My Week with PSVR

Full disclosure, I’ve had a PSVR devkit for some time now, so this isn’t my first experience with the device. However, this certainly is my first taste of most PSVR launch content. I figured I’d post my impressions after a week with my PSVR launch bundle.

Best Optics In the Business

PSVR does not use fresnel lenses, thus you don’t see any god rays and glare on high contrast screens. Vive and Rift both suffer from these problems, which makes PSVR look a lot better than the competition. Many cite the lower resolution of the PSVR display as a problem, but I don’t think numbers tell the whole story. The screen door effect is not very noticeable, and I suspect there’s some way PSVR is packing those pixels together that make the slightly lower resolution a non-issue. PSVR looks great.

Fully Integrated With Sony’s Ecosystem

The great thing about the platform is they are combining a mature online store and gaming social network with VR. In many cases PSVR is ahead of the competition in community features. When you first don the PSVR headset, you’ll see the standard PlayStation 4 interface hovering in front of you as a giant virtual screen. Thus, all current PSN features are available to you in VR already. You can even click the Share button and stream VR gameplay live. There’s also a pop up menu to manage your friends list, invites, etc. inside any VR experience. The only weird thing is when you get an achievement you hear the sound, but don’t see any overlay telling you what you did.

Tracking Issues

PSVR uses colored LED lights for optical tracking–essentially the same solution Sony created for their PS3 Move controllers in 2010. In fact, the launch bundle comes with what seem to be new, deadstock Move controllers as its hand tracking solution.

Tracking is iffy. It seems that lamps, bright lights, and sunlight streaking through windows can throw PSVR’s tracking off. I find that it works much better at night with the room lights visible to the PS4 Eye camera turned off. I also replaced my original PlayStation 4 Eye camera with the V2 version in the launch bundle to no avail.

Even more annoying is calibration. Holding the PSVR up in precise positions so that the lights are visible to the camera can be quite a pain. Not only that, but many games require their own calibration involving standing in a place where your head fits inside a camera overlay representing the best position to play in.

The hand controllers are jittery even under the best circumstances. Some games seem to have smoother tracking than others–probably via filtering Move input data. Still, given the price of the bundle, Move is an acceptable solution. Just not ideal.

One advantage to this approach is PSVR can also track the DualShock 4 via that previously annoying light bar on the back. Having a positionally tracked controller adds an element of immersion to non-hand tracked games previously unseen.

The Content

Despite PSVR using a PS4 which pales in power compared to, say, a juiced up Oculus-ready PC, the PSVR launch experiences are second to none. Sony is an old pro at getting together strong titles to launch a new platform. They have made some great choices here.

Worlds

The amount of free content you get with the Launch Bundle is staggering. In addition to the new VR version of Playroom and a disc filled with free demos, you also get Worlds–Sony London’s brilliant showcase of VR mini games and experiences. The Deep is a perfect beginner’s VR introduction–a lush, underwater experience that rivals anything I’ve seen on Rift or Vive. London Heist is my favorite, combining storytelling and hand-tracked action in what is often compared to a VR Guy Ritchie film.

Arkham VR

This is the single coolest VR experience I’ve ever had. It’s really more like a narrative experience with some light gameplay elements. Some are complaining that this barely qualifies as a game and is way too short for $20, but I disagree. This is the gold standard in VR storytelling–a truly unique experience that a lot of developers can learn from. It combines puzzle solving, story, interactive props, and immersive environments into a VR experience that makes you really feel like the Caped Crusader. This is the game I use to showcase PSVR and nobody has left disappointed.

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Battlezone

Battlezone is my other favorite launch title right now, if I can find other people online (a definite problem given the small, but growing PSVR user base). This is a VR update to Atari’s coin-op classic in the form of a co-op multiplayer vehicle shooter. Guide a team of futuristic tank pilots over a randomly generated hexagonal map as you journey on a quest to destroy the enemy base. This game requires great teamwork and voice communication, which makes it all the more immersive. The positionally tracked DualShock 4 adds to the immersion in the cockpit as well.

Rigs

Guerilla does everything wrong (including uninterruptible tutorials) in VR here, defying all conventions. I have no problems with it, but this makes almost everyone I know violently ill. Apparently I am immune to VR sickness. Rigs is probably unplayable by the vast majority of players even with all the comfort modes turned on. If you want to test your so-called “VR Legs”, then try this game. If you can manage to play this without puking, you’re in for a great competitive online experience–that is, if you can find other players easily.

Wayward Sky

This game started out last year as a Gear VR launch title called Ikarus, which was pulled from the store shortly after its release. Uber’s small mobile VR demo has now reappeared on PSVR as the expanded and enhanced Wayward Sky–an innovative take on point-and-click adventure games in VR. The first stage is essentially a remixed and remastered version of the short Gear VR demo that came out last year. Once you complete this stage, the game opens up with a lot more levels and an all new story line. This is another gentle introduction to VR as it doesn’t involve a lot of movement or complicated mechanics. It’s largely point and click puzzle solving affair, with a few areas that require you to use your hands to manipulate objects.

