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PlayStation 4 And The Necessary Hardware Divide

It’s been over a week since the PlayStation 4 announcement/event/meeting/whatever Sony is calling it nowadays, and there’s been a lot of interesting fallout. Tech industry folk were disappointed that they didn’t get to see the actual console, game industry folk were excited at the proposition of new games, and developers loved the thought of an x86 architecture. There’s been a question, though, that’s floating around. It comes and goes in the middle of conversations but it never seems to be the point of any of them, perhaps because it’s an arcane inquisition of parents and People That Don’t Understand.

Why do we need a new console?

Back when we were jumping from 8 bits to 16 bits and 16 bits to 32 bits, the reason for a hardware refresh was obvious and almost immediate. No one really ever questioned the notion of selling a new machine to play new games. The developers did their thing and the consumers got their stuff, so it seemed rather moot to battle this established (albeit relatively fresh) order.

This latest generation of consoles, though, doesn’t provide that same immediate revelation of existence. To most people who don’t care about streaming games or spend an inordinate amount of time demoing and downloading games or even just reading about the industry, the thing that stands out most when comparing consoles is the graphics. It’s definitely an incredibly superficial thing to do, but what else is there to judge beyond the surface when all you know is that Mario is a plumber and Sonic is a hedgehog?

And that PS4 event didn’t show much that those not in the know wouldn’t understand. Knack is interesting because it will ostensibly support thousands of complex objects in any given scene instead of the current few hundred. That Media Molecule thing is cool because of its technical implications for development processes and opening people up to a digital artistic medium. But nothing showed would categorically WOW the muggles.

That’s not to say, however, that it’s limited to people interested in games that don’t understand the hardware cycle. This goes beyond the parents that ask their kids, “What do you mean a new machine? Are you saying you have to buy new discs? But you’ve got dozens already!” Let alone that the concept of backwards compatibility is a somewhat unprecedented concept in the world of consoles (it used to be that you just assumed anything you owned before wouldn’t work with anything you bought later; the fact that the N64 and the SNES both used the same power adapter was HUGE and that the PS2 could play PS1 games was nothing more than a happy accident), the features of a console are as intrinsically tied to the hardware as the hardware itself.

We have Xbox Live, the PlayStation Network, the eShop, and all the social stuff that is tied into that: wallets, trophies, achievements, digital libraries, friends, etc. And all of that, in some ways, is interoperable with the new stuff because they all exist in both spaces; your friends list will undoubtedly transfer over seamlessly.

But what, then, to make of features that don’t match up? The streaming capabilities of the PS4, for example, simply would not be possibly on the PS3. The simultaneous download/play can’t happen either. That is enabled by the hardware, and the hardware is the console. That necessitates the new machine.

You would be surprised, though, that purely software-related aspects have similar clout in that regard. Most of the features of the 360 and the PS3 are nothing more than bolted-on odds and ends that served only fill in cracks that emerged in the dam. Digital downloads were originally intended to be only things in the vein of Geometry Wars—tiny 200MB titles that would works more like Flash games than full retail products. But now the Marketplace and the PlayStation Store both offer full disc-based products, whopping 19GB whales like Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, and neither system’s infrastructure or interfaces were made to handle that.

The 360 has cloud saves but don’t seem deeply connected to the system on any significant, fundamental level. The same goes for PlayStation Plus features on the PS3. PSN has poorly integrated social features simply because they were originally designed to be poorly integrated. For all the complaints you have about how Facebook is disorganized and feels disjointed switching between profiles and photos and events et al., the same can be said about the ecosystems of the 360 and the PS3: they’re nothing more than haphazardly stacked debris to meet the incessant demands of innovation, renovation, and fun.

New consoles, however, give manufacturers a chance to start over. More than anything, the PS4 is a blank slate for Sony (and presumably the Durango will serve the same purpose for Microsoft). All the backend architecture of Live and PSN can be rebuilt with little to no regard for the current setup. Servers will run and APIs will work, but it all works as a Band-Aid that only translates old to new. They will build a shiny new monolith that serves to only cast a shadow over the old one, information flowing in and out of its seemingly endless and impenetrable facades.

Which gives rise to the question of what happens when it ends? When the old Live and PSN stuff is finally scuttled and swept under the rug, what happens to your stuff? Well, that ties back to the notion that backwards compatibility is a modern invention. The amount of hardware devices that feature full backwards compatibility is severely outnumbered by those that don’t. Pre-PlayStation consoles, anything ever played on a phone, arcade cabinets, and now most of Nintendo’s handhelds all serve to only play one specific section of gaming history. PCs appear to be the only safe haven for collection and storage of classics and artifacts.

Evolution is a necessity, and these consoles are evolving. The fact that we have new hardware is just a fact of owning consoles. The question of why we need a PS4 and a Durango is largely pointless. What we should be asking instead is are consoles necessary? That ability to evolve does not guarantee existence. Could we be witnesses to the extinction of a breed of hardware?

That’s a question for another time.

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