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Graphic illustration of PS4 console on blue background with “PS4” in bright orange/brown letters in the foreground. Illustration: James Bareham/Polygon

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The PlayStation 4 found success in simplicity

After the ambitious PS3, Sony delivered a simple message (and won)

Michael McWhertor is a journalist with more than 17 years of experience covering video games, technology, movies, TV, and entertainment.

Sony’s PlayStation 4 had the perfect foil in the Xbox One. In 2013, Microsoft came out with a confused, entertainment-centric pitch: The new Xbox would be the all-in-one entertainment hub of your living room, delivering live television, apps, NFL football, and video games to early console adopters. In every box, Microsoft packed a Kinect motion controller, the gadget that brought the Xbox to Ellen and Oprah. Steven Spielberg was going to make a Halo TV series for Microsoft, which ... maybe you could watch on your new Xbox?

The PlayStation 4, on the other hand, would play video games. And, in the early days of the new generation, the PS4 would play games better and more cheaply than Microsoft’s new system.

Sony had its share of lofty ambitions with the PS4, too. Then-PlayStation president Andrew House touted cloud gaming — as did Microsoft, which promised to offload computing work to its Azure service — and second-screen experiences. But those other promises were focused squarely on the video game-loving base that had grown up with PlayStation. The PlayStation 4’s vastly improved new DualShock gamepad — “inarguably the best controller Sony’s ever made,” we said at the time — even had a “share” button that would let players leap into the streaming future with ease. Sony also touted on-demand demos and play-as-you-download digital games, ideas that still sound futuristic (and never quite succeeded on PS4).

Unlike with the Xbox One, there was no confusion: The PS4 was a gaming device first, and it was one that would correct the sins of the PlayStation 3, Sony’s bulky, tough-to-develop-for, five-hundred-and-ninety-nine-U.S.-dollars-priced console. The lofty ambitions of the complex Cell processor that powered the PS3 would be succeeded by more developer-friendly computing architecture.

With veteran game developer Mark Cerny at the helm, Sony had put together the simple but powerful PS4, which could play video games better than any other console. You could play used games on it, no problem — a feature that, in the minds of some confused consumers, was not possible on Xbox One. And at $399, the PS4 cost a hundred bucks less than the new Xbox.

Sony capitalized on the confusion and anxiety about the Xbox One’s digital-rights-managed future at E3 2013, in what was widely seen as a killing blow to Microsoft’s next-generation plans. The PlayStation maker had the advantage of revealing its next-gen philosophy (and price) after Microsoft had its turn at E3. And the message was clear. Here’s how then-president and CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment America Jack Tretton won over the PlayStation-enthusiast crowd:

“In addition to creating an amazing library of new titles on PlayStation 4,” Tretton said, “we’re equally focused on what gamers want most, without imposing restrictions or devaluing their PS4 purchases. For instance, PS4 won’t impose any new restrictions on the use of PS4 game discs.”

Tretton paused for 23 seconds of applause.

“Guess that’s a good thing,” he ad-libbed.

a close-up of Jack Tretton, a middle-aged man in a light blue dress shirt and dark gray jacket, speaking at Sony’s E3 2013 PlayStation press conference
Jack Tretton, then the president and CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment America, addresses the crowd at Sony’s E3 2013 press briefing.
Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

“We believe in the model that people embrace today with PlayStation 3 and continue to demand,” he continued. “When a gamer buys a PS4 disc, they have the rights to use that copy of the game — they can trade in the game at retail, sell it to another person, lend it to a friend, or keep it forever.”

Another 25 seconds of applause followed.

“In addition, PlayStation 4 disc-based games don’t need to be connected online to play.”

Twelve more seconds of applause.

“If you enjoy playing single-player games offline, PS4 won’t require you to check in online periodically,” he concluded. “And it won’t stop working if you haven’t authenticated within 24 hours.”

Twisting the knife one more time, but with a warm and friendly smile, PlayStation president Andrew House ended Sony’s E3 2013 presentation with the proclamation that “true consumer ownership and consumer trust are essential to everything we do,” in a final dig at the seemingly already doomed Xbox One.

Perhaps the clearest part of Sony’s message at the time was this: a 14-second “instructional” video on how to share PS4 games. That video, released in the wake of botched DRM messaging from Microsoft and starring amiable PlayStation execs Adam Boyes and Shuhei Yoshida, has been viewed more than 17 million times on YouTube. Reaction from consumers was clear too: Give us something new, but don’t change too much.

The games

At launch, the PlayStation 4 arrived with games like Killzone Shadow Fall and Knack from Sony, and cross-generational games such as Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag, Call of Duty: Ghosts, and Battlefield 4. There was no big system-seller like Super Mario 64 at launch that truly represented a generational leap forward, but there was variety. And there were freebies: Housemarque’s addictive arcade shoot-’em-up Resogun was available to PlayStation Plus subscribers, and there was the free-to-play shooter Warframe.

