PlayStation 4: the platform’s more important than the power

Sony CEO Andrew House launching the PlayStation 4 last month - will it change the face of gaming? EPA/Peter Foley

Sony fired its salvo in the next-generation console wars with last month’s announcement of the PlayStation 4, set to be released later this year. But the hardware specifications of the new console – placed smack-bang at the centre of the media event – may be something of a red herring.

On release, the PlayStation 4 will enter into a broader and ever-competitive gaming landscape where it will have to compete against whatever Microsoft has planned, Nintendo’s Wii-U, as well as the resurgence of PC gaming.

The specifications

The specifications of Sony’s new console were clearly intended to impress. Amid the teraflops and cores that power the PlayStation 4’s processor, there was one particularly meaningful piece of information at the launch: the console is based on the x86 architecture of a desktop PC.

Unfortunately for Sony, that means the specifications were immediately compared to those of current and future gaming PCs. And compared to the state-of-the-art desktop PCs, the PlayStation 4 doesn’t stack up.

The central processing unit is a fairly low-to-mid-range processor, and the high-speed GDDR5 (Graphics Double Data Rate, version 5) memory still amounts to only 8 gigabytes of shared system memory. It might be fast memory, but as the latest Steam hardware survey shows, 8 gigabytes of memory would hardly be remarkable in a gaming PC, and the PlayStation 4 will have to share that memory between system and graphics functionality.

The PlayStation 4’s hardware specifications will blow the doors off a standard office computer, but they can’t compete with a PC gaming “beast” now, let alone in a few years time. It’s a mystery that Sony would try to dazzle with such unimpressive specifications.

But I’d suggest the hardware specifications don’t really matter.

Yes, sharing the x86 architecture means you can compare the PlayStation 4’s specifications to a gaming PC, but a console is not a gaming PC: it’s a gaming platform, which is to say that the physical console hardware exists as the basis of a whole product ecosystem. What actually matters is how well it runs games, which has a lot more to do with how much support it gets from developers.

Current consoles massively out-perform PCs with equivalent specifications because games can be optimised for the console’s standardised hardware. And they out-perform on cost as well: Microsoft’s Xbox 360 launched in 2005, and eight years later it can run The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim far, far better than any PC bought at the same time, for the same price, possibly could.

The latest ‘Dualshock’ controller, to be released with the PS4. EPA/Peter Foley

The reality is, the specifications Sony trumpeted at their media event are virtually meaningless, because there’s no real standard to compare them against.

The gaming platform

What was presented over the rest of Sony’s media event suggests the hardware specifications are meaningless on an even more fundamental level. A succession of developers insisted the games they’re making for the upcoming console are not just improved by the machine’s hardware, but that they required this new hardware in order to create truly new and innovative games.

Those words rang hollow against what was actually shown, which included derivative first-person shooters, iterations of racing games, and a slew of social media and communication add-ons that may have benefited from specialised hardware but owed little to the raw hardware power Sony bragged of.

Developer Jonathan Blow talked about his upcoming game The Witness, which promised to be innovative, but didn’t seem to need the Playstation 4’s special hardware at all.

Blow praised Sony not for the hardware power it promised, but for the accessibility its gaming platform promised for smaller developers. And this praise has to be read in the context of Blow’s harsh words on the accessibility of Microsoft’s current platform.

This, then, is what really matters: not the raw hardware of the Playstation 4, but the gaming platform Sony will need to build around it.

The new generation

Once it launches, the Playstation 4 will be compared not so much against other gaming hardware but against other gaming platforms.

Sony’s PS4 launch video.

Along with console gaming systems, PC gaming has gone through something of a revival in recent years. Game company Valve, in particular, has promised to make the PC a more unified and accessible platform with its Steam Box initiative. And then there’s mobile and tablet gaming, which is very much focused on platforms over hardware.

One aspect of Sony’s media event was widely commented on: at no point did anyone reveal what the console itself looks like. I suspect this is because the company recognises it doesn’t matter.

While Sony opened its presentation with the hardware specifications of its new console, the company is already likely aware of the one truism of the new console generation: the platform will be far more important than the raw hardware.