Analysis: Sony’s high-stakes, high-definition gamble on PlayStation 3

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Analysis: Sony's high-stakes, high-definition gamble on PlayStation 3

Los Angeles (CA) – It had all the makings of a slick Hollywood production. First of all, it was set at Stage 15 of Sony Pictures Studios – the old MGM Studios, at the site of the first motion picture studio in America. It had some of its native industry’s hottest acts, including Sony Computer Entertainment President Kaz Hirai, and Electronic Arts CEO Larry Probst. And, like quite a few Hollywood productions these days, it had an unproven star that left some in the audience wondering, is the performance we just saw truly worth the price of admission? Sony’s PlayStation 3, with its 1920 x 1080 high resolution, its Dolby surround sound, its ace-in-the-hole 4D controller…and its $499 entry-level price tag – the complete package – finally made its long-awaited sneak preview. For the first time, many in the general technology media were able to actually play the thing.

The front entrance of Sony Pictures Studios, the site of Monday afternoon’s PlayStation 3 press gala.

It is, for all intents and purposes, the first consumer-ready, high-definition gaming console. On 17 November in the US, $499 will buy you an STI Core processor-based system with a 20 Gb hard disk drive and Blu-ray disc player; $599 gets you the version with a 60 Gb drive. The HDD is primarily for the storage of downloadable content that Hirai confirmed today will be provided by Sony’s gaming network (thus far unnamed) for zero cost to the gamer.

The high quality mandate for high-definition

The first sample of content which Sony chose to spotlight – the company’s “test pattern” for standards of quality – was a playable demo of Polyphony Digital’s upcoming Gran Turismo HD, which lead developer Kazunori Yamauchi confirmed to TG Daily was composed from assets originally composed for Gran Turismo 4 for the PS2, in about three weeks’ time.

At first glance, the quality of what you see of Gran Turismo HD will catch you off-guard if you’re not expecting it. The crisply rendered vehicles make such subtle shuttering motions in the midst of the terrain, bending the light that bounces off the polished enamel and the windshields ever so slightly, letting you know that if it’s not ray tracing that’s going on here, it’s something equally convincing. Clean, polished, rendered landscapes rush toward you at sixty frames per second: brick buildings, iridescent trees, wire-mesh fences, and in the rally races, rendered fans that stand beside the road and cheer you on. The aerial view of the Grand Canyon rally race course is so powerfully crafted, so full of color and life, that your attention wanders from the racetrack, and for a minute there you’re not driving but flying.

A street race course from the demonstration version of Gran Turismo HD from Polyphony Digital. The crispness of the motion alone is enough to give onlookers a rush.

For those among the media seeing Gran Turismo HD for the first time, the sale was made within the first 20 seconds. The thought of actually owning something capable of rendering something that complex, that quickly, is enormously enticing, especially to those of us who have also served as programmers.

It is after the first four minutes of this breath-stealing spectacle that reality, confound it all, rears its crisply-rendered head, and the enormity of the task before the craftspeople at Polyphony presents itself dauntingly. As of yet, the cars don’t dent or smudge or crack when they whack each other, or when they collide with a inertia-defiant whack against the impervious wire mesh fences or tire stacks or plastic nets. Objects in the far distance are just as crisply rendered from afar as they are close-up, perhaps partly to avoid masking the high-definition, and partly to avoid obscuring what may yet become this art form’s principal subsidy: in-game advertising, in this case splashed against the roadside barriers.

An aerial scene from the Gran Turismo HD demo, showing the awful truth about race fans these days.

Some of the rally course spectators are animated, 3D-rendered objects, waving their fists gloriously. Others, at a further distance, are convenient 2D cutouts, the true identity of which is revealed in the aerial shots, like the ruse townspeople from Blazing Saddles. Furthermore, there is as of yet no dust, no smoke, no exhaust, no grit, no smudges against the Turtle Waxed paintjobs. Yamauchi’s translator told me I was the first to notice; I doubt that. I imagine I was the only one lacking the good manners to refrain from mentioning it.

When I wrote about the release of Bruce Artwick’s Flight Simulator II for the Atari 800 over two decades ago, I pointed out that the Statue of Liberty, for the sake of convenience, was a two-dimensional white apparition, that you could easily fly your plane clean through. That fact in and of itself, I argued, should not detract from the game as a work of art. If this were just as fair a society today, I would make the same argument about Gran Turismo HD. But playing this game, for the PS3’s customers, will be the payoff for having made a colossal investment in electronic entertainment. In this day and age, they will expect smoke and dust and whirlwinds and dust-devils, and probably the occasional tumbleweed – and that’s just for the Detroit Grand Prix course.

When Sony and others made the choice to move to high-definition gaming, they chose to fine-tune the granularity of the interactive experience. Pixels can’t fudge for facts any more; HDTV obliterates the distinction between realistic and real.

Appealing to the sports fan’s critical eye

The challenge for the EA Sports designers can only be more daunting, as 1080 lines of resolution expose every little unseen vertex in an athlete’s elbow or cheekbone. We are emerging from the era in which “sprites,” as Amiga designer Jay Miner referred to them, can represent the player on the battlefield or the basketball court. It isn’t that players’ tastes have necessarily changed or evolved, because in the PlayStation Portable realm, where the screen is smaller and the resolution lower, the evolution of gaming rests comfortably at about the level of the PS one. It is that, in high definition, blocky, clunky athletes look bad, and gamers might end up preferring the PS2 to the PS3 for that reason alone.

An astounding live rendering of the face and body posture of Tiger Woods, adapting to inputs from an onstage EA Sports developer – in lieu of inputs from the actual game, PGA Golf 2007, which is still in development.

