What Games Are: Consoles Are Sinking. Get To The Lifeboats!

“Sony’s PS4 is DOA. Microsoft has won.” So said a friend of mine on Facebook moments after the PS4 event broadcast all around the Internet on Wednesday. Similar sentiments abounded, such as Darrell Etherington’s withering take. More charitable commentary about the presentation spoke of a lack of key details (such as what the machine looked like, or the price) but with always-optimistic caution. Others are just puzzled by the whole thing.
The event followed that Apple-like script of executive ideals followed by innovations and technology talk, and then various developers coming out to evangelize. Some were predictable, such as David “every game maker is immature bar me” Cage making the same old grand claim that this time the technology had evolved to the point where he could deliver real emotion, before showing a decidedly emotionless and robotic demonstration. Others were less so, like the appearance of Jonathan Blow. Then there were the middling bits, like a Killzone trailer or a quirky concept piece from Media Molecule to talk about the Move controller.
Sony’s big idea for Ps4 seemed to sort of revolve around connectivity and sharing. There were some moderately interesting ideas like the always-on Share button, or the use of Gaikai’s cloud to allow for faster downloading, or – and this sounds pie-in-the-sky – players actively taking control of others’ games to help them out. Less specific was detail on where this content might be shared, or whether most users would really be that bothered. It seemed like an awful lot of effort for what felt like a novelty.
Overall, the message was both disjointed and predictable, and the core reason for why PS4 demanded our attention was not conveyed. Lacking a definite wow factor, the event became like all game console presentations of the last five years, which is to say incrementalist, prevaricating, small-minded and a little bit creepy. It was all features features features, but with no central idea driving the platform forward.  Videogamer.com satirised it best when they overdubbed Mark Cerny saying “We don’t want to get between you and the game. Now here’s some stuff that gets between you and the game.”
It also felt oddly like watching Sega self-immolate 15 years ago. When Sega tried to strike back at Sony’s original PlayStation (and the Nintendo 64) with a machine that was meant to connect every player in the world, every player in the world responded with profound apathy. Judging from the presentation that Sony gave on Wednesday, PS4 seems to be the new Dreamcast, from the ugly new joypad to the key sales point of deep connection into a World of Gaming. The case is not made as to why anyone on this green and blue planet should care about any of that.
So my friend seems to be right in his assessment that, even before having to open its mouth, Microsoft has indeed won. And yet I think “win” is not quite the correct term. Perhaps a better one would be “best loser.”