"They say this is the last console, and I am certainly a believer in that", says Nvidia's head of cloud gaming, Phil Eisler.
Over the last five years, the console market has changed dramatically: digital downloads, DLC, firmware updates, tablets, mobiles, free-to-play, used games, piracy, sequels, spiralling development costs, the recession... almost everything we know about the way we buy, play and enjoy videogames is changing, or already redundant.
It's against this uncertain backdrop that Sony will place its most high profile bet: PlayStation 4. Only this year, the firm posted a record loss of £3.6bn and - with PS Vita floundering only nine months into its life - the stakes are high.
Ahead of its final issue, PSM3 has assembled every rumour, whisper, market trend and leak related to Sony's super console. Oh, and before you ask, it's currently codenamed 'Orbis' - and yes, we checked. We've run everything through our global network of tech experts, analysts and industry insiders to bring you the most accurate picture of PlayStation 4 anywhere in the world.
Its specifications are being finalised as we speak but, right now, this is the most accurate picture of 'the last console ever' you can read anywhere in the world. Better yet, the future of gaming is closer - and brighter - than you'd think...
Words: PSM3 issue 160, November 2012.
Read Xbox World's Xbox 720 investigation.
It's unlikely to be called PS4...
Sony is unlikely to drop the PlayStation brand, but the '4' is in question. Why?
1) It sounds tired - movie sequels tend to add a subtitle once they pass the trilogy mark.
2) The Japanese number 'four' is pronounced 'shi' which is the same as death. Many Japanese hospitals don't have these room numbers or floors. Nippon Airlines has no seats labelled '4'. In itself, this doesn't rule out a 'PS4', since Japanese people tend to use an alternate pronunciation, but it's worth noting.
3) The biggest 'PS4' rumour/leak to date refers to the console as 'Orbis'. Type inOrbis.SCEDev.net and you enter a nonspecific section of Sony's development portal. This doesn't happen if you type PS4.SCEDev.net. However, if you type Vita.SCEdevnet.com you get Sony's portal for Vita developers - same for NGP.SCEdevnet.com. 'NGP' was the working codename for PS Vita.
4) 'Vita' in Latin means 'life'. 'Orbis Vitae' means 'circle of life'. It might be coincidence, but makes sense if the consoles were to work in tandem. 'Life' is indicative of Sony's vision for PlayStation as an entertainment hub for all the family. Orbis might change, but is almost certainly the working codename.
How will games look?
We've already seen first-generation PS4 games, most likely running on high-end PCs, in the form of Watch Dogs, Star Wars 1313 and Square Enix's Luminous tech demo at E3 2012. Given PS4's rumoured specs (AMD, 4Gb RAM etc) our tech experts and development sources suggest Sony's machine could run a title like Star Wars 1313 without breaking a sweat.
While PS4's specs are uncertain and liable to change, we could likely expect a performance leap around five times over PS3. It might not be quite as mind-blowing as some would hope, but that's the trade-off for affordability. In essence, PS4 will be a high-end PC with optimised, custom graphics hardware - that's no bad thing.
PS4 is unlikely to run in 4K 'Ultra-HD' resolution
Internet rumours dating from March suggested PS4 will run games at 4096 x 2160 resolution (4k), but this seems unlikely. Sony is launching Ultra-HD TVs this Christmas, notably an 84" LCD KD-84X9005, which retails at a cool $24,999. Extortionate cost aside (it'll fall to sane levels in a few years), 4K's sheer processing demands make us sceptical. While PS3 can theoretically run games at 1080p and 60fps, only a handful of games do so, like flOw and Wipeout.
Ambitious games like EA's SSX run in sub-HD, at around 1120x585 - a sacrifice to maintain smooth frame rates. Even with PS4's superior processing, we sincerely doubt it could run, say, Skyrim in 4096 x 2160 at 60fps. Most likely, if 4K does appear, it will be for videos, or curio titles. PS4 has more than ample power to run ambitious games at 1080p and 60fps, so expect that to be the standard.
It'll lock out pre-owned and used games
In Q4 2011, UK gamers spent £90m on used games. That's only around 10% of what gamers spent on boxed new games (£780m), but significant nonetheless. For all the talk of a digital revolution, used game sales were bigger than download sales (£87.1m) - yet developers don't see a penny."Sony is heavily rumoured to be 'locking out' used games on PS4"
Heavy Rain creator David Cage famously railed against used games at GDC 2012: "I think there's something wrong with used games. People make money out of our work and this doesn't go back to us or the people taking risks". As a result, Sony is heavily rumoured to be 'locking out' used games on PS4. A Kotaku report claims that you'll buy PS4 games in two ways, on Blu-ray or PSN download (even full retail titles).
