NPD Group’s retail data, were down 25 percent in October – not exactly the strong start you’d like to see for the hugely important fourth quarter, when the industry typically generates a bulk of its annual revenues. Sales were even down sequentially from September by about $100 million. It prompted Macquarie Securities’ Ben Schachter to question the importance of this year’s holiday shopping season. “At this point, beyond a limited number of major releases, the holiday game season does not look like a major catalyst for the industry in aggregate,” he said.
Does this mean that buying patterns are changing and that the holiday season is no longer that important? Has digital, which represents roughly half of revenues, lessened Q4′s relevance? Or does the industry simply need a wave of new consoles to spur sales?
Interestingly, Nintendo’s part in all of this is actually quite critical. A lot is weighing on the launch of the Wii U a week from now.
“I suspect that this holiday season will see relatively weak overall spending totals in the US. The reality is that sales of Xbox 360 and PS3 physical products this holiday season will probably be off 10 percent to 20 percent compared to last year, a noticeable but manageable decline,” commented IDC Research manager Lewis Ward. “Nintendo is the wild card that will determine whether the holiday season is viewed in retrospect as one of ‘treading water’ or one of sharp decline.”
“Most of the drop off in aggregate retail sales in the US in 2012 was the result of weak Wii hardware and disc sales – the HD platforms held up okay. If the Wii U storms out of the gate it will lift the video game industry back into ‘treading water’ mode – and allow Nintendo to breathe a giant sigh of relief. If Wii U doesn’t preform well, total industry sales could be down 20 percent even once digital console game sales are taken into account. The holiday season will always be critical for gaming. In the past decade I don’t think there’s been a single year where at least 40 percent of all dollars spent on consoles hasn’t been in the fourth calendar quarter and 2012 shouldn’t be any different.”
“Since 2006, only one October (’08) has outsold September (the month prior). In ’09, the delta was also about $100MM. In ’07, September was about $150MM higher than October. Lately, we’ve had Madden hit September which contributes to the last couple of years,” she explained.
“I think the root of what we’re seeing with retail game sales lies with the age of the console lifecycle as well as the more limited (notably more limited) amount of new content being introduced to the retail market, which is having an impact on not only launch month sales, but on catalog sales down the line too since this has been happening for a number of months.”
Indeed, the length of this console cycle is certainly playing into the sales problem.
“We are late in a console cycle and 71 percent of new console purchases are done by consumers who are either replacing a broken console or are purchase a competing console–turning them into multi-console homes. In either case, these consumers are already part of the ecosystem, so their contribution is minimal. Those that are buying their first console, so late in the cycle, are generally extremely price sensitive and contribute little to software and digital sales,” EEDAR’s Jesse Divnich told us.
“The best way to describe this holiday season is ‘status quo’. The holiday season is incredibly crucial to interactive entertainment, and its importance is just as much now as it has ever been,” he stressed. ”Who it is important for, however, is relative and depends on where we are at in the cycle. Early in a cycle, the holiday season is crucial for new IPs and new hardware, but as we progress and get deeper into the cycle, the importance shifts to established brands. Just because we are viewing the 2012 holiday season as ‘boring’, it is far from being considered unimportant.”
RW Baird analyst Colin Sebastian agrees. “I think the traditional video game industry is showing the same trend as it has the past two years,” he said. ”There are only a limited number of high quality, recognizable franchises that sell well, and everything else is basically underperforming. This is not a new trend. The reasons for this are multiple, but the console business won’t really get a shot in the arm until new hardware is released next fall.”
Of course, it’s also important to recognize the big impact of a much-weakened economy. Billy Pidgeon, senior analyst at Inside Network, remarked, “The significant declines in revenue from packaged software are due to a combination of factors, including a sluggish economy. The current console cycle is far longer than previous cycles, so hardware is fairly saturated. This is slowing sales of new packaged console software, while gamer spending is shifting to pre-owned console software and to digitally distributed console game add-ons and PC games.”
“I do expect increasing revenue from November into the new year with releases of strong titles like Halo 4 and Call of Duty: Black Ops II. Also, the Wii U launch will bring in stronger hardware and software revenue.”
So what do the months ahead actually look like? Wedbush Securities’ Michael Pachter believes “there is finally light at the end of this almost four-year tunnel of declining video game sales.” He continued, “We believe that good games will continue to sell well, and November is off to a solid start with successful launches of Assassin’s Creed III and Halo 4.”
