PS4 and how it changes blockbuster game development

Last week’s PlayStation Meeting brought with it confirmation of the new controller, the system’s specification and several new games.

But what does our first sighting of PS4 mean for studios making the next wave of big-name console titles? We asked Assassin’s Creed III’s creative director Alex Hutchinson for his first impressions.

What do the specs they’ve announced mean for big studios on a practical level?

Alex Hutchinson: On a practical level the two big elements are that we have more power, and the new focus on in-built social features. Creating your own game streams, watching others, sharing your experiences but also learning from other people, if it becomes a kind of internal gaming YouTube then it’s going to be a massive change to how we think about things. But having a Share button on the console, as silly as it may sound, is a profound change, as is Gaikai and the other service-focused aspects of the system. If we can assume all of these features as shipping in the box, which they are, then we can exploit them and build experiences around them, and try to find interesting ways for our games to cross over onto other facets of people’s lives. The difference between optional features or optional pieces of hardware and something that is working out of the box is huge on a practical development level.

The hardware also has more grunt, which is always exciting, but also has the potential to make development more expensive although I don’t think it’s as big a jump as the previous generation. These days we’re usually building high resolution assets and then creating simpler versions for different platforms or different LODs. But it will push up the fidelity of the top end of the industry again, which will make it harder again for smaller or medium sized studios to compete: it’s a continuation of the arms race we’ve been in at the triple-A level for a while now, where blockbusters keep getting bigger, and continue to compress sales in a smaller segment at the top end.

For smaller studios or teams hopefully the fact that the kit is easier to use, has a tremendous amount of power, and is a lot closer to a traditional PC, which should allow them to develop more easily and more cheaply. I also think the sharing features will also be huge for smaller devs trying to get exposure outside of the traditional marketing model.

Ubisoft Montreal’s Alex Hutchinson.

How significant is this leap forward?

AH: It’s an interesting time for the business: there’s no real gimmick feature to latch onto, the controller is basically the same and I don’t see much point in the touch pad on it, but there are improvements for connectivity and portability as I said, but overall there are no cheap wins for developers. I think this is really significant, because it puts all the stress on the success or failure of this generation on the software, which is where it needs to be. We need to work through the hard problems of broadening the audience and the type of content we can create, without radical changes in hardware forcing us to rebuild the basics of game-making, and without being able to rely on shinier graphics or 3D TVs. So I think it’s conceptually significant, although at first glance it looks smaller than perhaps previous transitions appeared.

I truly believe that players are going to buy games based on the content they’re offering more than visuals or technical features. What is your core fantasy? How strong is the emotional hook in your game? What are you allowing people to do that they’ve never done before, or how can you take an emotion people already like to the next level? The answers to these kinds of questions will dictate the winners of this generation, not just who can push more polys around the screen, or who can create better lighting.

Did they offer a compelling mea culpa to developers who struggled to get their head around PS3 development?

AH: It’s definitely more developer friendly than the PS3 was at launch, although I don’t think it’s a mea culpa as much as a realization that the market is incredibly competitive and that they need to help third parties and their own internal teams make the best software possible. Great games, new IPs and new ideas will drive the PS4, so if it’s painful to work on then people will move to other platforms. There is so much choice in the market right now, not just for gamers but also for developers in terms of which platforms they want to support, that nobody can afford to be arrogant.