Blu-ray isn't going away. Yet. As Sony boss Kaz Hirai said in August: "We do business in parts of the world where network infrastructure isn't as robust as one would hope. There's always going to be a requirement for a business of our size and scope to have a physical medium". You'll need an internet connection, mind, or everything falls apart...
4GB of RAM. Or more...
Early rumours suggest PS4 will have 2 to 4Gb of RAM (that's four to eight times the size of PS3's 512Mb RAM: which is split between 256Mb for video, 256Mb for systems). Wii U has 2Gb: 1Gb for menus and systems and 1Gb for video. However, the latest rumours suggest Microsoft's next console will have a staggering 8Gb.
Why is RAM important? It allows your console to run more programs in its main memory at any one time, rather than swapping between programs (via loading), hugely raising performance. If your hard drive is the size of your filing cabinets, RAM is how much you can fit on your desk. Differences in the RAM structure of PS3 (2x 256Mb) and 360 (unified 512Mb) were one factor cited to cause the notorious Skyrim lag.
More RAM allows higher resolution textures and less loading - like when you enter buildings in an open world. When we saw Square Enix's Luminous next-gen game engine demo at E3, all we were told is that it was running on high-end PC specs with 'a lot of RAM'. If Microsoft opt for 8Gb of RAM, it may force Sony's hand - even 4Gb might cause issues when porting code across consoles. The downside is that RAM is expensive, but Sony can't afford to scrimp.
Flash in the plan
Another rumour is that PS4 will feature 16Gb of internal flash memory, for dealing with swift, secure firmware updates, according to www.psx-sense.nl and other sources. This is the same as the cheaper PS3 Super Slim, which also has 16Gb of flash memory.
What's flash memory? Think of it like a USB stick, a solid-state storage device with no moving parts - everything is electronic, not mechanical. Flash memory is faster, noiseless and smaller than a standard hard drive - but way more expensive. If PS4 does feature flash memory, it raises interesting implications for the future of firmware updates and game patches.
Installs and loading bars are the bane of PS3's life, and we can only hope Sony is looking to minimise them, or place all activity in the background. Truth is, Apple's iPad has rewired our expectations: you only need to flip the case and tap an app to start playing games, a process that takes seconds. In contrast, playing a PS3 game, with its slower boot-up and installs, feels intrusive and archaic.
If Sony has any sense, it needs to minimise the delay between thinking about playing PS4, and actually playing a game.
There's no going back
Kotaku's leak claims PS4 won't run PS3 games. This makes sense. Sony announced its plans to drop PS3's backward compatibility (with PS2 games) in late 2007. Sony's first Slim console (2009) had no backward compatibility. It seems unlikely PS4 will mark a policy reversal.
Most importantly, Sony recently paid $380m for cloud gaming service Gaikai which, in theory, could allow Sony to stream its entire back catalogue across the internet, to be played on any connected device (consoles, TVs, tablets etc). Gaikai recently revamped its website with official Sony branding and imagery from key PS3 titles, including Uncharted, Killzone and God of War.The Gaikai site says: "We're working hard with SCE to advance our cloud gaming platform, and can't wait to unveil the next generation of it to you".
You'll need to register games to your PSN account
Once you've bought a disc, you'll need to register it to a single online PSN account, rumours suggest. After this, you can copy the game to your HDD (and download a digital version, if you sell or damage the disc). Locking games to an account is already used by Steam on PC. PS4 may not be always online - you might just need to connect to register a Blu-ray.
What will happen to your Blu-rays? It's possible you'll be able to trade them, but they'll be of limited use to second hand buyers - perhaps functioning as 'locked' demos. Imagine an extreme version of EA's Online Pass on PS3, where you'd need to pay a hefty fee to 'reactivate' a used game. This wouldn't kill the used game market entirely, and keep major retailers like US store Gamestop - which makes a huge percentage of its profits through used games (47% in 2011) - nominally onside; preventing a potentially dangerous 'protest' refusal to sell PS4s.
A used game 'lock out' isn't certain, but is what we're currently hearing from multiple sources, and tallies with Microsoft's plan for its next Xbox.
