1. PS4 or “Oh, Sony”

    Recently I decided that a games and technology writer could forestall a next (current) generation console purchase for only so long. When the PS4 and Xbox One were announced, there were very few good reasons to buy one other than being an early adopter. Usually that would have been enough, but in this case I had other things to spend the money on. Short version: I waited. My theory was that I’d buy the system I felt best suited my needs when there was a game that I wanted to play on that system and only that system. So for nearly a year, I played PC exclusives and ports or various iOS games. I oscillated between tossing my rule away for the sake of relative console simplicity and swearing off consoles in general. Then the Destiny beta hit.

    Suddenly I had the game I’d been waiting for. Now, I wasn’t able to play the beta, but through my various channels, I had the information I needed to know that this was the game that would sell me a PS4. I have no intention of explaining my choice of system any more than I simply felt that it was the better choice for a machine whose primary purpose would be to play games. I have an Apple TV which I prefer for Netflix and the like, and though the PS4 will see a great deal of use as a Blu-Ray player, the PS3 I had for years (before it died) served this purpose quite well. Better, in fact, than the dedicated Blu-Ray player we used in the PS3’s absence.

    With that out of the way, I’d like to give some impressions of this step into the new console generation.

    Hardware

    The unit itself is attractive, if a little angular, but still has the shiny Sony-black plastic that will scratch easily. I tried a microfiber cloth to clear away dust, and sure enough, there are hairline scratches on the shiny portions.

    The power and eject buttons made for an amusing story. When I plugged in the system, I was unable to find them. Not just for a moment, but unable at all. I had already put the box away (Seriously, who needs a manual?) and finally had to retrieve it in order to find the buttons. Now don’t go judging my eyesight, as mine is quite clear. The labels are just too small and the buttons themselves too much an invisible part of the design. But, once you’ve found them, it’s not like you’ll forget where they are. I just felt like an old man, hunting for the power button (or switch) and literally being left with no other option than to give up and look in the manual.

    To be honest, I was a little disappointed in the audibility of the PS4’s cooling system, even when the device is in a low usage state. Standby mode is silent, but the system is essentially asleep and only able to do low-level tasks. There is no operational state that has the fans at zero. However, the sound that you can hear, whether it’s at low fan RPM or high, is as pleasant as any cooling system I’ve heard on a console or Mac. I’m sure there’s some incredibly expensive or technical PC upgrade that could eliminate more sound, but that is beyond my scope. The best fans I’ve heard in a device like this are Apple’s, which use variable blade angles to achieve a more uniform if not outright quieter sound. The PS4 is somewhere in the ballpark, and far more tolerable than its predecessor or the unacceptable levels of the Xbox 360.

    Controller

    I’ll make this section simple. The PS4 controller is better in every conceivable measure than the PS3 controller except battery life (and that’s only in comparison to the SIXAXIS that I had on PS3 which had no rumble feature). The analog sticks have better range of motion (though they stubbornly retain the mildly uncomfortable legacy position below the buttons and d-pad) and a better designed surface texture. The trackpad is an odd choice, though it serves a purpose and works great as a catch-all button that is so comically large that you’ll never miss it. The triggers are worlds better than on PS3, and the “horns” curve in a more natural way.

    The Xbox 360 controller is still superior in my experience, but not by much.

    UI

    Oh good grief. If you’re a Mac or iOS (or even stock Android or Windows Phone) user, the UI could very well give you fits. It seems as if Sony wanted to stick with the XMB system from PS3 but also knew that said system was kind of a mess. Unfortunately, they took that system and made it even more complex, with multiple bars, each with their own lists, and fullscreen sliding panels that take the user layers deep into the system with no obvious way to back out other than going one level at a time.

    The store, which should be simple and clear, is anything but. I had to search through several layers of store (all of which claimed to be a top level layer) in order to find a complete list of games offered that I could sort in the expected ways (price, release date, etc.). I can only assume Sony had done this in order to make the store look more “full” than it actually is.

    On top of that, when activating a game’s section of the UI, there are multiple options within the game. Say for instance, that I have The Last of Us: Remastered in the drive. The disc appears in what I think of as the Content media bar. If I choose the game, I can start it right from the bar or go into the game’s Page. There, I can see options for extra content, news stories, trophies, and so on. You know what I can also see? That I am able to buy the game for $49.99. And the game is already in the drive! Why would this still show? Even if I was, let’s say, borrowing or renting the game. I wouldn’t want the option to buy to be displayed while the game was in the machine, I’d want to see that option when I didn’t have the disc anymore. It’s small details like this that make the overall UI seem ill-considered and unfinished.

