Predictions for the PS4

Posted on December 31, 2011

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I am a gamer, among other things. Not an avid gamer – no time for that sort of thing – but I often prefer to play a game than watch a movie. I own a PS3, because I got sick of eternally upgrading PCs and stuffing them with ice packs to get them to run the latest titles. But the life cycle of this generation of consoles is nearing its end – 6 years on and we are expecting to see the next iteration of Sony’s (and Microsoft’s and Nintendo’s) console.

But what will be in the PS4? What will it be like? This is the question asked by fans and analysts alike, with much pontificating. I read many of these, and as I read I realized something: it really doesn’t take much to be an analyst. If you follow technology news and have a bit of common sense, you can piece together all the trends.

So here’s my take on what to expect for Sony’s next generation living room console, expected towards the end of 2012.

Well Duh

Before I get into the predictions bit, lets get over the blindingly obvious bits. I have read reports along the lines of “ps4 rumored to be in development”, to which I can only reply “No shit Sherlock”. Sony is clearly deep in discussions with hardware vendors, games developers, and content providers over the development of its next console. They are working to build a system that makes developers happy and doing their market research to figure out what will sell. These things are simply the normal operation of a business like Sony and if anyone gets excited reporting this they’re an idiot.

Hardware

This is what people tend to get exited about. However the details are not that important – we know it will be significantly more powerful than the PS3. That’s all that really matters from a gaming perspective. Hell, the PSVita is nearly as powerful as the PS3. We can also estimate that in pure processing terms it will be comparable to the high-spec gaming PCs available at launch.

Still, people like some details and there’s a few things we know for sure. It’ll have an IBM designed chip based on their latest power7 architecture. It won’t have Cell processors since IBM stopped developing them, citing Sony’s lack of interest. Although some point to Sony’s acquisition of Toshiba’s Cell fab as a sign that they will use them, this does not actually mean there will be Cells in the PS4. Why? Because any new generation of chips means making modification of the production line. In particular the fab has to be altered to make a new processor layout. If this is being done anyway, there is no special reason why the new layout should be another Cell iteration. The main limitations are on the manufacturing process, which is roughly the same for Cells and Power7s. Sony would have to modify the factory to make PS4 processors anyway.

But what is much more likely is they will use it to churn out Cells for cheaper the PS3, which will stay on sale for emerging markets. The strategy worked extremely well with the PS2 and will certainly be continued.

Sony has as good as confirmed that the PS4 will have a Blu-ray drive, since they sell consoles in places with poor internet connections and so can’t rely purely on digital distribution. Lets not forget also that Sony sells Blu-ray movies and won’t miss an opportunity to get Blu-ray players into people’s homes. Thankfully this time they won’d be locked in disc format war.

A major caveat on the hardware however is the economic situation. The PS3 was expensive at launch, but survived the initial rough patch thanks to being launched in full economic boom. This simply won’t work again as up-front cost will be a much bigger factor. Sony has already admitted it used commodity ARM chips in the PSVita to reduce costs, in a similar vein expect to see much less exotic hardware in the PS4 compared to the PS3. I personally expect to see nearly unmodified 6- or 8-core IBM Power7 chips, or possibly a 5-core variant of a 6-core part(or 7-core version of an 8-core) to improve yield and reduce costs. The graphics are similarly likely to be barely-modified versions of Nvidia or AMD parts. The benefit of course is that the new system should be reasonably affordable.

As a side note – this is probably not a priority for the designers, but I do hope they take into account energy efficiency and environmental impact in the design. Maybe the Greenpeace Green electronics ranking will nudge them in the right direction.

3D

One thing you can bet your life on is that the PS4 will heavily push 3D gaming for 3D displays. Sony have a lot of money resting on selling 3DTVs to people, and the PS4 will be a major tool in pushing the technology. This will translate into hardware that reduces the performance penalty of rendering stereoscopic 3D. At the moment games are rendered in 3D with big performance tradeoff – lower resolution, lower framerates, less anti-aliasing, etc. How this will be done is a subject of pure speculation – maybe a dual graphics chip solution like Nvidia’s SLI, or some kind of fully-parallel architecture, or maybe something more exotic. Whatever it is, it will be geared towards elimiating the tradeoff for 3D gaming to avoid creating a choice between 3D and quality – all in order to make 3DTVs more attractive (and lucrative)

Motion Control

I will admit up front that I have never been a fan of motion controls. I therefore rejoice in the flagging fortunes of the Wii which I think will put console makers off motion controls for their next generation machines. The problem is that the casual gamers who flocked to the Wii moved on to smartphones and tablets, leaving little demand for a machine dedicated solely to casual gaming. Meanwhile motion controls failed to convince core gamers as they lacking the precision and versatility needed to play staple game genres.