That said, he doesn’t believe Wii U software sales can offset expected sharp declines in year-over-year Wii software sales. Ultimately, November, December and January software sales should “moderate at close to flat, with slightly negative sales likely,” he said. The big jump should come in February. “We expect results to rebound into sharply positive territory in February, when Take-Two releases BioShock Infinite, and we don’t think that results will revert to double-digit negative sales growth again in 2013,” Pachter noted. It’s still going to be a bumpy ride, however, until 2014.
“We think that the industry is positioned for a rebound in 2014. Until then, there will be occasional huge months (from the release of games like Grand Theft Auto V, for example), and occasional modest months,” he said.
Sony has decided to curtail its involvement with the Folding@home project with the next PS3 firmware update, 4.30.
The decision was arrived at after discussions with the project’s originator, Stanford University. Over 100 million hours of PS3 computer time have been contributed to the study since participation began in 2007 but the project’s leaders say that the machine has contributed in other ways, too.
“The PS3 system was a game changer for Folding@home, as it opened the door for new methods and new processors, eventually also leading to the use of GPUs,” said research lead Vijay Pande in a post on the EU PlayStation blog.
“We have had numerous successes in recent years. Specifically, in a paper just published in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry, we report on tests of predictions from earlier Folding@home simulations, and how these predictions have led to a new strategy to fight Alzheimer’s disease.
“The next steps, now underway at Stanford, are to take this lead compound and help push it towards a viable drug. It’s too early to report on our preliminary results there, but I’m very excited that the directions set out in this paper do appear to be bearing fruit in terms of a viable drug.”
Folding@home was designed to contribute to the highly computer intensive study of protein folding in the human body, problems with which can lead to conditions such as Alzheimers, Parkinson’s and cancer. By distributing small chunks of analysis work to CPUs and GPUs around the world, the project was able to process the vast swathes of data much more quickly.
The story of each and every console generation is one of evolution – increasingly more complex, visually exciting games coming to market year-on-year. The benefit of fixed hardware architecture is that game-makers get to know the machines they are working with and are able to squeeze out more performance with each successive project. The current seventh generation of consoles has been longer than most – and the technological advances we’ve seen over the last seven years have been truly remarkable.
A quick tour of the major titles on site at the Eurogamer Expo last week was testament to this: in terms of the technological nuts and bolts at least, it was virtually impossible to find any kind of “bad game” on the show floor whatsoever.
Flashback to late 2004/2005 and the twilight of the PS2/Xbox heyday and there was never the kind of consistency in technical excellence as that seen in today’s AAA market. Of course, the games, the budgets – and the industry itself – are bigger than they were back then, and equally of note is the increased importance of events such as GDC and SIGGRAPH, where we see developers sharing technologies, workflows and philosophies.
But it’s interesting to see the emergence of a number of technologies, initially defined by the limitations of the current-gen machines that will continue to evolve as we move into the era of the next Xbox and PlayStation 4.
One of the most impactful changes we see in the wave of current and upcoming games is the shift to what’s referred to as deferred rendering. The actual technology isn’t actually that new – a vintage 2001 Xbox 1 Shrek game from a North American division of DICE is thought to be the first console title to implement it and variations in the technique were seen in Xbox 360 launch title Perfect Dark Zero along with a more impressive roll-out for the tech in GTA 4 before it really hit its stride in Guerrilla Games’ Killzone 2. However, the technology is becoming increasingly more popular for the way in which a vast range of light sources can be added to any given scene, without anything like the performance penalty associated with traditional “forward” rendering – where light sources are calculated in turn with rendering load increasing accordingly, rather than considered as a whole.
The emergence of deferred rendering has also brought about innovation elsewhere. Heavy on memory, the current-gen consoles simply don’t have the bandwidth or the RAM to handle anti-aliasing in fully deferred game engines, leading to the rise of post-process AA. Instead of generating multiple samples during the rendering process as per traditional MSAA, post-process solutions tend to treat the screen as a flat 2D object and processing it accordingly. While edge-detect and blurring solutions have been commonplace across the generation, it was SCEE’s work with MLAA – first seen in the brilliant God of War 3 – that convinced developers that post-process anti-aliasing was a viable way forward.
NVIDIA’s subsequent work with FXAA proved to be the more popular approach for Xbox 360 developers, but it has also cropped up frequently on high-profile PS3 titles in recent times too. It’s to the point now where most of the titles we see on current-gen platforms eschew multi-sample anti-aliasing in favour of FXAA, simply for the RAM and GPU performance benefits.
