PlayStation 4’s dominance this past generation could not have been more of a 180 from Sony’s struggle during the PS3 era. From minute one, Sony not only announced what the PS4’s impressive seven-year run would be about – games, first and foremost – but also found ways to leapfrog ahead of the Xbox One, which stumbled out of the gate and lost the momentum it Microsoft enjoyed during the reign of the Xbox 360.
But that doesn’t mean the PS4’s lifecycle was a boring one of constant success. Yes, we saw PlayStation cement its first-party stable as consistently excellent this generation, but it had to grapple with the consequences of its own over-confidence, and ultimately, an identity crisis in the face of that success. Here’s the (mostly) complete history of the PlayStation 4.
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PS4: It Was Over Before the Console Was Even Out
Sony officially unveiled the DualShock 4, the PS4 name, and a host of upcoming games back in February 2013, but it was its approach to E3 that year that set the tone for the entire generation. It’s a story that’s been repeated endlessly ever since, but Microsoft bungled the Xbox One reveal with a focus on media apps and entertainment features rather than games and a confusing and prohibitive game-sharing policy.
Enter Sony: in 30 seconds, it demonstrated just how easy it was to share PS4 games, and then undercut Microsoft’s console price by $100. IGN called it a knockout blow at the time, and for good reason.
There’s a scrappiness to that first E3 – yes, Sony was still a major player, but the grounded, human charm with which it knocked out Microsoft was foundational in connecting the brand to new, lapsed, and dedicated PlayStation players.
The PS4 would go on to sell a million units in under 24 hours in North America alone on November 15, 2013, and continually impressive console sales followed that booming start. These numbers were bolstered by the mid-generation refresh of the PS4 Pro, and the PS4 as of now has sold over 113 million units. That makes it the second best-selling home console ever, behind only the PS2. But for all that success, it’s surprising to see just how bullish Sony was about experimentation in the early days of this generation.
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Clouds and Goggles
Sony kicked off the PS4’s first calendar year in 2014 by announcing a service that would prove to be ahead of the curve: PlayStation Now. The service, which lets subscribers stream dozens of PS4, PS3, and PS2 games over the cloud and recently added the ability to download a rotating selection of games to play locally, has yet to gain as much popularity as PS Plus or the continually impressive Xbox Game Pass. As of earlier in 2020, Sony reported only 2.2 million PlayStation Now subscribers. Previously only allowing streaming from the cloud, Sony only introduced offline downloads for certain games in September 2018, and reached a more consumer-friendly price with more recent, popular games in a rotation like God of War, Horizon Zero Dawn, and Marvel’s Spider-Man starting in October 2019. PS Now has enjoyed a dedicated audience, but it has by no means ushered in a subscription service revolution in the way Game Pass has or as Google Stadia hoped it would.
In keeping with the theme of experimentation, 2014 was the same year we heard about PlayStation VR, nee Project Orpheus (remember awesome codenames?). While the headset itself wouldn’t be released until 2016, it was another example of Sony’s ambitious endeavors during this last generation. The PSVR itself would go on to have a roller coaster of a life cycle and has seen modest success, compared to the rest of the VR market in particular. But, we’ve yet to see VR be universally embraced.
Walls Come Down
Where Sony showed less willingness to experiment was when it came to playing nice with the rest of the industry. As the clear sales winner for its console generation, Sony could be occasionally stubborn, particularly when it came to cross-play.
In 2017, Rocket League and Minecraft ushered in a wave of cross-console play that has since become widely embraced. . But there was one problem – PlayStation didn’t want to play nice with Xbox and Nintendo. At the time, then-marketing head and now CEO Jim Ryan said “We have a contract with the people who go online with us, that we look after them and they are within the PlayStation curated universe. Exposing what in many cases are children to external influences we have no ability to manage or look after, it’s something we have to think about very carefully.”
This stance that the lack of cross-play was out of concern for the player base would hold for over a year, until one of the biggest games of the generation, Fortnite, seemingly forced Sony’s hand. As cross-play infiltrated the battle royale game, players discovered that due to Sony’s walled-off approach, Nintendo Switch players could not even connect their Epic account to both a PS4 and Switch at the same time, preventing cross-progression from working, too.
