February 21, 2013 5:56 pm

Sony thinks outside the PlayStation 4 box

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The Dual Shock 4 controller being demonstrated during the PlayStation 4 launch event in New York©Reuters

The Dual Shock 4 controller being demonstrated during the PlayStation 4 launch event in New York

Steve Jobs conditioned gadget-lovers to expect each Apple launch to feature the glossy new device itself, but Sony introduced the PlayStation 4 on Wednesday with no console to show off.

Developers demonstrated what they planned to do with the next generation gaming console, but there was no console to be seen on the New York stage.

“Well, I mean, I don’t think you should get too hung up on having to see the box itself,” Andy House, head of Sony Computer Entertainment, told the Financial Times after the event.

Developers had been working on simulators and prototypes, he said, but he would not say whether a finished PS4 box sat somewhere in a Sony vault. “Final hardware design is something we treat with a great deal of care,” he said, but Wednesday’s event aimed instead “to articulate a vision” for a platform it has spent five years developing.

Mr House also declined to say which markets would have the device this year, or what it would cost, but Sony has eight months to get the PS4 to stores by his deadline of “in time for Christmas”, allowing it to announce design, pricing and availability details at events like the E3 electronics show in June.

Microsoft is also expected this year to launch the next generation of its Xbox console, which has outsold the PS3 for two years in the US, according to NPD, the research firm. Mr House noted however that PlayStation’s market share was stronger in Asia and Europe.

Analysts have framed the looming competition as perhaps the last great battle between rival games hardware manufacturers for dominance of a $70bn-plus industry, in an age when cloud-based and mobile gaming is eating into consoles’ market. Nintendo led the generational change when it launched Wii U last year.

“We’re in a very competitive business. We need to find a really robust platform with a wide audience,” Mr House said, because developers want to work for platforms they can sell large numbers of games on. Big developers including Activision Blizzard and Ubisoft expressed high hopes for the PS4 at Sony’s event.

Since the PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii came out, “we’ve seen a revolution in the way consumers interact with a multiplicity of devices, all of which provide connectivity”, Mr House noted.

As well as a beefed-up graphics chip and processor, the PS4 will feature more social sharing features and integration with smartphones and tablets that give players “a sense of never being away from a persistent game experience”, Mr House said.

It is also Sony’s latest attempt to make the console a wider entertainment device. Mr House said Sony’s studies showed that many PS3 users had moved their PS3s into their living rooms, plugging them into the television to show films, use catch-up TV services and play music.

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“We’re focused around different ways to play. That doesn’t restrict itself to games. It implies play in the broader sense of general entertainment,” he said. But, he added, satisfying hardcore gamers was still “vitally important” for the PS4 to succeed. “These people become validators and advocates very quickly,” he said.

The next generation PlayStation showcases several innovations, including instant start-up, the ability to begin playing before games finish downloading from the cloud and a new controller incorporating a touch pad.

How gamers respond to such features could determine the outlook for consoles. Console sales have been slowing down, with Sony cutting its forecast for sales in the year to March from 26m to 23m units and Nintendo slashing its Wii U forecast from 5.5m to 4m for the same period.

Sales of game consoles and software in Japan, for example, have fallen nearly 35 per cent since 2007 to Y449bn in 2012, while the market for online games more than doubled to Y395bn by 2011, notes Hirokazu Hamamura, president of Enterbrain, a games magazines publisher.

But industry officials and analysts believe dedicated consoles are not likely to disappear any time soon. In particular, their controllers allow gamers to do some things they cannot do with a keyboard or mouse.

The way developers are using the sheer computing power of this generation of devices is the strongest argument for why consoles will survive, Mr House said. He declined to forecast whether another generation of PlayStation would follow the PS4, but said: “You can’t play a game [like] any of the games that were shown tonight on a smartphone.”

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