noun eco·sys·tem \-ˌsis-təm\
The complex of a community of organisms and its environment functioning as an ecological unit
One of the defining attributes of the 8th generation of consoles is the push not for simply creating cool devices (which arguably all three platform holders have done) but also creating rich ecosystems where multiple devices are able to cohabitate and contribute to one another. Two of these ecosystems are functionally complete with Nintendo’s Wii U and 3DS platforms cross pollinating between one another and Sony’s much broader platform which includes phones, televisions, PS Vita, PS TV and the PS4 itself. The last ecosystem is Microsoft’s Xbox environment which looks like it will finally burst forth from its chrysalis with the launch of Windows 10. We will break out the qualities of these three platforms in more detail over the course of several articles (the Windows article will truly have to wait until the launch of Windows 10) and try to explore the benefits of these devices.
All three platforms have their unique strengths, Nintendo has a strong first party stable that despite weaker hardware and recurring flubs on community integration and marketing strategies continues to draw party faithful as well as new generations of customers in. Microsoft’s robust software engineering history and immensely powerful server platforms help leverage the software service aspect (as well as the added layer of security and stability sadly lacking from Sony’s offerings). Meanwhile Sony had until recently been a hardware vendor who had an immense supply chain and a broad spectrum of products they were able to leverage the PlayStation brand across as well as a content creator with its Sony Pictures Entertainment line.
Sony’s financial woes have led to a reduction in the number of products it offers having sold their PC division, slashed their TV and Mobile Phone divisions to the bone and shuttered all their retail locations in some geographies while massive layoffs effected the remaining retail outlets and divisions. This strength appears to have become a liability but none of this happened before they were able to launch a grand and compelling case for cross platform integration. During the launch of the PS4 two features stood out among the many promises. The first was the ability to stream your game anywhere and play from remote locations the second was the ability to “share” games with a friend letting them take the controls and play along with you even if they didn’t own the game.
To do this Sony indicated a few requirements, the first was possessing the appropriate platform. In the case of game sharing you would require another PS4 but in the case of remote play they allowed you to stream your game not just to the PS Vita but also to the recently launched PS TV. The PS TV is essentially a Vita without the screen or physical controls but with the hardware to connect to a PS3 or PS4 Dualshock controller. In addition to these options where you can stream from your console they also launched the PS Now service which was designed to work streaming video games from PS One titles all the way to a very limited number of PS 4 titles to your Sony branded mobile phone, television, computer or tablet as well as to your PS TV, PS Vita and PS4. This past weekend I was able to put all most all of these aspects to the test (not being in possession of a Sony phone I was unable to test that aspect but given much of the rumours out of Sony that may not be much of an issue for long).
The first element I tested was the PS Now service, originally marketed during its beta as a rental service you would rent a game for a set price based on the amount of time you were playing. The value would vary depending on title and was, almost entirely, ridiculously expensive. Titles almost ten years old would cost more to play it for a few hours than it would cost to go out to purchase it. Recognizing the folly of this Sony on launching the service in to its next stage changed the program to a subscription service. The titles are still remarkably thin with many crowd favorites absent and many remastered titles only having their original versions available for play (like The Last of Us which was remastered for PS4 but you only get to play the PS3 version). On a solid internet connection I got satisfying gameplay with little lag and it ran across my Vita, PS TV and PS4 with no issues. Controls on the PS Vita took some getting used to as the control layout is a little different but it was still a solid experience that will be worth watching as the number of titles expands.
This weekend I was also able to put the PS TV and Vita both to the test. Travelling out of town I brought them both with me and connected the PS TV to their television and both wirelessly to their home network. I was able to connect to my PS4 at home and launch games and even browse the web or run Youtube remotely. The experience over a strong wireless connection suffered little to no lag or latency issues. I was able to play Assassin’s Creed Unity as if I was sitting in front of my home television with only the occasional hiccup or slow down. Unfortunately there are some titles where you are unable to share across your connection including applications like media streaming tool Plex preventing me from browsing my home media collection over my LAN for some arbitrary reason. The fact is, Sony does not gurantee that all games will be compatible with the PS TV or Vita though all titles I encountered seemed to be fine.
The PS TV and PS Vita are both very unusual devices, the TV is missing key features like media streaming and Netflix despite being the ideal box for the PS TV. Most odd is there is no compelling reason for these to be locked from streaming from your console. The absence of Netflix is most perplexing on the PS TV where it would be a natural fit and in fact exists as an app for the PS Vita which shares so much of the hardware you can pull the memory card from a Vita and put it in a PS TV and play your games. Their response when questioned on this was:
"PS TV plays entertainment content, including popular movies and TV shows that can be downloaded from PlayStation Store. At launch, PS TV has video streaming apps Crackle, Crunchyroll and Qello. Stay tuned for additional entertainment content we'll be adding soon to the PS TV lineup."
This reads as if they are deliberately hobbling working apps to enforce adoption of their own struggling video platforms. Additionally a restriction is many Vita and PSP games will not run properly on the PS TV due to control issues (even with the Dualshock 4 and its touchpad which can easily mimic the PS Vita’s touch surfaces). On top of all this the game selection is somewhat lacking in interesting titles compared to the dominant Nintendo handheld. There are a variety of games but many of the titles are VERY Japanese RPGs with a handful of racing and adventure games rounding out the catalogue and a lack of the evergreen genre of shooters is worthy of note. In fact many of the bigger PS Vita titles like Borderlands 2 were blocked entirely as well even though they are native to the hardware. Some of these (like the aforementioned Borderlands 2) were patched to work later on but this took time. There is a strong indie presence on the platform which balances this out to some degree and despite the at times weak selection of titles one benefit of the PlayStation platform is the PS+ membership service allows you to download free titles not just across your PS3 and PS4 but also your PS Vita. This means every month you’ll at least get one title to play (and many times titles are cross play compatible meaning a game like Spelunky offered free through the program could then be downloaded on your Vita and TV and played there as well as your PS4 console). If you are looking for a confirmation of what is compatible right now you can find a list of compatible titles here.
One word of warning downloading these PS+ titles though, Sony’s hardware uses proprietary micro-SD chips. These chips cost easily double to quadruple standard micro-SD chips (for example a 32 GB Sony Micro-SD designed for the PS Vita cost 80 dollars while a like product for any other device would cost half that price). This is one of the strange gouging tactics used by Sony that puts them at odds with consumers. In the end the Sony ecosystem is fairly diverse and is promising to continue to expand to offer Now and possibly streaming on the PC as well as Sony branded devices like phones and televisions removing the need even for a PS TV in many cases but a lack of compelling titles and some reduced functionality including media streaming and locking out some titles makes the platform of questionable use except to a very specific game centric audience.