Three months later, Sony relinquished, taking a step into a cross-play beta when everyone else had gone gold. September 2018 saw the selective start of cross-platform play for PS4 and other consoles, starting with Fortnite. But that didn’t mark the end of Sony’s fumbling with messaging around cross-play.
In early 2019, devs began to cry out about how Sony’s approach to the functionality was limiting the number of developers and games that could participate. And an interview with then-SIE president and CEO Shawn Layden only fanned the flames. Layden said Sony was waiting for devs and publishers to request cross-play support. The CEO of Chucklefish, publisher of Wargroove, which lacked PS4 cross-play, directly refuted Layden’s claims following his statement, saying “We made many requests for crossplay (both through our account manager and directly with higher-ups) all the way up until release month. We were told in no uncertain terms that it was not going to happen.” Concerns from devs around the industry wouldn’t be alleviated until 2019 when Sony made cross-play available as a full feature.
In the eyes of many players, slow change that came years after it should have was common for Sony during the PS4 lifecycle. Shortly after the beta program for cross-play began, Sony finally – and I cannot emphasize that word enough, FINALLY – introduced the ability to change PSN names. Of course, like cross-play, this new functionality came with some caveats, but for users like bongripper69, it was nonetheless a godsend.
Considering these years of stubbornness, Sony made a surprising decision later in the PS4’s lifetime. After spending years telling consumers that the PS4 was the only place to play PlayStation games, Sony announced that Horizon Zero Dawn, one of its best-selling exclusives of the generation, would be arriving on PC in 2020. The move drew ire from some fans who had spent years defending Sony’s decision to keep its barriers up.
Horizon was making the jump to PC three years after its launch and, as we would later learn, just a short while before its sequel would be announced. What better way to drum up interest after years of silence for the franchise than by letting a whole new group of players fall in love with Aloy’s world? If they want to play her next adventure anytime soon, a PS4 or PS5 will still be the only place to go.
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An Era of Greatness
But none of these business decisions will be looked back on as what really defined the PS4: its lineup of incredible exclusives. Since its early console days, Sony had always focused on building up iconic characters and franchises, but the PS4 felt like the perfect encapsulation of what many players think of when they think of PlayStation – iconic, blockbuster experiences you can’t get anywhere else.
Interestingly, the PS4 didn’t quite start out that way. After a launch that saw middling exclusives like Killzone: Shadowfall and Internet boyfriend Knack, the first couple of years of releases wouldn’t necessarily represent the volume of games that would define the platform, though that was in large part due to Sony’s E3 and PSX strategy.
It was in 2015 that Sony really started flexing its exclusives, when it offered PS4 players arguably FromSoftware’s most beloved Soulsborne, Bloodborne, which is still often considered a standard-bearer for the genre, as well as Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection. And while that second one may seem much smaller, it was a sign of big things to come between Sony and Bluepoint Games.
2016 continued the cycle with the release of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End in May, bringing a wonderful conclusion to Nathan Drake’s story and offering a real look at the visual fidelity Sony first-party studios could achieve on PS4.
2016 was also the year that Sony delivered what many, IGN included, have called the best E3 showcase of all time. On top of big third-party games and PSVR showcases, that conference alone included The Last Guardian, Horizon Zero Dawn, and Detroit Become Human, while Sony also revealed Days Gone, Death Stranding, God of War, and Marvel’s Spider-Man, ahead of a PSX that delivered The Last of Us Part 2, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, and, of course, Knack 2 all being announced.
Sony continued rolling out hits in 2017, with the critically and commercially successful Horizon Zero Dawn being heralded as a bold new direction for Killzone dev Guerrilla Games, and kicking off an impressive trend of new Sony IP establishing itself as a core part of the exclusive lineup. The Last Guardian also released in 2017 and while it wasn’t as universally acclaimed, it showed the continued inventiveness to come from the teams at Sony Japan Studio, which would only be reinforced by the studio’s work in VR throughout the generation.