To that end, the test pattern for Tiger Woods’ PGA Golf 2007, demonstrated by EA’s Larry Probst, shows how enormously far designers have come. Their objective was not just to capture Tiger’s body movements, muscle tone, and wardrobe, but also his character and personality. To accomplish this, EA literally digitized Tiger’s real face, going through the motions of watching a ball sink into an eagle hole and a sand trap.

It is, to date, perhaps the most convincing game console digitization of a living, real human being that I’ve ever witnessed, albeit not yet in a playable game. Tiger’s eyes follow the ball in the air, he winces at the sunlight, grimaces a bit, urges on the ball with his mind, and then cheers as it follows his whim. For perhaps the first time ever, his teeth…are teeth – rendered objects, rather than a bitmapped pattern laid over an unseen denture set. If there is any room for improvement, it’s in his eyes – and that’s the tricky part. No one yet has managed to make a perfect rendition of human eyes – not even for the Final Fantasy theatrical film. There’s something magnificent about eyes that motion artists don’t yet know how to capture, but this test demonstrates how hard they’re trying.

Perhaps you’ve already hit upon an underlying problem in all of this: EA can make basketball and golf athletes look more and more like people, but have they actually improved the underlying game

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Will the 4D controller make the difference?

There were some rumors about the possibility that Sony would embed a mercury switch or some similar device in its PS3 controllers; but all in all, the company managed to keep their design and contents a secret.

Sony Computer Entertainment President Phil Harrison unveiled the new device virtually, as it appeared within a virtual wooden crate rendered by a PS3. As Harrison lifted the model controller on stage, the virtual model that emerged from the crate, lifted with it. The response of the crowd indicated it was not what they were expecting.

As Atari proved decades earlier with the production of what even loving admirers called the disposable joystick, a console manufacturer doesn’t have to be the one to produce the perfect controller. This leaves room for third parties to make premium add-ons. What Sony’s move does is create room for the spatial control axis, where the attitude in which you hold the controller, can be registered as a motion. From there, perhaps others can be left to perfect the device itself.

A fellow reporter tests the PS3’s controller on Warhawk for the first time. As he banks his controller’s attitude to the left, the plane follows his moves.

Now that it seems I’ve let Sony off the hook, let me unfairly put it back: To date, the only (unfinished) game that makes use of the 4D controller is Incognito’s Warhawk, which is reminiscent of EA’s Firefox decades earlier: You maneuver a wedge of a flying machine around an island littered with ground targets and covered by air support. In the demo, the plane itself was indestructible (at several points, it flew through the side of the mountain); but the point was to give people the feeling of maneuvering the new, wireless controller through the air.

Harrison warned the audience it would be a lighter-weight controller than that created for the PS2. He did not say how much lighter, but as it was held out to me for the first time, I quite literally didn’t expect the device to nearly fly out of my hand. I’ve held heavier disposable drinking cups, or at least it seemed. For me – and for others on the floor – this was a problem. Ironically, high resolution could become this device’s undoing as well; in this case, its super-sensitive internal switches were literally translating the shakes and quivers of nervous players, which you could literally see registered in the accurately responsive on-screen plane.

Price point: What does PS3 truly cost?

The big gamble starts with the $499 price tag. As we concluded before, there probably wasn’t another possible price point Sony could choose. Up until iSuppli conducts the first teardown analysis of the PS3, no one really knows for certain how much Sony loses for the sale of each console. The free network subscription service means the company will lose even more. So the gamble is on the power of the content to make it worth Sony’s while.

Sony’s expectations for success are extremely high, though they’re based on a few presumptions that, under close scrutiny, cannot be certainties. Between the PS3’s date of initial shipment in time for its retail premiere in November, and March 2007, Sony intends to ship six million PS3 units. This, while at the same time, Microsoft only just now managed to push 1.7 million Xbox 360 units in the period between last January and March.

The presumption Sony makes is that a great many of those customers within the first four-and-a-half months of shipment are willing to invest in the highest resolution console ever built, not necessarily for its high resolution. Today, a 32″ Sony 1080p HDTV display sells for about $800, but the prices only go up from there. And a Sony Dolby 5.1 surround sound component sells for an average of $375. Sony also expects consumers to purchase at least four games with every system, with an average selling price of about $50 apiece. Let’s face reality: This isn’t a $500 game system; for most Americans, it’s a $1,900 one, at least.

Granted, Sony’s projections are for worldwide customers; but even if the US is just a quarter of that market, are one and one-half million Americans truly ready to plunk down at least well over a thousand dollars, at a time when gasoline sells right outside Sony’s headquarters for $3.68 per gallon?

On the other hand, Sony’s play puts Microsoft in a terrible spot. It is no longer the high-definition game console, although 780 pixels is still what the majority of installed HDTVs currently display. Since Microsoft can’t make a play for technology any more – even if it does unveil an HD DVD drive for its console tomorrow (if resolution isn’t upgraded, it might not matter), it has to rely on the strength of its upcoming content. Where Microsoft can back out of the hole is possibly by showing more completed titles, ready to ship, to combat the PS3’s juggernaut of half-done, or even one-third-done, projects. But if all Microsoft can come up with is more glossy first-person shooters, its $100 price differential might end up giving it not enough of an edge. And for new customers to HDTV, purchasing 1080p displays for the first time, some may come to the conclusion they may as well spend the other $100 on PS3 anyway.

The answer from Microsoft comes Tuesday afternoon, in its own major Hollywood gala unveiling at Grauman’s Chinese Theater.

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