    There are two universally great improvements in the system software (well, both of them require the new hardware, but whatever). First is the Options button on the controller. No matter where you are in the UI, this button does what it says on the tin. It opens options for the game. Though Start was almost always the indicator for this function in the past, the system UI often had the triangle button covering a similar area. Now, Options gets you options. It seems straightforward and obvious, which is why it is a great change.

    The second unquestionable improvement is Standby mode updates. With the number of Playstation and PSN updates that I used to see on PS3, the purpose of a console (sit down, turn it on, play a game) was nearly ruined. With PS4, that problem is almost entirely gone. Now, if I want to play a game on my gaming system (go figure) I just sit down, put in the disc (if I even need to do that), and play. Just as it should be.

    Conclusions

    It would be easy to look at this review and see it as an attack on the PS4 console gaming experience. If you’re reading it that way, take this into account: I have pretty high technology standards. And even with those standards, I think the PS4 is the best all-around modern gaming experience. Of all the possibilities, the PS4 is the device that seems most attuned to “I’d like to sit on the couch and play a game.” Yes, I could get better graphics performance (and infinitely more configuration headaches) from a custom PC. And yes, I could get a more immediate “I want to play, and now I’m playing,” experience from a tablet or smartphone (though the GPU’s and general scope of games tend to be much smaller there, and the prevalence of free-to-play makes most games a crapshoot). Overall, the PS4 offers more of what I want, despite its sometimes bizarre UI.

     


  2. Guy English, a guy with some actual game industry experience, on Apple’s new graphics API:

    Metal and the investment Apple’s made in its development and support shows that the company’s now taking gaming very seriously, indeed.

    I hope he’s right. It’s no secret that I’ve been a big supporter of iOS gaming since the beginning. And while casual gaming is great, and keeps iOS in the gaming picture, the more traditionally graphics-intensive titles are what Metal is going to boost the most.

    One of my favorites, Republique, runs on Unity, so I’m hoping for some Metal magic in upcoming episodes. A guy can hope, can’t he?

     


  3. On this week’s Critically Speaking podcast: When does marketing become sheer deception? It’s one thing to manipulate the audience in benign ways, getting them excited for a product that the creators are equally or more so excited about. It’s entirely something else when he marketing dictates what will be included in a game or when a game must be shown in order to generate revenue.

    Check it out on ShoutEngine or subscribe in iTunes.

     


  4. That’s right. Critically Speaking, my podcast with Scott Boren is not dead. Though Do You Have a Mountain Bike? is closing its doors, all subscribers should soon be redirected to our new feed over at ShoutEngine. Scott and I are excited to continue in much the same way as we have been for nearly a year. Apologies for the lapse in time as we arranged our affairs with the new hosting solution. Hopefully, we won’t miss a beat from here on out.

    On Episode 38:

    What qualifies someone who is passionate about a topic? Be it art, film, or gaming, there is a tendency to designate between those who feel strongly about a medium—and demonstrate those feelings by spending vast amounts of time on it—and those who simply care enough to spend what little time they have being involved. With games, this designation usually produces negativity. Is there a way to be both passionate and spend less time than others or even your past self?

    Check it out at ShoutEngine or subscribe in iTunes.

     


  5. Ben Thompson:

    Imagine a new TV product, with two models:

    • $99 with a full set of entertainment options, but no gaming
    • $179 with a full set of entertainment options, plus gaming

    This TV product would be on an annual release cycle; average consumers would only upgrade every few years (the core OS and most games would support 3 generations), while more serious gamers would upgrade every year providing a nice bit of recurring revenue (this would be much more feasible today, as developers have long since developed the expertise to make games available across multiple architectures).

    If Apple were to follow this strategy, and the hints are present in iOS 8 and the videos from WWDC to suggest they might, it would likely be enough to keep me—a lifelong gamer with a gaming podcast, a self-built gaming PC, and a list of past console purchases—from ever buying an Xbox One or PS4. All it would take is the right buy-in from third-party developers, and I’d be sold. In fact, I can’t think of many adult gamers who would continue with the old ways if this were a viable option.

    The first version would be underpowered in comparison to a PS4; that’s certain. But if users were able to afford an upgrade every year—or every two years—the consoles simply wouldn’t be able to keep up after only a handful of cycles. Meanwhile, the majority of consumer dollars could go to the games themselves (and the obligatory percentage to the App Store). It’s a future that I hope comes to pass, as I already like the Apple TV and want nothing more than to see it become the hub around which all of my large-screen entertainment centers. If I can add gaming to that list, all the better.

    Also, read Thompson’s whole article. This is a guy who gets the industry in a way that many writers seem to not even recognize, let alone have the capability to articulate.