To hear Sony tell it, every piece of their upcoming PlayStation 4 is an industry-changing marvel. As John Teti aptly writes, their mantra is “More”: more processing power, more polygons, more texture, more social network hooks. It’s hard to separate substance from static in the middle of the hype storm but now that some time has passed, I’m more confident that the most important feature announced is linked to a single button labeled “share.” Assuming it’s implemented gracefully (which is a big assumption given Sony’s console software track record), the ability for players to stream and save gameplay footage will have a much larger effect than any amount of increased visual fidelity.
Gameplay capture is by no means new, but neither is it particularly easy to accomplish by end users. Doing it on a PC is probably the simplest way, but you still need at least one extra piece of software running behind your game (and sometimes two if you want a separate, high-quality voice over track). Sometimes there are problems with full-screen mode. Tweaking bit rates can eat up an entire afternoon. Storage and hosting considerations add more complications. Trying to get something off a console means more investments in both the hardware and software sides. Such investments require enough time and money to scare away most players.
As it stands now, distributing gameplay footage is a bit like on-line multiplayer in the days before Xbox Live. Some games have it baked into their software, others require manual tweaking and a willingness to jump through more than a few hoops. It’s not enough to want to share, you have to be willing to engineer a solution as well. Through a combination of hardware, software, and cloud services, Sony is trying to cater to those that are interested in the end product rather than the process of getting it set up.
There will definitely be those that will scoff at the inevitable limitations of such a mechanism. Purists will probably be able to get sharper images, record longer sessions, and capture at higher frame rates with their own setups, just as some people still like to host their own multiplayer services and wire their house with ethernet to cut down on latency. For the vast majority of the people however, “good enough” will be better than “not at all.”
It’s clear that streaming and capturing game footage will be easier with the PS4, but why is that a good thing? In a word: democratization. It sounds a bit pretentious without any context, but the theory behind it is simple. If people can share and comment on games easily on their own terms, they have power over how their games are framed. Exaggerated publisher claims or deceptive advertisements will ring even more hollow in the face of people who can broadcast the finished product without a corporate filter. For independent developers, a larger streaming population means more games will have the opportunity to experience the kind of grass roots popularity games like Minecraft enjoyed. Evangelists will have an easier time spreading the word about an obscure game they played and audiences will have the opportunity to form organically.
As I’ve written before, democratized game capture has historical value as well. Properly executed, the PS4 will enable millions of new record keepers to create primary sources for posterity. We will have video of how games looked in their original form on their original hardware. This is particularly important as we make the transition to all digital games, as version updates and patches can literally overwrite a game’s past.
Having wider access to recording technology will also help us capture the culture surrounding particular games. If Bungie and Activision are to be believed, Destiny will be a decade-long Odyssey in which players interact with one another across a vast galaxy. Universal access to recording technology means every player can become an anthropologist within their virtual community. With any luck, major game events (both scripted and player driven) will be recorded and used to study games and their players. Will 90% of the footage be mundane to the average viewer? Probably. Will seeing people interact with one another yield both wonderful and terrible examples of human nature? Most certainly. In order to get a full picture of our medium, we need as much data as we can get.
Sony is rolling out sharing features in the hopes of gaining control of the video game market, but these very features also give players significant power. If successful, the share button will give players unprecedented opportunity to shape a game’s public perception and historical memory. In a world in which technology is increasingly focused on user “ecosystems,” the streaming and sharing pave the way for an extremely active, unpredictable user base. It’s hard to know what changes the PS4’s share button (and it’s inevitable Xbox counterpart) will bring forth. Whatever it is, you can be certain it will be more influential than fancy new shaders.