Throughout the history of home game consoles, it's been notoriously difficult for a leader in one generation to maintain its leadership in the next generation. Sony, for example, went from dominance of the sixth-generation console market, knocking Sega out of the hardware business as Microsoft was gearing up for the original Xbox, to a third-place finish in terms of installed base with its seventh-generation entry, the PlayStation 3. Last November, Switched On discussed how Nintendo turned its back on much of what made the Wii a success, at least in that console's early days. Sony, though, seems to have carefully studied the lessons of the PlayStation 3 and has made many changes in the PlayStation 4 to address that console's challenges.
The impressive multi-core Cell processor developed in conjunction with Toshiba powered the PlayStation 3. Few debated that the Cell was extremely powerful, but it had a reputation of being difficult to develop for. With the PlayStation 4, Sony has moved to an x86-based architecture for the first time. In a bit of serendipity for cross-platform development, Microsoft, too, has switched back to an x86 processor architecture after a dalliance with PowerPC in the Xbox 360. In some ways, Microsoft has even more to gain from this since it should facilitate game development across Xbox One hardware and Windows PCs. That said, the switch in processors hasn't meant a retreat from Sony's historical focus on horsepower, as there's a strong case, at least on paper, for the PlayStation 4 to be the most powerful of the eighth-generation consoles.
The first PlayStation 3s had dedicated hardware to support running PlayStation 2 games natively. But that was an expense Sony cut as it sought to bring the PlayStation's price down. With the switch in processors, backward compatibility between the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 3 isn't practical; Sony will use its purchase of Gaikai to stream a back catalog of PlayStation 3 and older titles from the cloud. It remains to be seen how well this will actually work in the real world, but it should provide some bridge to the past.
The inclusion of the then-novel Blu-ray drive helped to make the PlayStation 3, with its original 60GB version debuting at $599, one of the most expensive consoles at launch. (The Neo Geo Advanced Entertainment System, which debuted in North America in 1991, cost $649.) Not only was price a setback, but the reliance on the difficult-to-source drives resulted in supply shortages for those willing to pay for the beefy console. At the 2013 E3, though, Sony announced that it would be pricing the PlayStation 4 at $399, landing it squarely between the $299 Nintendo Wii U and the $499 Xbox One. Of course, the Xbox One includes the formerly separate Kinect, which brings us to...
Adding Sony's PlayStation Eye camera will tack another $59 onto the PlayStation 4's purchase price. The Eye can't do everything Kinect can do. Furthermore, it's too early to pass judgment on how much Kinect will contribute to the Xbox One as an integrated part of the system beyond such ancillary or non-gaming tasks like serving up slick player identification, enabling video chat and acting as a TV remote control. Integrating what could be considered a peripheral is always a tough decision. Including motion control helped to make the original Wii a hit, while including a tablet as a second screen hasn't driven interest in the Wii U. In any case, making the Eye a separate purchase, though, helps to give Sony the price advantage over Microsoft.
Of course, depending on how many titles one buys, the initial console purchase is only a percentage of what one will spend on a platform over its lifetime. Sony won cheers at its E3 event for noting that it wouldn't employ any new provisions for preventing used disc-based game sales. However, Microsoft has basically said the same thing in that it is up to the publisher to determine such policies. If a third-party publisher wants to enforce provisions around used game sales, they may well find their own ways to do so. The key difference is that the PlayStation 4, unlike the Xbox One, won't require a daily check-in to validate licenses. And even that has been created with an eye toward having digital content available from virtually anywhere.
The game, so to speak, hasn't even begun. The next year will see how factors such as exclusives, third-party (including indie) support, clip sharing and cloud gaming affect the industry. For now, however, Sony's announcement -- or at least the way it made it -- combined with the PS4's tradeoff of a lower price for the lack of an included camera has given it the upper hand in terms of a perception advantage. With its pricing splitting the difference between the flagging Wii U and the potentially overreaching Xbox One, the PlayStation 4 could once again put Sony back on top in the home console market.
Ross Rubin is principal analyst at Reticle Research, a research and advisory firm focusing on consumer technology adoption. He shares commentary at Techspressive and on Twitter at @rossrubin.