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London - In an era of super-smart smartphones and tablets that are meant to appeal to everyone, Sony pitched its new PlayStation 4 to serious gamers this week, hoping their enthusiasm will be enough to stem a decline that has left it looking like an also-ran in the fast-moving tech industry.
For around two hours, without actually displaying the new device or announcing a launch date or price, Sony used a much-hyped New York event to show-off the console's capabilities: beefed-up graphics, a new controller, and a greater emphasis on social media and cloud-computing, which will allow players to download and share new games.
Like the devices currently on the market, the new machine - when it is eventually unveiled - will also function as an entertainment centre and allow users to stream movies. What is different is the power Sony said the PlayStation 4 is packing.
But the message, underscored by a series of presentations from games developers, seemed to be clear: this is for hardcore gamers who want to share clips of where they are in a particular game, or look on, virtually, as an accomplished player battles a crisply-rendered alien. For them, the new PlayStation offers a bundle of goodies, including a way to switch from playing a game on your TV to a mobile device without interruption.
The outstanding question is whether this narrow focus will revive the company's fortunes. Traditional consoles have been challenged by the proliferation of devices like the iPhone and iPad, which have become a popular destination for so-called “casual” gamers. Think, for example, of Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja and their success in recent years.
Nintendo succeeded in a staking out new ground with its Wii console, which, when it was launched with its innovative motion-sensing features, offered new hope to the industry by appealing to families. It wasn't just for serious gamers looking to prowl in an alien world but also for the fitness enthusiast and the family gathering, when everyone could take turns at tennis or boxing, waving the controller in mid-air.
The sales showed that the pitch worked. The Wii outstripped both the PlayStation 3 and the Microsoft's Xbox 360. The latter two are neck and neck, both selling between 75-80 million units, while the Wii stands at around 100 million. For Sony, that's a big change from the PlayStation 2, which remains the best-selling home console of all time.
But the Japanese company, from the little it told us on Wednesday night, appears to be going in the opposite direction to Nintendo, which in recent months has struggled to push its new Wii U console as more of us switch to mobile devices.
“What was missing from Sony was a discussion of anything that could've made it a more broadly appealing device... It needed way more than a falling back on graphics, eye candy and tech demos,” Darrell Etherington wrote on the Techcrunch website.
Industry watchers are now waiting to see what Microsoft pulls out of its hat. The software giant is working on an update to its Xbox 360, which will go head to head with the PlayStation 4. Another critical question is price: the PlayStation 3 struggled after Sony released it with what was widely seen as too high a price tag of up $600 (about R5 600) in the US. -