The rise and rise of PS+
As documented, the days of £40 boxed retail games being used to subsidise the cost of high-tech consoles (sold at a loss) are coming to an end. Gamers buy a lesser variety of full-price AAA games - with the gap between winners (like FIFA and CoD) and losers (almost everything else) bigger than ever - and there's a subtle shift to subscriptions, DLC and PSN downloads.
Sony needs to embrace this new world with flexible pricing structures and new ways to pay. Sony's premium subscription service PS+ more than doubled its number of new users during E3, after it enhanced its offering to include a variety of 'free' high quality, on-demand games such as InFamous 2, Dead Space 2 and Red Dead Redemption.
SCE America recently revealed that 97% of PS+ users are happy with the service, the highest in its history, and 93% intend to renew. Sony's John Koller said PS+ would play a 'significant' role in marketing plans, and it was a great way to introduce new console owners to the back catalogue.
PS+ could be used to offset the cost of expensive PS4 hardware, much like signing up for a mobile phone contract, or Sky TV. For example, you might pay £99 for PS4, but commit to a 24-month PS+ service at, say, £12 a month. Microsoft is already trialling a similar offering with Xbox 360 in the US, presumably to test the water.
PS Move evolves - augmented interaction
Sony's DualShock is a design classic, but PS4 is likely to embrace new ways to play. Microsoft is committed to Kinect in the long term, and Sony is unlikely to ditch PS Move - technology almost ten years in development. Wonderbook is a potential killer app, and it's likely Sony will want to carry that into next-gen.
Our guess is that Sony will include a camera and PS Move-compatible controller with every PS4, so it's a core function. It's not impossible that the new DualShock will double as a PS Move controller, perhaps even embracing tablet-style inputs (as seen in PS Vita). A PS4 tablet/motion device would negate the appeal of Wii U.
Sony has also been filing patents for a number of more extravagant inputs, including a PS Move wand that gets hotter or colder depending on in-game events (heating up as your weapon overloads, or cooling if your hands sweat).
Madder yet, Sony filed a patent for 'tongue control' a bit like the Wii vitality sensor, plus 3D visors (much like Google's Project Glass) that overlay images over reality. Sony also filed patents for augmented reality 3D controllers, including tablet devices, PS Vita or 3D glasses.
Another patent concerns 'Simulview,' allowing three users to watch the same TV, but all see different images. It sounds insane, but Sony's PS3 3D monitor allows for two-player play by splitting the image via your 3D glasses, not using regular split-screen.
Cloud gaming... and a new way to play
PlayStation's back catalogue is, arguably, its greatest strength - and 'unlocking' it through cloud gaming could create diverse revenue streams, vital to offset the cost of new hardware and ultra-expensive game development. A Netflix-style games subscription service would be a compelling draw for the next-generation of PS+, and could easily be added as a (paid-for) optional extra, in much the same way as you tailor your Sky package.
Cloud gaming's pricing model is up for grabs, and Gaikai's boss recently told PSM3, "We've come up with a new way to charge for games that hasn't been done before. I haven't announced it because I don't want my competitors to do it... it starts by letting the publishers be a part of the pricing on all services".
Pay per hour played? Pay per rental period, e.g. one week, irrespective of how much you play it? Pay per genre, e.g. £1 a month for full access to Sony's 'Driving' back catalogue? Either way, we'll shape it by our willingness - or not - to pay.
In-game ads and new ways to pay
After a breathless intro, you're just about to enter the stronghold of the first boss when... 'Buy Jokey Cola, only £1.99! Click now!'. It sounds unthinkable, but Sony is investigating plans for in-game adverts.
Back in 2011 it filed a patent for interactive ads where gameplay slows down and you're warned the game is about to stop. After an ad, you get a warning the game is due to begin again.
In 2012, Sony filed another patent for turning TV ads into interactive multiplayer games, possibly using Gaikai cloud streaming tech. Collect ten Victorian wardrobes to end the ad and watch Downton Abbey? Shout 'McDonalds' to proceed? Perhaps not, but Sony is covering all bases.
If and when the £40 retail model collapses, ultra-expensive next-gen games need to recoup their costs somehow. Uncharted 4 In Association With Frosties, anyone? They're grrrreat.