2018 brought two of Sony’s biggest exclusives into the conversation; God of War, which revived the seemingly defunct franchise with an entry that brought new levels of gameplay and storytelling depth to the table; and Marvel’s Spider-Man, a flagship comic book crossover that has made the webhead synonymous with Sony as a gaming platform and may have cemented developer Insomniac’s move from long-standing business partner to official Sony first-party studio. But with the release of these two games, we also began to see a Sony that started to spin its wheels. There were still clearly some impressive games to come, but because many of Sony’s first-party studios had spent years working on a single project or two, 2018 brought with it two trends: Sony’s seemingly annual Game of the Year contender status, and a question of how far Sony could stretch that reputation as its unreleased lineup began to dwindle.
Time After Time/Identity Crisis/We’ve Been Here Before
The clearest sign of this issue came at E3 2018, which saw Sony guide press and remote fans through a series of locations to showcase the Big 4: Marvel’s Spider-Man, Death Stranding, Ghost of Tsushima, and The Last of Us Part 2. With some of these games having been revealed in 2016, and in hindsight we now know it would be over two years until the last of them (but not The Last of Us, which was second to last) would be released, there was some clear fatigue among Sony fans of just wanting to get to the games, or to at least not be shown tease after tease after tease if they were still so far off.
And so, perhaps in part due to that but also due to trends around the industry, Sony pulled out of E3 2019, a year before COVID-19 would lead to E3 and every other major convention skipping 2020, and also put an end to PSX after the 2017 show.
Concurrently, Sony decided to take a page out of Nintendo’s book and introduced the PlayStation State of Play showcases in 2019, a host of events that cut out the middlemen of an event like Nintendo Directs do, but with all the confusion of what exactly a State of Play should look like, unlike the very confidently made Nintendo Directs.
Since their introduction, State of Plays have been hodgepodges of trailers for third-party games, some exclusive and some not, tied to a single big trailer debut that has 20 minutes of other trailers to go through first, or one-off, specific-game focused showcases that play like wonderful slices of E3 conferences we may never get again.
But the rhyme or reason by which Sony uses the State of Play name seems arbitrary at this point, with both of 2020’s major PS5 reveals abandoning the title. It was instead used in everything from Saturday morning Demon’s Souls showcases to PS4 round-ups in the months between PS5 news drops. They paint an erratic picture of where this new phase of Sony’s promotions go as we enter a next-generation, coming so late into the PS4’s life cycle, and after pretty much every major PS4 game had been announced, to really have the impact this past generation that Directs have.Still, even with Sony’s decision to abandon its normal event life for these pre-packaged video carousels, the last two years of the PS4 life cycle were not without their major hits. In fact, much of Sony’s silence on the PS5 could be attributed to its emphasis on the PS4.
With 2019 not trending quite as high critically as 2018, 2020 hit back with it after hit, either critically or commercially, or both. Dreams, Final Fantasy VII Remake, Nioh 2, Persona 5 Royal, and, of course, The Last of Us Part 2 and Ghost of Tsushima. One of the console’s best overall years, if not THE best, is arguably the last it doesn’t have to majorly share shelf space with its next-gen sibling. And that’s not even including the cross-gen PlayStation exclusives like Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Sackboy: A Big Adventure.
Year after year, PlayStation defined its platform by the experiences you could only get on the PS4 compared to the competition, whether that be first-party exclusives, first access to third-party DLC in partnerships with Call of Duty, and others, or just Spider-Man himself. But even as the PS4 remained THE place to play the generation’s biggest games, the platform itself didn’t always put players first, whether in Sony’s reticence to join the cross-play trend going on around it or in its erratic messaging in later years.
And maybe it’s a byproduct of the times, or it is the culmination of Sony’s growth not just over this past generation but the last several. From the heights of PS1 and PS2 success to the troubling days of the PS3’s early life to the runaway winner that was the PS4, Sony has seen its fair share of wins and losses, triumphs and embarrassments. This generation itself has been a microcosm of that – incredible exclusives, bizarre promotion cycles, and a shift away from and then back toward a consumer- and industry-wide friendly face. And despite its immediate successes, and the near-decade of incredible exclusives experiences, Sony put on many different faces throughout the generation. The one we’re currently left with – a Sony committed to the heights of PS4 exclusives along with the indie love and player-focused options of the PS4’s early days – may not be the one we see in just a few years’ time. But it’s quite clear whatever form Sony takes after it fully leaves the PlayStation 4 behind will have its roots in the dominating exclusives that defined the generation.