Deferred rendering is here to stay – it’s a key component of the cross-generational Frostbite 2 engine, for example – so it’s safe to say that post-process anti-aliasing is far more than just a sticking plaster to mitigate for the lack of power and memory in the current-gen consoles. NVIDIA, AMD and other independent developers are already working on more advanced next-gen solutions based on the same principles, and while current-gen results can be mixed, more advanced algorithms in concert with 1080p resolution should produce some impressive results – something we’re already seeing on PC now.
Dynamic resolution is also an interesting technique being used by several developers. While operating in resolutions below native 720p is as old as the first Xbox 360 launch titles, studios are now adjusting pixel count on the fly in order to free up precious graphical resources for more demanding scenes. First seen this generation on WipEout HD in order to help maintain a 1080p60 update, a number of games have since implemented it – Evolution Studios with MotorStorm Apocalypse, and id software with Rage to name just two. More recently, Ninja Gaiden 3 and Tekken Tag Tournament have both used it, and at the Eurogamer Expo, Metal Gear Rising also appeared to be utilising the idea. For GPU-bound games in particular it’s an interesting technique, and we’ll almost certainly see it utilised on next-gen consoles too. Indeed, Ninja Gaiden 3 on Wii U already seems to be using it, despite the new Nintendo machine enjoying a boost in GPU power over both Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
Of course, there are plenty of technologies that have evolved that aren’t rendering-specific, though they are intrinsically linked to improvements in visual quality. The bad old days of lower resolution textures and missing environmental detail on PS3 titles are all but over, despite the fact that the Xbox 360 still has more available memory to developers than its PlayStation counterpart – a lot of this is down to major advances in background streaming technology. It goes beyond texture and art assets of course – the quantum leap in terms of animation tech we’ve seen across the generation is linked to this, as is the arrival of games that feature no intrusive loading at all: God of War and Uncharted being good examples.
So is the story of the current generation one of uninterrupted progress? Unfortunately not. If the rumors are true and PS4 is using AMD x86 processing cores in its next console, it will mean the end of the Cell architecture and with it development for the unique SPUs – the ultra-fast satellite cores found within PS3′s central processor. Without the SPUs, PlayStation 3 features an unremarkable CPU core and graphics hardware that falls short of the performance found in Microsoft’s competing console. With them, developers have been able to match and at times exceed the limits of the Xbox 360 by hiving off GPU tasks – vertex processing and post-process effects like anti-aliasing and motion blur – onto SPU. Bespoke SPU coding is what makes games like God of War 3, Uncharted 3 and The Last of Us as spectacular as they are, while third party developers have also made good use of them: Battlefield 3′s state-of-the-art lighting system runs from SPU. While some cross-platform developers may breathe a sigh of relief at the end of Cell, it is a shame that the skills built up in the industry won’t be that useful going forward.
The good news is that while we can fully expect each new console to have its own particular strengths and weaknesses, the chances are that developers will not need to re-invent the wheel in terms of their current coding processes. It’s safe to say that the migration from Xbox and PlayStation 2 to their current-gen equivalents was fraught with problems – the major challenge common to both systems (PS3 in particular) was the move across to multi-core development – running systems in parallel in order to get the most out of the processing power available. It’s here where all that knowledge working with Cell’s SPUs may pay off – it effectively forced coders to get to grips with a many-core approach to game development.
Elsewhere, also easing the upcoming transition is the fact that PC development has effectively offered coders a preview of the next generation – Intel CPUs offer up to 12 logical cores (two threads per core on a six-core processor), and developers such as DICE have optimised their code to make use of the larger range of cores available. While many games are still targeting dual-core processors, our own experiences with our cheap as chips Digital Foundry PC demonstrate that the latest titles are gradually moving across to accommodating an ever-increasing amount of processing cores – music to the ears of AMD, now offering eight-core CPUs at mainstream prices, but also good preparation work for getting more out of the next-gen consoles too.
On top of this, Microsoft’s DirectX 11 API – fast becoming the standard for PC gaming – takes centre stage in the next Xbox, currently codenamed Durango. Our sources have suggested that existing PC game engines using DX11 require porting to 64-bit architecture but otherwise run with no problem at all on the new console. Microsoft profited immensely from the close links between DirectX 9 and the Xbox 360: the link appears to have been strengthened still further with the new console. Sony’s strategy with PlayStation 4 is less clear – our understanding is that the OpenGL API will be utilised, but only in recent weeks has this been upgraded to provide a similar level of functionality as DirectX 11.