In Conclusion

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My dream VR platform would be PSVR’s optics, Vive’s tracking, and Oculus’ controllers. Until that singularity happens, we’re stuck with all of these different systems. PSVR is incredibly compelling, and the platform I recommend to most people. It’s cheap and surprisingly good. Most of my current favorite VR games are on PSVR right now. I personally don’t find its limitations a problem–but it will be interesting to see how the average gaming public responds. Initial sales are promising, and there is way more high profile VR content on the horizon. Dare I say Sony has won this first round?

Why Consoles Didn’t Die

Yeah I was wrong. But hey, so were a lot of people. The PS4 barrels ahead with the fastest selling console ever. Microsoft is making a lot of similar but highly qualified statements about the XBOX One which leads me to believe it’s lagging behind significantly. Still, the recent European price cut and upcoming tent pole releases may perk things up.

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Regardless, most console doom predictions haven’t come true. This is because Microsoft, and primarily Sony, changed their business models in response to the looming threat from mobile and tablets. If consoles kept going the direction they were in 2008, we would see a totally different story.

What changed?

No more loss leaders.

Consoles historically launched as high-end hardware sold at a loss–but still quite expensive. This peaked last generation with the ‘aspirational’ PS3 debuting at nearly $600 in 2006. The idea behind this business model was that they’d make it up in software sales and eventually cost reduce the hardware.

This time, Sony took a page out of Nintendo’s book and built lower cost hardware that can at least be sold close to breakeven at launch. The downside being that the tech specs are somewhat mundane. Price sensitivity wins over performance.

Dropping the gates.

The tightly gated ecosystem that dominated consoles for decades would have been absolutely disastrous if left to stand. Sony has largely obliterated their gate and gone for a more authoritarian version of Apple’s curated model. Surely the most significant evidence of mobile’s influence on console to date. Microsoft has also adopted this posture with their ID program. The indie revolution is heavily influencing games, and allowing this movement to continue on consoles is a smart move. Especially when fewer and fewer studios can execute at a AAA level.

Users didn’t move.

A lot of analysts mistook stagnant console numbers for lagging demand. It turns out, there really was just nothing else to buy. Despite hype about core games on mobile–that transition has yet to happen. Most titles console players would recognize as ‘core’ games have utterly failed to gain traction on tablets. Core gamers want core games exclusively on console or desktop while reserving mobile for a completely different experience.

Eventually we’ll see a major disruption in how and where games are consumed. It’s going to take longer than one console generation to transform core gamer habits. It also may be too early to tell. After all, we’re only a few months into this generation.

The fact is, the AAA economy isn’t sustainable. Massive layoffs, even while Sony is basking in post-hardware launch success, shows not all is well with the AAA end of the spectrum.

My Week with the PlayStation 4

The next generation has arrived with Sony’s triumphant release of the PlayStation 4. The reviews have all been written–there’s no need to post a huge essay about it. However, it is time for my obligatory quick hardware review.

It’s a nice looking box. The PS4 continues Sony’s legacy of sleek industrial design with a surprisingly tiny and strangely slanted device. It’s small, light, and silent (well, mostly).

The DualShock 4 is the GREATEST CONTROLLER OF ALL TIME! I thought the DualShock 3 was perfect, but Sony has done the impossible and topped it with the DS4–it’s light and fits my hands perfectly. Also, the PS4 can charge the controller while switched off–something the PS3 never managed to do. Now if they can only find a way to turn off the annoying huge LED light while watching Netflix.

The redesigned PS4 dashboard is simple and concise. You’ll learn to appreciate this when you try the XBOX One (review incoming!) It’s easy to navigate–and most importantly, it’s very simple to find, purchase, and play GAMES!

Share Button!

The Share button is genius. With the rise of eSports and Twitch.tv, The PS4 has its finger on the pulse of hardcore gaming with the ability to instantly stream live game video or post screenshots to social networks. I kind of can’t stand watching other people play video games–but I’m sure this will be popular with the vast majority of hardcore gamers that aren’t me. Although–uh, other, uses of the PS4 camera on Twitch may become even more popular.

What about the games? Killzone is gorgeous and has the best campaign of the series–which isn’t saying much. I mention Killzone because there aren’t many interesting PS4 exclusives at the moment. There’s heavy focus on “indie” and downloadable games which are an increasingly important part of the console ecosystem. The harsh development climate over the past few years has left few studios standing that can successfully ship a $75+ million game on a disc.

It’s nice, but rather mundane technology. The PS4 has the hardware edge over the XBOX One–but if you parse the stats, it seems not much more powerful than a mid-range PC. The previous generation shipped with GPUs a little ahead of cutting edge desktop computers, but were also much more expensive. Sony and Microsoft can’t afford to take a big loss on hardware this generation.

I really dig the PS4. Sony’s focus on “indie” and self-published games as well controlling costs is the best move they could have made given the circumstances. With two prominent free2play FPSes launching with the system, it’s clear Sony has adapted to the current market. They made sweeping changes to their business model and hardware strategy that may have successfully fended off disruption from mobile and tablets. The true effects of disruption may be felt later in the cycle when casual consumers fail to show up in the same numbers as before. Regardless, I’m relieved to have another platform to publish games on–as mobile is getting truly apocalyptic.

