The USS Quad Damage

Why the PS4 will fail

I don't mean fail in a financial sense. You'll probably all still buy it. What I mean is that it'll fail in the fundamental sense, to deliver on the promise of doing what they say it can do.

When the PS4 is announced on February 20th, gaming blogs and media outlets will likely breathlessly talk about the possibilities. All the core gaming touchscreen move 3d graphics next-gen-eyness will probably wow some people. Others will try and be “meh” about it, but their reasoning will be flawed. The problem isn’t that their controllers don’t appeal to “core gamers” or these things are or aren’t fiddly or precise or you need to stand up or talk or whatever.

The problem is that the ecosystem is closed.

This is why Valve are only afraid of Apple, because even though Apple’s ecosystem is also closed, it’s actually vastly more open than anything the tightarse game companies produce. To prove my point I’m going to use a game console that was heralded as revolutionary, and was vastly successful. And it isn’t the Nintendo Wii.

It’s the Nintendo DS.

Like the Wii, it was vastly successful, had a unique control scheme, and various bits of useful and unusual gear on it. Unlike the Wii, it had a vast array of games — both first and third party, and it was widely praised for being a great handheld console. It also fundamentally failed to deliver on its promise.

When you think about hardware, you buy it with a little bit of forward thinking. The NDS had Wifi, and could do ad-hoc and online play. In various incarnations it had a camera and mic, SD card, GBA slot, touchscreen, and of course, dual screens.

The touch screen and dual screens paid off. While many games didn’t utilise the stylus, I saw this as a positive: the games did what was necessary and didn’t feel forced to use things they didn’t need. The second screen was sometimes used in a silly way, but also had some uses which were ingenious (e.g. the world ends with you). Even at worst, it was good as a status display.

The GBA slot was OK. You could play GBA games on it, single player. Although there was no reason you couldn’t have a “virtual” link cable to do wireless GBA games, you couldn’t do it. No reason why, “just because”. While this isn’t a deal-breaker, I certainly imagined that wireless GBA play was possible when the NDS was originally announced.

The mic was used sometimes, but it was mostly a novelty. I never saw a use where I went “yes!”. I think there was a game which used it in a meaningful way but I just don’t remember it. The camera was used even less. The NDS could’ve been used as a sort of Wifi phone, but this possibility was never delivered.

Pictochat was a massive disappointment. Ad-hoc only, so you could only message people within talking distance. Hence the name “Penis chat”, because all you’d ever do with it is to draw penises to each other. To some extent this is practically a con. You show someone a “feature” like pictochat and they’ll imagine it works in a particular, practical, way. But it doesn’t.

DS Download Play was never really useful. The “sell” was that you would go into movie theatres and alongside the movie there’d be DS Download Play stuff available and you could “do things” as the movie was happening. In actuality this was only really useful very rarely, and even that to just send a demo version of the game to someone. If they could play multiplayer it was the mini-est of mini games. I believe one time there was a Pokemon tournament and there would be stuff available for DS Download Play. That was the one event where it would’ve been useful.

Pretty much no DS games in the west utilised online in a meaningful way. You’d think there was a way to add friends using ad-hoc and then see them again online, or something to that effect. In reality you couldn’t really do anything of the sort, and playing on the internet with friends was a pain at the best of times. I believe Mario Kart was the only game that truly utilised this feature. Pokemon did “stuff” but it involved running around in the virtual world. Nothing else really felt like it worked.

Me and some friends used to gather round and do some ad-hoc play for various games. In reality, this only truly worked for a couple of games. When it did work, it was sublime. The rest of the time, it was mini-games. New Super Mario Bros? Awful ad-hoc. I thought of those times and bought a DS for my wife, and thought surely there’s a co-op game out there for us two. To this day, Mario Kart is it (and it isn’t co-op). Zelda Four Swords is also good, but it only works on the DSi and I have an NDSLite.

The SD card was also a non-event. The online store was pitiful. You couldn’t put save games on it. Tacked on in the end, and you’d be forgiven for forgetting it was even there.

The point I’m making is, this isn’t a new console. It’s been all but superseded by the 3DS. The lifecycle is all but finished. There’s no more “promises” to keep with the DS. What we have now is all that we’ll have. I think we can all think of times and games where some of the potential of the NDS was realised. But these were really just glimpses of the promise of the NDS. That promise was barely realised when they superseded it with the 3DS.

The Wii U makes even more bold and crazy promises, especially with the extra screen and other options. The PS4 is likely to make even more. But I think these promises will, at best, barely be kept. The reason for this is simple: the platform is closed.

If you look at iOS as a gaming platform, it is prodigious. It not only has a huge number of games considering the control scheme is less than ideal, it also has a huge number of peripherals that connect to it. Understandably, much of this is traditional gaming fare, but many more features of the device are being used to play games. The PC, similarly, has a diverse set of features and options, and most of these are utilised fairly well by the spectrum of games, from core games to delivery mechanisms to MMOs to flash games. Play Realm of the Mad God and tell me that this wasn’t possible on the NDS.

There was a guy who went on a hunger strike for a Nintendo DS Dev kit. Nintendo was willing to let him die. Even Team Meat couldn’t get Super Meat Boy on the platform, and if there was a game perfect for Nintendo, it was SMB.

Sony are a lot more pro-active, and they’ll undoubtedly go after indie developers. They also know about the new paradigm: Valve is releasing a steam box, and everyone’s afraid of Apple. But Sony simply don’t have it in their blood to be open. Sony sit in on SD meetings, then release an incompatible “Memory Stick”. The PS3, despite being DRMed to the hilt, was actually uncharacteristically open for them, using standards like DLNA and bluetooth and mini-usb for charging. You could even install Linux on it for a while.

In fact, there’s a game, Joust, which uses the standard bluetooth Playstation Move controllers, but not the PS3. It’s probably the only really good use of the Move controllers to date. That basically describes the situation right there. Sony are going to make a “console”, and it’s going to have “exclusives”, and many people will buy it, and it may even be successful for Sony. But it will not deliver on the promises that they will make on the 20th of February.

Don’t believe the hype.