It seems clear that the console makers have learned from the lessons of yesteryear, and that the progression of gaming technology will be considerably smoother from this generation to the next than it was seven years ago – barring any surprises in console design, there will be no fundamental shift in the way games are made; the next consoles will simply be a generational increase in horsepower, but based on the existing principles of a multi-core CPU and graphics processor. While the price we pay may well be a more conservative approach to design, and a move away from the Kutaragi-inspired exotic hardware that characterised three generations of PlayStation hardware, developers should be able to hit the ground running – and for a time at least, develop the same titles across current and next-gen consoles simultaneously.
Sony’s Game division posted an operating loss of $45 million as sales of its PlayStation hardware line continue to fall.
In the first fiscal quarter – ending June 30 2012 – the company’s Game segment posted revenues of ¥118 billion ($1.49b), down 14.5 per cent year-on-year. The decline was partially aggravated by the strength of the Yen, but overall sales were still down 10 per cent on a constant currency basis.
The segment posted an operating loss of ¥3.5 billion ($45m), versus an operating profit of ¥4.1 billion in the same quarter last year. The company claims that further losses due to the ailing fortunes of its PlayStation 3 and PSP hardware were “partially offset” by revenue from the PlayStation Vita.
In light of these figures and trends, Sony has tempered its full-year expectations for its games business.
“Primarily due to the lowering of the annual unit sales forecast for portable hardware, sales are expected to be significantly lower [for the Game segment] than the May forecast,” the company stated. “Sales are expected to be essentially flat and operating income is expected to decrease significantly year-on-year.”
Overall, Sony posted revenues of ¥1.5 trillion ($19.18b) for the quarter, up 1.4 per cent over the same period last year. The company made a net loss of ¥24.6 billion ($312m), significantly more than the loss of ¥15.5 billion in the prior quarter.
The company has lowered its revenue expectations for the fiscal year ending March 31 2013 by 8.1 per cent to ¥6.8 trillion.
UPDATE: Sony’s hardware and software sales both saw year-on-year declines. The company posted only combined sales figures for its console and hardware lines, rather than separate totals for each platform.
Sony sold a combined total of 2.8 million PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 2 units, down from 3.2 million units in the same period last year. The Vita and the PSP sold a combined total of 1.4 million, a significant drop from the prior year quarter’s 1.8 million units given that the Vita had not been launched at that point.
Software sales also declined, with 20.1 million units sold across PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 2 (down from 27.6m y-o-y) and 5.8 million units sold across Vita and PSP (down from 6.6m, despite the absence of the Vita).
There were quite a few things in Sony’s final results for fiscal 2011/12 which raised eyebrows – not least of all the headline figure, a vast loss of ¥456.7 billion (around $6.4 billion) whose only redeeming feature is that it’s not quite as high as the forecast made last month. Most of Sony’s real losses originated in the Consumer Products and Services Division, which filed an enormous ¥229.8 billion operating loss. That’s relevant to us, because along with LCD TVs, Vaio PCs and digital cameras, that division also houses Sony Computer Entertainment and the PlayStation business.
Away from the headline figures, though, it was an omission that really got eyebrows around the industry heading for the hairline. Sony, like most hardware manufacturers, generally tells the world how many units of hardware it sold in its financial results. That held true in today’s financial figures, with the company confessing to dropping sales across the board – figures for everything the firm sells were down, including the figures for its three game platforms, the PS3, PSP and PS2.
Wait… Three? Yes, in spite of the detail being provided elsewhere, none of which was particularly flattering (PS3 software sales were the sole bright point), the PlayStation Vita wasn’t anywhere to be found in the report. That omission was corrected by Kaz Hirai on the earnings call a little while later, with the newly anointed company boss revealing that PS Vita sales sat at 1.8 million worldwide in March. The lack of figures in the report, however, was enough to draw attention to the struggling handheld, and has raised the question of the prospects for the device once again.
Speculation as to why Sony didn’t simply cite Vita figures in its report is a fairly fruitless thing to engage in. 1.8 million by the year’s end is a weak figure, significantly behind the 3DS at a comparable point in its life (ahead of the steep price cut), but it’s more likely that Sony simply didn’t want to include a system only launched last December in a table of year-on-year comparisons than that it thought it could hide poor sales by leaving them out of the report. Vita is Sony’s latest device and the focus of intense interest from the industry and media alike. Nobody was ever going to flick through Sony’s presentation slides and just forget that Vita existed. Information like that simply doesn’t hide or slip by quietly in the internet age.
