With Sony's next-gen console, it's now as easy to watch your friends game as play yourself - but it's been a long road getting here.
This week at a press event in New York, Sony revealed the Playstation 4 to the world. Or at least, what the PS4 is capable of: we got to peek at the new DualShock 4 controller, plenty of new games for it and even a Kinect-style motion sensing camera add-on - but not a single glimpse of the console itself.
What it looks like is anyone's guess, but one thing's for sure: it's a powerhouse of a machine. Its tech specs are much like a top-end gaming PC rigs - on steroids. It can boot instantly into paused games, it can even play 4K video with pictures four times as sharp as the full HD Blu-rays on your shelf.
Based on the praise heaped on Sony by the developers who took the stage to show off their new wares, it's clear we're going to see some stunning PS4 games very soon that'll make Nintendo Wii U titles look like Fischer-Price toys.
Yet what makes the Sony PlayStation 4 stand out isn't the new hardware. Seven years on from the launch of the PS3, that's the least you'd expect from one of the world's biggest tech companies: it's the tiny little Share button on the PS4 controller.
Tap it while you're playing, and it something magic happens: you can rewind what you just played. Your PS4's been working like Sky+ box for your games, recording what you play so you can find and edit, then save an incredible goal or kill spree you just pulled off - and then upload it to the net for other gamers to see on YouTube.
Sony's PS4 hardware lead, Mark Cerny, explained on stage just how it works.
“It enables seamless uploads of recorded gameplay," he said. "You just hit the share button on the controller, scan through the last few minutes of gameplay, take a portion, tag it and return to your game. The video will upload as you continue playing."
It's an incredible demo, only made possible by Sony's video compression tech and the sheer power of the new console - and the company's aim for it is no less ambitious.
"Our goal is to make the sharing of video as popular in the PlayStation 4 generation as the sharing of screenshots is today," says Cerny.
You've probably seen clips of your favourite games on YouTube, whether they're incredible skill shots or ridiculous glitches. They might be walkthroughs published by experts or gaming mags, but more likely, they're just clips posted by other gamers.
Did you ever stop to think how they got there? The chances are, the YouTube member you're watching plugged some expensive kit into the back of his PC, and remembered to run some software before loading the game. It's fiddly, but its popularity proves there's an audience for it, and Sony's move with the PS4 is set to push it into the mainstream.
Gameplay streaming and sharing's already big business these days, with whole sites dedicated to it like Twitch.tv, but it wasn't always like this. Until recently, recording your gameplay, didn't just take time and effort, it took money, and even separate, dedicated boxes that only magazines could afford.
So when people first started showing off their skills online, and sharing their experiences, it was with pictures: popular sub-genres on YouTube like Let’s Play, where gamers narrate and ad lib while wading through a new game, started with nothing more than galleries of thumbnail images.
“In the very early days of Let's Plays it used to be screenshots that people shared,” explains Lars Felber a director at Elgato, one of the leading companies in the game card capture business.
The march of tech changed that. First came the arrival of video sharing sites like YouTube and Veoh. Combined with new, cheap DVD-recorders that could digitally record whatever was on your screen, suddenly, hardcore gamers had an easy way to tape even console games and share them with friends and rivals. It was a blessing for top speedrunner Richard Gibson, one of the world’s best Nintendo Entertainment System players.
“On the NES console there’s a video out and audio out...I split that, send one to the TV, and I send another of that to another splitter and that splits it again, one to a DVD recorder and the other to my laptop to stream - they’re dirt cheap a dollar fifty or so.”
Companies like Roxio and Elgato caught on and released smart accessories that made it even easier to do this, and in high-def.
“Until HDMI capture devices like the [Elgato] Game Capture HD came out, gamers filmed their TVs with their phones or cameras or had to use a dozen cables to hook their consoles and TVs up to first-generation capture cards,” says Felber.
These paved the way for a new type of video streaming website, dedicated to gaming. Launched in 2011 as a spin-off of livestreaming site Justin.tv, Twitch.tv became a new YouTube for gamers, and grew rapidly. An Xbox Live app’s on the way, and more than 20 million gamers now tune in every month to see others play, from school friends to pro gamers - they even pay to watch: some 2,000 gamers make a living from streaming what they play on the site.
The trend soon got the attention of gaming’s big guns. Activision, the company behind the blockbuster Call of Duty series, took game streaming to a new level by building it right into 2012’s Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. At the push of a button, you can stream your deathmatches right to YouTube - no fiddly accessories needed - and viewers can even see all your kill stats and the weapons you’re carrying.
“By making the capability of live streaming as accessible as possible to our fans, straight from a player’s console without the need for any additional hardware or sophisticated setups, we are empowering our fans to share their multiplayer experiences,” says Mark Lamia, the studio head of Black Ops 2 developer Treyarch.
The trailer for PS4 game Killzone: Shadow Fall shows just what sort of graphics the new console can pump out.
Sony clearly thought likewise: it’s been developing the PS4 for more than half a decade. It looks like incredible foresight, but in truth, says Felber, it’s just taken this long for technology to catch up with basic human instinct to share and do things with friends.
“Sharing gameplay connects gamers with others, friends and strangers alike. It creates friendships and communities,” he says.
That’s exactly what Sony hopes to do with the next PlayStation, and it’s going one step further than recorded gameplay and live streaming by even letting your friends comment, and if you’re stuck on a boss, even take over your gamepad to get you through.
“You can browse live video streams of what your friends are playing, spectate the gameplay of a famous person within your gaming universe, you can even see that your friend is in trouble and reach out through the network to take over the controller and assist them through that portion of the game,” Cerny said on stage.
Multiplayer video games have been around since the beginning - just look at Pong. Sony’s real breakthrough with the PS4 might not be the specs, but its ability to turn every game you play into a multiplayer one.
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