Quick Notes: E3 2013 Edition

WAR!

E3 2013 is over! This was the most exciting E3 in years. GAMES ARE BACK! Sony and Microsoft are putting up a vigorous defense against the cow clickers and hamster wheels that have taken over gaming in the mobile and social era. It was so refreshing to see such a variety of new IPs that are actual games–games based on fun, mechanics, and experience instead of pure compulsion. I’m psyched for the PlayStation 4 and XBOX One. I pre-ordered both during their respective press conferences. A few notes:

Microsoft needs to fire their entire marketing department. Everyone was talking about Microsoft’s DRM strategy and not the games. Microsoft has completely lost control of the narrative and it’s hurting their ability to promote the XBOX One as an actual games platform.

Microsoft’s strategy of promoting the XBOX One as some kind of media center hub is the wrong one this early in the cycle. They need to engage early adopters for a console launch–people such as myself. All we want to hear about are games. Sony smartly focused on games–even if most of them were multi-platform.

The new Sony is poised for victory. Roles seem to have switched this generation, with Microsoft’s XBOX 360 success creating an attitude of arrogance that has led them to a tone-deaf press conference and hostility to so-called “indie” developers. This is the same attitude Sony had when the PS3 launched that caused a huge decline in market share.

Sony has learned from their mistakes and have radically changed their publishing model. They have embraced indie developers and flexible business models as evidenced by two prominent f2p PS4 titles on the show floor. I talked to many talented developers who had PS4 kits but were refused by Microsoft for XBOX One developer access.

Where was mobile? Compared to last year, mobile had a much reduced presence. Many publishers showed mobile titles along with their console slate, but gone were huge booths from GREE and other Asian mobile powerhouses. It was interesting to see tablet and mobile elements blended in to console games, such as in Ubisoft’s awesome demo for The Division. As discussed here before, companion apps have a long way to go–but this was probably the best example to date.

Hardware on the fringe. Lots of niche hardware made noise at E3. Not the least of which was Oculus Rift. With the show floor abuzz with news of the HD version, it seems at least Sony may be investigating supporting it. Microconsoles such as NVidia’s Project Shield (not so micro at $349) and the Oyua made big splashes too. I’m skeptical of the long-term viability of these platforms–although TowerFall convinced me to pre-order my Ouya.

Nintendo? Where was Nintendo? Their decision to broadcast their press conference on Nintendo Direct may have been an error–but perhaps a good strategy since they really had nothing to show that could counteract the massive PS4 and XBOX One announcements. Their booth was heavily attended, but Nintendo was seemingly out of the running. Luckily, they have enough cash to hunker down and weather the storm this generation.

Favorite games at the show. I never really spend much time waiting in line to watch demos or play games at E3, but I did have a few favorites upon cursory examination. Killer is Dead is a spiritual successor to Killer 7 from Grasshopper Manufacture, and looks fantastic. Dragon’s Crown is a gorgeous 2D side scrolling RPG by Vanillaware in the same vein as Capcom’s old D&D coin-ops. Keep your eye on The Order: 1886 for the PlayStation 4. This will be one of THE exclusive PS4 titles to watch.

Anyway, this was a GREAT show. I’m really excited for the next generation consoles. GAMEPLAY IS BACK.

The Winner-Take-All Game Economy

Last week Sony announced the PS4–the first real salvo in the belated next generation console wars. It all seems so familiar; a new box, mind-blowing new graphics, and an array of launch titles we’ve kind of seen before (Killzone, again?). Also, much like every console transition from the NES to the PlayStation 3, we’ve seen the wholesale destruction of development studios not able to make the transition.

This is evidenced by thousands of layoffs in the traditional game sector, including the implosion of at least one long-running publisher. The standard reasons of not being able to compete with increasing production values as well as the inescapable trap of publisher work-for-hire certainly are partially responsible. Not to mention the mobile disruption that has been detailed on this blog for a few years. However, is something else at play here?

There are two precious resources in the ecosystem of games: money and attention. In previous generations games cost a fixed amount of both–You give me $60 and I give you 10 hours of fun in a box. If a gamer had $500 a year to spend on games, 8-10 games would get that person’s cash–spreading the wealth. In this era, there was a healthy market for mid-range titles in addition to blockbuster hits.

Now, many games are “free” and monetize users by charging for consumable in-game items. Games built on this model are designed to string the player along forever, allowing him to spend a theoretically endless amount of money and time in a single title. One game can consume all of the player’s cash and attention at the expense of most others on the market. The winner takes all.

The finite resources of gamers’ time and money are under increasing pressure from a deluge of free content. How do developers survive in this economy? One way is to build shorter, more intense experiences. Games such as FTL deliver hours of fun in 15 minute chunks. This is bite-sized entertainment gamers can snack on while primarily strung out on an infinite f2p hamster wheel. For many developers it may be futile to compete head on with vastly over-funded startups producing endless time sinks for an increasingly fickle audience. Instead, fit in between the cracks and lure players into your wider ecosystem once you get them hooked.