Sony's P4 Wows Gamers, Faces Uncertainty

On Feb. 20, the world experienced the first strike of the Great Gaming War of 2013.

"It's going to be one of the best years the gaming industry has ever seen, so prepare yourselves -- and your wallets -- for the onslaught of marketing and promotion brand new video game consoles will bring," says C.J. Strike, social media manager for and former editor of

Sony held a press conference that night to give the public a little taste of the PlayStation 4. The console itself was never shown during the two-hour presentation. No release date was given, although the system almost certainly will be released before Christmas this year. No price was mentioned, either. But the event left devoted video gamers with a whole lot to be excited about.

The first new PlayStation console in seven years will boast stunning graphics, an impressive eight-core processor to juggle more complex tasks simultaneously, the ability to play games even as they are being downloaded and a new controller that links with a stereo camera that can sense the depth of the environment in front of it.

"The architecture is like a PC in many ways, but supercharged to bring out its full potential as a gaming platform," Sony's lead system architect Mark Cerny said at the event.

At the two-hour event, Sony and many developers showed off a thrilling series of video game demos. The blood effects of "Killzone: Shadow Fall" felt absolutely chilling. The details of the cars in "Driveclub" were remarkably intricate, down to the silver flakes of the paint jobs. And nearly every gamer marveled over the creepy complexity of "Watch Dogs," an open world game where the player can hack into any electronic device he encounters -- including the cell phones of any stranger walking down the street.

The power of the PS4 should make for more compelling, realistic play for the hardcore gamers at the heart of the PlayStation market. It appeared, for the last year at least, that they would be the ones left out in the cold.

Much of the excitement in video games has shifted to the Web and mobile devices, where games are created and sold quickly and inexpensively. That's a big reason why Nintendo's new Wii U, which was released in November and appealed to casual gamers, hasn't been a big seller. It's also a major reason why Microsoft will be trying to sell its next Xbox as a home entertainment center.

With its press conference, however, Sony bucked the trends.

"With as much is going on in the social space and mobile markets today, gamers that love consoles were beginning to get a bit worried that maybe the new consoles would jump into those areas in full force," Mr. Strike admits. "Sony proved that they were still about the core gamers that helped to build the PlayStation brand. The super powerful hardware, the new controller and the games they showed proved their direction."

"(It's) an effective strategy, not only given that Sony needs to win those people back, but also because the early adopters who will pay the console's asking price will be the dedicated, hardcore players," adds Ryan McCaffrey of IGN, a renowned video game website.

That said, Sony unveiled a feature that will punch back at the Wii U and its mobile competitors. PlayStation 4 games will be able to be streamed to the PS Vita, Sony's portable gaming device. That's right. Gamers soon will be able to take those crisp, clear, PS4 games on the go.

The PS4 also will emphasize social interactivity. Mr. Cerny said its social network will extend beyond the console to the Vita and mobile devices, although he will not name those devices yet. There's also a Pinterest-like social aspect for friends to share screens and video.

"You'll see real pictures of your real friends," Mr. Cerny said at the event.

But despite all of these new features, the PlayStation 4 will face an uphill climb in a gaming world that is constantly changing. Instead of buying traditional games, which typically cost $50 or $60, many consumers are being drawn to the cheaper, sometimes free games available for their smart phones and tablets, analysts say.

Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo typically sell their consoles for a loss, but generate profit through the sales of games. In 2012, American consumers spent $14.8 billion on game content, including computer and video games. This figure was nearly $2 billion less than the previous year, according to the NPD Group, a research firm.

Additionally, sales of consoles from all makers peaked in 2008, when about 55 million units were sold, according to the International Data Corporation (IDC). By last year, that number dipped dramatically to 34 million. IDC predicts a recovery to about 44.5 million units being sold in 2014, but that still would be a far cry from the landscape that Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo dominated five years ago.

Speaking of the console giants, Sony not only has to fight off smart phones and cheap mobile games, it still has to do battle with Microsoft, which likely will be unveiling its new Xbox console at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in June. That's why getting the word out about the PlayStation 4 -- before a price, a release date or even a finalized product was set -- was so crucial for the company.

"Sony was notoriously late to announce the PlayStation 3 and it hurt them a bit in the long run," Mr. Strike explains. "This time, they wanted to get out of the gate before Microsoft and put the PlayStation 4 in the minds of consumers well in advance of the launch."

While Sony faces plenty of uncertainty with its new console, there's no doubt that the company kicked off what will be the most exciting year for video gamers in nearly a decade.

Sony raised the bar. Its competitors will be quick to react.

"Now that it's over, you can bet that Microsoft was watching intently and taking notes," Mr. McCaffrey says.

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