Expect the dualshock to hang around as a main input, though Sony could still pull a big surprise out of the hat on this one. Several Sony patents have surfaced for hybrid devies which can work like a classic controller or break apart into a motion controller. I personally remain skeptical of Sony’s ability to really innovate in this respect. They seem to much prefer a conservative, tech-focused approach compared to Nintendo’s creative gambles. And this is not always a bad thing – the Dualshock controller has served well for three generations of Playstation, and still has plenty of life in it.

Software

This is the biggest unknow. With user experiences being abstracted from hardware, software interfaces and ecosystems make or break systems. This is where Sony may struggle. They have always had trouble with their software and struggled to make the experiance shine. The PS3 is home to Sony’s most complex and polished bit of software, and while it serves well it remains devoid of wow-factor. Their online integration and update experiance is remains a bit of a joke despite years of work on the platform. Their cross-platform integration is even worse, with little tie-in between PS3, PSP, PC, and Phone. Unless Sony really get their act together they are going to struggle to compete with Microsoft’s cross platform user experiance which ties in Windows 8 PC/Tablet, Xbox, and Windows Phone.

So the following is more of wishlist than an analysis. We can hope for close PSVita integration as well as integration with Playstation on smartphones. This will most certainly be promised, but whether it will come through is a different matter – the PSP experience leaves me skeptical. Expect the PS4 to be media hub for buying music and game content from Sony and partners, probably with media center, streaming, and synch capabilities with other Sony devices. Expect digital distribution of games and media to play a bigger role in the platform too, as well as close social network integration. We can only hope that the user interface is something exciting, and that the system security is much improved.

For developers, you can be sure they won’t repeat the same mistake of the impossible-to-program-for PS3. The cost for AAA games are massive, no one is going to waste money on working with fiddly exotic programming environments. The PSVita is the testbed for this, with a software suite that makes building and porting game engines straightforward. Expect to see a lot of synergy between PSVita, PS4, and Playstation phone development.

Backwards Compatibility

Always a bit of a killer: you have a big old library of games and you’d like your new console to play them (probably so you can sell your old console and close the massive hole in your bank account). Well sorry chuck, it ain’t going to happen. Sony bet on backwards compatibility to sell PS3s, and it was such a big success that they ripped it out of the system before it even made it from the US to European markets. All is not lost however – they are clearly testing the idea of physical-to-digital trade in with the PSVita. Titles which are reasonably easy to port to the new system (which should be many, see above) will be available on the PSN, and some sort of cheaper/free deal will be made to those who have physical copies for PS3.

Games already on PSN will probably be ported over for the most part (or be run through a compatibility suite). Hopefully games already bought on PSN will be automatically available on PS4 – but since this is dependent on a big corporation being nice and decent I wouldn’t count on it.

As for getting second-hand PS3 games for cheap to play on your new machine? Not happening, and that’s the way they like it – second hand is good for consumers, bad for business, and its obvious who’s interest is going to win.

Release Date

This one is really crystal ball gazing. We know that it will most likely be in the 2012-2013 time frame. We also know that game developers are starting to reach the limits of what they can do with the system. But exactly when the new system will come will be announced later rather than sooner, with Sony keep to avoid the embarassing delays that plagued the PS3. The logic is simple: if you haven’t announced it, it can’t be delayed. So think 2012-2013, with staggered a release across different markets.

Conclusion

This is just the brain dump of a reasonably contented PS3 owner who reads more blogs than is really necessary. None of the above is informed by insider knowledge beyond what is posted on the internet anyway – just piecing it all together. My PS3 has served me well for gaming and media (and doesn’t charge me for multiplayer, unlike some I might mention) and I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next. I feel gaming is still in it’s infancy, and as time goes on I demand more from my games – not just graphically but in terms of quality, innovation, and general maturity. I hope the PS4 will deliver on these – from what I’ve seen there’s a good chance, but nothing is guaranteed. And just to be clear: I am no fanboy, and my next system will be the system I feel is best, no matter what company makes it.

Posted in: Computers, Musings