It'll use a Quad-Core AMD chip
Sony will opt for AMD's quad-core APU (accelerated processing unit) codenamed 'Liverpool,' according to multiple reports in June. It's tipped to be built on a 28-nanometer process. The smaller this number, the more transistors can be fitted into the same space on the chip, and the lower the power consumption, but the more complicated the chip is to build. For context, PS3's Cell processor shrank from 90nm to 45nm over the console's six-year life."It'll be easier for developers to get PS4 games up and running"
The clock speed is 3.2 GHz, which while not lightning fast will be supplemented by powerful graphics hardware - the Radeon HD 7970 (currently £300 on its own) is being linked to PS4.
Sony will be looking to assemble PS4 from 'off the shelf' PC parts, reducing costs and making it easier to program for. This is in contrast to PS3's Cell chip, which its creator Ken Kuturagi once envisioned appearing in freezers and TVs as part of a parallel processing network. And look how that worked out.
AMD's chips allow for easy porting of code, theoretically preventing the issues surrounding, say, the PS3 port of Skyrim compared to Xbox 360. It'd be easier for developers to get PS4 games up and running, without waiting years for them to learn its unique tricks.
The games are well underway
Developers are said to have received Orbis dev kits in early 2012, with a full roll out late this year. However, it's likely that key Sony internal studios were briefed as early as 2011 to prepare launch games.
Sony Santa Monica, of God of War fame, has half its team working on God of War Ascension, the other on an unannounced 'new IP' (made clear by employees' Twitter profiles and via recruitment ads). One job listing wanted someone to assist the lead combat designer with 'gameplay features, magic distribution, character balance and ramping'. Ex-Capcom Street Fighter expert Seth Killian is now lead game designer at Sony Santa Monica, which seems like a mighty hint.
Amsterdam-based developers, and tech experts, Guerrilla shipped Killzone 3 in 2011, and the upcoming Vita port is rumoured to be handled by Sony Cambridge. It wouldn't be a huge leap to expect a staggering-looking Killzone 4 on PS4 - although Guerrilla is also rumoured to be working on a new IP, and Sony was recruiting for Netherlands-based artists for 'next-gen technologies'.
Uncharted developer Naughty Dog also has a split team working structure, so while half work onThe Last of Us, the other half are yet to announce what they're doing - Uncharted 4 on PS4? Naughty Dog president Evan Wells called the prospect of working on PS4 'terrifying' - a tacit acknowledgment of its existence.
Key third parties are also committed, with EA Games boss Frank Gibeau revealing it is working on 'four or five new IPs' and that he'd "seen the machines we're building games for, and they are spectacular".
Call of Duty dev Infinity Ward was recruiting for folk 'interested in next-gen technologies,' and ex-IW devs Respawn is almost certainly working on next-gen. Ready at Dawn, the PSP God of War devs, is developing for 'an exciting new AAA IP for a next-generation home console game system'.
When will it come out, and how much will it cost?
'Off the shelf' PC chips will be cheaper than Sony's expensive, bespoke Cell chip folly, but the parts still add up. The rumoured Radeon graphics card is £300 alone, not to mention the 16Gb flash memory, hard drive (likely 320Gb+), camera, controller, Blu-ray drive and other components.
Wii U is already perceived as expensive at £250ish, and we can't see Sony's machine selling for much less than £400-£500 (and even that would likely be at a loss). The pricing model might be subsidised using premium subscription services such as PS+, or - groan - in-game ads, a bit like 'free' versions of Spotify. It's all speculation, but it won't be cheap.
When will PS4 launch? While some rumours suggest early 2014, we suspect a late 2013 release is quite possible. Games have been inprogress for over 18 months already, and those with E3 2013 invitations are already being told: 'This is the year. This is the E3 you don't want to miss,' adding, 'It's what's next now'.
Microsoft is almost certain to launch in late 2013, and it's doubtful Sony will give it the head start it enjoyed with 360.
Sony is sending mixed signals, telling UK trade mag MCV it wouldn't launch until it could show a 'significant leap,' with Jack Tretton adding, "We've never been first. We've never been cheapest". However, Sony second-party dev Zindagi is talking about a 'next-gen console' release in 2013.
Top Games for Vita: Gravity Rush, Soul Sacrifice, Persona 4 Golden, Guacamelee, Y's:Memories of Celceta, SuperStardust Delta
Top Vita Wishlist: Soul Sacrifice Delta, Oreshika:Tainted Bloodlines, Freedom Wars, Child of Light
PSN:Forevercloud (looking for Soul Sacrifice Partners!!!)