4 features the PlayStation 4 absolutely must haveFebruary 20, 2013: 8:58 AM ET
This week, Sony will likely take the wraps off its new game console. Here's what it must be able to do in order to have a chance of succeeding.
FORTUNE -- Can Sony deliver a jolt to the ailing video game console market? The Japanese electronics company will certainly try this week if, as expected, it unveils its next-generation PlayStation 4.
Sales of the PlayStation 4 will be scrutinized from day one. Revenues for Sony's (SNE) game division declined 15% year-over-year to $2.9 billion, with PlayStation 3 sales down from 7.4 million units to 6.8 million units. Sales of its handheld gaming devices are almost as bad. The company had originally estimated it would move 16 million units, which includes the newer PlayStation Vita, but trimmed that figure to 12 million, then later slashed it again to 10 million. And competitor Nintendo's (NTDOY) sales haven't fared much better. Faced with the challenge of competing in a market where casual games can be played on general-purpose smartphones and tablets, the company lowered projections for its new Wii U home console and 3DS handheld.
What does this all mean? The PlayStation 4 has to be a gigantic hit -- not just for Sony but traditional gaming as a whole. Here are four must-have features for the new device to have a shot:
Offer streaming. Let's face it: The future of content delivery is digital. Luckily, Sony may be taking that to heart. A recent Wall Street Journal report indicates Sony's $380 million acquisition of the cloud-based gaming service Gaikai will pay off with a feature that will allow PlayStation 4 owners to play PlayStation 3 games by streaming them over the Internet. (New games are expected to come on traditional optic discs.) It sounds like a step in the right direction, but I'd suggest an even more aggressive push: Make new games playable this way, too, so players have the option to pay by the hour or day.
Give us Kinect-like motion control (only better). To date, Microsoft (MSFT) has sold over 24 million units of its motion-control Kinect sensor, which lets users control some games with gestures. Sony's own half-baked efforts at motion control resulted in the PlayStation Move, a Wii-like controller with a weird-looking, glowing orb at the top that changed colors. But as recent efforts from startups like Leap Motion have proven, hyper-accurate, easy-to-use motion control can be achieved at a cheap price point. Sony can and should do motion control with the PlayStation 4, but this time, lose the Move-esque physical controller as a crutch and go the Kinect route.
Make it Vita-friendly. So the Vita hasn't exactly been flying off the shelves. That doesn't mean there isn't opportunity for the Vita and PlayStation 4 to work together. If early Wii U games like the action game ZombiU prove, having an additional screen can really enhance gameplay provided software developers design for it. With a sharp 5-inch display, the Vita is an excellent "second screen" just begging to be used.
Lower the price. We know, we know. Affordable pricing isn't a "feature," but it is an asset. If recent sales trends are any indication, a home or handheld video game console over $200 is asking a lot of consumers -- in more and more cases, too much -- especially when most smartphones are sold for less, and tablets are comparably priced. Granted, that iPhone 5 won't offer anywhere near PlayStation 4-level graphics, but some players just don't care, because for them, it's just enough. But Sony will likely have to walk a fine line: Offer a superior hardware experience that reminds people why they loved traditional gaming in the first place, but do so at a price point that makes players -- even those enraptured by Angry Birds Star Wars -- want to take the plunge.