The PS4 was also a welcome home to indies, with quirky titles like Divekick and Hotline Miami. Games like Outlast, Octodad: Dadliest Catch, Galak-Z, Transistor, and Don’t Starve got E3 2013 keynote stage time, standing shoulder to shoulder with new AAA games like Killzone, Final Fantasy, Infamous, and Watch Dogs.

Over the next seven years, Sony and its internal studios delivered new entries in venerable PlayStation franchises: Ratchet & Clank, Uncharted, Infamous, Gran Turismo, and a rebooted, dad-ified God of War. But Sony also gave its studios reasons to stretch with new ideas: Killzone maker Guerrilla pivoted with Horizon Zero Dawn; Media Molecule spent nearly the entire PS4 lifespan creating Dreams, a bolder realization of its game-making video game ambitions; Evolution Studios competed against Sony’s own flagship racing brand with the realistic racing game DriveClub; and Insomniac Games, since purchased by Sony, delivered the goods on Marvel’s Spider-Man.

The PlayStation maker also struck shrewd deals to bring FromSoftware’s brand of brutal action to PS4 with Bloodborne (another mea culpa of sorts from the PS3 era, when Sony all but ignored Demon’s Souls), as well as a new console-exclusive Street Fighter from Capcom, and, borrowing from Microsoft’s playbook, timed exclusives for Destiny and Call of Duty. It was a mix of safe bets paired with the occasional risk, and more than a few big-budget single-player games.

Kratos attacks a giant in artwork from God of War Image: Sony Santa Monica Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment

Sony’s combination of blockbuster first-party exclusives and smart — if not always consumer-friendly — third-party deals catapulted the PS4 ahead of the Xbox One over time. The PS4 became the default place to play on console thanks to must-have exclusives and games that ran just slightly better than on Xbox.

The PlayStation 4 traded in fewer gimmicks than previous consoles. There was nothing quite like the trend-following PlayStation Move controller or the truly bizarre Wonderbook for PlayStation 3. Sony invested in virtual reality with the PlayStation VR headset, a simple, console customer-friendly alternative to more expensive PC headsets. While virtual reality was sometimes seen as a fad, or at least burgeoning technology still a few years from mass appeal, PlayStation VR felt like a real investment for Sony.

The game maker continues to invest in VR, with the recently released Iron Man VR and upcoming support for games like Minecraft and Hitman 3. There’s the promise of future compatibility with PS5, but still nothing to distract from Sony’s core games message — just more support for the 5 million-plus PlayStation VR adopters.

The cloud and PlayStation Now

When Sony unveiled the PS4 in 2013, David Perry, founder of the cloud-streaming platform Gaikai, promised the future of game streaming on Sony’s new console. It didn’t quite turn out as planned. Sony’s solution, PlayStation Now, never matched up to its initial promise to offer three generations of PlayStation console gaming streamed from the cloud.

PlayStation Now ultimately found an audience of more than 2.2 million subscribers, but cloud gaming never seemed to be a major focus for Sony this generation, while others — namely, Microsoft, Google, and reportedly Amazon — built the foundation for their future.

That may change in the next generation, however. Sony and Microsoft struck a deal in 2019 to utilize Azure cloud computing to power PlayStation Now, which could signal renewed interest in cloud gaming for PS5.

The PS4’s legacy

For PlayStation 5, Sony looks to repeat the success of the PS4. The company is delivering another gaming-centered device, again architected by Cerny. The PS5 is a more powerful and bolder next-gen console that, based on Sony’s approach to unveiling the next-gen PlayStation and its severe-looking industrial design, dispenses with any sense of humility from the PS4 era.

With more than 110 million PS4s sold, outselling the original PlayStation and the PlayStation 3, Sony’s current-generation console will be a tough act to follow. That may be why Sony is following a similar path for PS5, touting the machine’s developer friendliness and souped-up PC-style architecture as selling points.

Polygon PS4 5 on a blue background James Bareham/Polygon
PS4 Pro console on a blue background Photo: James Bareham/Polygon

Sony has said it “believes in generations,” meaning that graduating to a new console should come with benefits. The games you play on a next-gen PlayStation shouldn’t be possible on the previous one. Sony has embraced backward compatibility in a way it didn’t with the PS4, although it has yet to explicitly commit to the number of PS4 games that will be playable on PS5.

During the PlayStation 4 era, Sony was unafraid to shake things up, at least when it came to who ran the PlayStation business. The generation saw the departures of high-level, front-facing PlayStation figures like Sony Computer Entertainment America CEO Jack Tretton; his replacement, Shawn Layden; Andrew House, president and group CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment; and Sony CEO Kaz Hirai. PlayStation’s veteran European executive Jim Ryan ascended to president and CEO of Sony Interactive Entertainment.

Ryan, with his trademark no-nonsense style of speaking to the press, says the transition from PS4 to PS5 will happen “at a scale and pace that we’ve never delivered on before.” That was before the global coronavirus pandemic both slowed and fueled the video game industry, leading to delayed games and a boost in PS5 manufacturing to meet demand. It’s another sign of Sony’s confidence going into the next generation, and a far less humbled PlayStation team building on a strategy that succeeded in 2013.

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