Regardless of motive, Vita’s figures are out there now, and they’re dismal. The console seems to be in a very peculiar place in terms of its market position. Unlike the 3DS, which was widely derided at its launch, with every two-bit pundit having a view on why it was destined for miserable failure, the Vita seems to be genuinely well-liked. I’ve yet to speak to anyone, within the industry or outside it, who has a strong view that says that the Vita is a poor system, or that its software line-up was disappointing (slow since launch, perhaps, but not disappointing overall). Yet the system is struggling to achieve even the modest success (and I’m really being kind there) which the 3DS enjoyed prior to its price cut.
Does that reflect a dangerous disconnection between the games industry and its consumers? While the industry loves the Vita, consumers simply don’t seem to care about it. Viewed from certain angles, that’s a fairly worrying situation – but then again, it’s hardly the first time this has happened. Games industry types love underdogs and have a taste for the obscure. The Neo Geo, the Saturn, the WonderSwan, the Dreamcast, the GameCube – hell, even the original Xbox – all of them are consoles resoundingly rejected by the public but utterly embraced by those within the industry. Watch the eyes of any game developer or journalist (two species with more in common than they like to admit) light up when they find a truly obscure piece of failed game hardware in a Japanese second-hand emporium, and you’ll see what I mean. It’s not wrong or strange for creators and those most tightly engaged with a medium to root for underdogs, and it doesn’t necessarily imply that they’re out of touch with their consumers.
On the other hand, that’s not a very reassuring idea for Sony, who would definitely rather that its new console didn’t get added to a list of companions like the DreamCast or the WonderSwan. On that front, there’s good news, and there’s bad news.
The good news is that Nintendo has proven firmly that even in a post-iOS world, there’s a market for dedicated handheld game consoles. Worldwide sales of the 3DS are poised to blast through 20 million (if they haven’t already done so), which frankly, is far ahead of what even the most optimistic observers thought possible from the device’s first year or so on the market. Apple’s devices dwarf Nintendo’s sales, of course, but Nintendo doesn’t really care – if it can maintain and even grow its market even while all of us are carrying around game-capable iOS devices in our pockets, it’ll be a happy (and profitable) company. A year ago, few people thought that was possible. Once again we’ve been reminded that you never, ever bet against Nintendo.
The bad news is that Sony isn’t Nintendo. PlayStation has extraordinary brand recognition, but the rapid rise of Microsoft’s Xbox 360 as a PlayStation competitor in the home market demonstrates just how precarious even a strong brand position can be – and in handheld gaming, PlayStation has never enjoyed the same sort of position it occupies in the home space. Moreover, Nintendo’s strengths lie in different places – not so much in its own brand (although “Nintendo” is still a great company brand in itself) as in its character and game franchises. Sony simply doesn’t have anything that competes with that, a fact which it has thrown into stark relief with its recent attempt to ape Nintendo’s Super Smash Brothers franchise. Time and again, Nintendo can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by rolling out a superb Mario or Zelda title, or dipping into the deep waters of its lesser (but still much-loved) franchises. Sony can’t.
That’s not to say that Vita can’t pull itself out of this slump with some strategic (and truly excellent) software titles. More than anything else, that’s exactly what the console needs – superb software that puts clear blue water between the capabilities of Vita and of 3DS, while also making the difference between Vita and iOS devices more clearly defined. That software needs to accomplish some difficult things. It needs to be a handheld title (not a home console title shoe-horned onto a smaller device, despite the dull refrain of “console quality!” we hear from so many publishers and developers), but one which leverages the power and capabilities of Vita to great effect. It needs to build fantastic word of mouth. And once Sony has one title that achieves that, it needs to repeat the success again. And again.
That’s the kind of software we’re going to be looking out for at E3 this year. Sony’s press conference needs to be a Vita showcase of epic proportions. It needs to thrill and amaze us with the software it’s got lined up for the new platform – to get fence-sitters like myself to actually get our wallets out and buy into the Vita dream. This is a rare chance to change the narrative – to stop us all from talking about how little Vita is selling, and get us all talking about how exciting the line-up is. A price-cut won’t hurt, of course – it’s probably essential – but even more than price cutting, that’s how Nintendo pulled the 3DS out of the fire, and that’s what Sony needs to do with Vita.