In the wake of the PlayStation 4 E3 2013 press conference, Jerry Holkins of Penny Arcade called the event a “thunderously applauded public beheading.”
Holkins’ assessment captures the moment with perfect clarity. So legendarily bungled was Microsoft’s unveiling of the Xbox One that all Sony had to do was gently, but clearly, rebuke it. Its marketing teams hastily filmed a number of clips in the days prior to the presser, interstitials in which its chief executives took gleeful, pointed jabs at the competition. The clips were then swiftly edited into an E3 showcase planned months in advance. Against a competitor that had seemingly forgotten its roots, the fledgling PS4 was given a hero’s welcome.
The Xbox One never recovered. The PlayStation 4 had won the generation, and neither machine would launch for another five months.
Seven years on, the PS4 has become one of the games industry’s great success stories. The system landed on shelves with only one exclusive, Killzone Shadow Fall. It was every inch A Launch Exclusive. Killzone wasn’t a terribly interesting shooter, but being a good game wasn’t its goal. All it had to do was showcase the system’s flashy new visuals, and it did this well. Its opening sequence is memorable for being tightly scripted and lavishly over-produced. It told new PS4 owners exactly what to expect from the console: high-budget, cinematic experiences they’d never get anywhere else.
Sony spent the next seven years drilling down on this concept. If Xbox has spent this generation repositioning themselves and their Game Pass service as the Netflix of video games, then PlayStation can and should be considered HBO. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that the PlayStation 4 is home to the longest run of high-quality exclusives in video game history. Beginning with inFamous: Second Son, Sony embarked on a streak the industry hadn’t seen since Rare’s N64 golden age. Horizon: Zero Dawn. Ratchet & Clank. Shadow of the Colossus. God of War. Bloodborne. Uncharted 4. Spider-Man. The Last of Us Part II. Ghost of Tsushima. The hits far outweighed the misses. Sony’s first-party studios wore their inspirations on their sleeves, and the firehose of high-quality content never seemed to slow.
It didn’t take long for Sony to position this immense catalogue of exclusive titles as one of its greatest selling points. The Xbox One spent much of this generation bereft of exclusives and system sellers as Microsoft battled to right their listing ship. Sony, by contrast, was doing a roaring trade. Borne aloft by its ever-expanding library, the PlayStation 4 became one of the fastest- and highest-selling video game consoles in history. As of August 2020, the PlayStation 4 has sold a mighty 113 million units worldwide. A runaway success by any measure, its install gap widened so quickly that Xbox simply stopped reporting on units sold in late 2014.
People loved that the PS4 was a system for playing video games first, and any other functionality came second. It could play Blu-rays (back when physical media mattered) and it could be used to watch streaming video like Netflix, Twitch, or YouTube, but that was less important. The PS4 UI also hasn’t changed much since the system was first released — a pair of simple, horizontal scroll bars with each icon leading to a vertical nested menu. It’s reasonably easy to find your way around, and it puts your games front-and-centre.
The PS4’s external design has also stood the test of time. Undoubtedly one of the most stylish consoles ever created, the PS4’s overall look hasn’t aged a day. The launch model PS3 aged rather poorly within its lifetime, the console changing shape rather dramatically as its era wore on. By contrast, even the launch model PS4 still feels as distinct, striking, and modern as it ever did.
The PS4 was the first console in PlayStation’s (then) 19-year history to overhaul the design of its controller. Prior to the reveal of the DualShock 4, the design of the PlayStation controller had only seen a handful of tweaks. A tradition was one thing, but Sony knew a failure to address growing criticisms of the design would be seen as a lack of innovation. The DualShock 4 kept the classic silhouette, face buttons, segmented D-Pad, and sticks slung low on the body but altered its lines. More elegant, ergonomic curves were added so that it could sit more comfortably in the hand. Recalling their much-loved, under-appreciated PS Vita, Sony added a large touchpad to the face of the controller. The final touch was replacing the classic Start and Select buttons with Options on the right and Share on the left.
The Share button was considered a minor revolution when the console launched. It opened a special Share menu that allowed players to capture video and screenshots and upload them to social media. Once your accounts were connected, it also allowed users to easily stream their games on platforms like Twitch with little messing around.
Borne aloft by its initial swell of goodwill, the PS4 never encountered much consumer or community resistance in its life. It’s not a perfect console though, and certainly has its share of problems. Some issues, like the DualShock 4’s abominably short battery life, were apparent from day one. Others, like its hardware, have only emerged with age. The PS4 Slim, in particular, has aged more poorly than the Xbox One S. Try running Control on a PS4 Slim. It’s almost unplayable. The hardware simply cannot run the game smoothly. The Last of Us Part II was a lovingly crafted game that was optimised for its PS4 hardware, and the Pro ran it like a dream. The cooling fans screamed under its weight, the only outward hint that the hardware was being pushed to its ragged edge.
Sony managed to glide through the generation largely unbothered by controversy. The biggest blow-up, and perhaps an indicator of its growing sense of self-importance, centred on Fortnite and cross-play between platforms. Given the sheer size of Fortnite‘s popularity, every hardware maker in the world eagerly opened their doors — Xbox, PC, Switch, and mobile players could all play Fortnite together. Fortnite was so big that it changed industry best practices — it no longer mattered where you played, as long as you could play together. Sony was the lone holdout, stubbornly rejecting the very idea of cross-play. The PS4 commanded the biggest audience in games and Sony didn’t want to share. Gamers saw right through the PR spin and demanded satisfaction, while the broader competition smirked. In the face of industry-wide condemnation, Sony quickly realised it had misread the situation and Fortnite players got their wish.
The thing about being the undisputed king for the better part of a decade is that you get comfortable. As the PlayStation 5 makes its way to market, Sony is content to stay the course. It is banking once more on the strategy of strong exclusives and powerful hardware. It’s a business plan that has served them very well over the last seven years. Why alter a plan that’s clearly working?
This thinking could be a mistake — Xbox has used a generation out of the spotlight to sharpen its blade. Between the Series S, Game Pass, xCloud, and acquiring Bethesda, Xbox is back in the game at last and hungrier than ever. For the first time in a generation, Sony will have to start throwing punches again. In many ways, this is a relief. Its less interesting when one side of the console war gets blown out of the water. I think gamers as a community are better served when there’s a bit of a dust-up. We look forward to seeing Sony’s return to the ring.
PlayStation 5 launches in Australia on November 12, 2020, at an RRP of AUD $749. The discless Digital Edition launches the same day and has an RRP of AUD $499.