PS4 Share Play: Why it died and how VR can bring it back

One of the biggest selling points for the PS4 was its “Share Play” capability. This would allow you to try out your friends’ games via the internet. It was kind of like walking over to your friend’s house and checking out their gaming collection, but without the need to ever leave your home.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, I wouldn’t blame you. Share Play, while a tremendous selling point at the time it was first revealed, never really took off. Most PS4 users don’t even know how to access the Share Play functionality. Why is that, and is there any way to actually recreate a face-to-face experience over the internet? Let’s take a look.

Lag

The primary enemy of PS4 Share Play has always been, and will always be, lag. While Sony and several other companies have tried to suggest that our internet infrastructure is good enough to stream a game from a server to a player, it just isn’t. Some people, in some areas of the country, have good enough internet connections to get a semi-decent streaming experience, but even then the lag will be far too high to be able to play any sort of game that requires twitch reflexes. Don’t believe me? Then type something into your favorite streamer’s Twitch chat the next time you watch them. The amount of time it takes the message you type to show up in the stream itself is about the amount of time it would take your button input to register in Share Play.

Streaming Restrictions

So the only games that really work in Share Play are games without the need for twitch reflexes. This leaves mostly cinematic games, like RPGs. However, it quickly became practice for RPG developers to mark their entire game as a “blocked scene” to avoid streaming spoilers. This was largely ineffective since A) anyone with a streaming computer could very easily bypass these restrictions and B) the Streisand Effect ensures that any developer that tries to keep spoilers form being leaked will have them leaked ten times over.

What this does manage to do, however, is block Share Play. Any blocked scene removes control from a shared player and forces them to stare at a black screen before the scene becomes unblocked. This means games that are completely blocked from streaming are also completely blocked from Share Play.

Time Limit

Even if you found a slow game that wasn’t entirely blocked, players could only share gameplay for one hour. That’s barely any time to make any progress in what, by definition, has to be a relatively long and cinematic game.

In the end there were just too many hoops to jump through to make Share Play a rewarding experience.

However…

Share Play of the Future?

We are currently in the midst of the virtual reality revolution. The PSVR has made VR gameplay accessible to the common console user, and the PS4 Pro has made this experience more visually enjoyable than ever.

So developers are looking for new and interesting ways to use VR technology, and the path of innovation has been somewhat slow and windy. For now, many VR games are just ports of non-VR titles, which don’t always utilize the technology well. Those games that do use the technology well are often little more than tech demos. But what if I told you there was a way to fully utilize VR with literally any game and provide a fully immersive experience?

Two words: Share Play

I’m not talking about Share Play as it exists now. I’m talking about the idea behind Share Play when Sony first announced it at E3 years ago. The idea was to create a digital space that recreates a physical space. With the evolution of internet gaming, couch gaming–you know, when your friend would come over and sit on your couch and play a game next to you–has basically evaporated. Share Play was supposed to re-create that couch gaming experience in an online form.

Needless to say, it failed.

But it wasn’t the only technology trying to recreate the experience of a couch. VR also simulates a couch with VR theater experiences. These allow you to watch your favorite movies or streaming videos in what is essentially a virtual theater. The virtual space in front of you is nothing but a virtual screen, and the world around you is your virtual couch.

I suggest merging these two ideas together.

Now, in no universe will we actually be able to stream games seamlessly to our friends, so unfortunately this technology I am dreaming up would only work for friends who both own a copy of the game. It’s far easier to implement simple netcode than to try and stream an entire game to another person.

But in the situation where you and a friend do own the same game, VR could be used to create a virtual couch. The game would render just like it would on a TV screen, but on the TV in virtual space. All that it has to do otherwise is render the avatar of your friend sitting next to you.

Of course with our current level of technology this will inevitably look a little cheesy. You won’t be able to interact with your friend, per se, just their avatar, in a sort of Virtual Reality version of Second Life. However, it won’t be long until we can actually see the people we love transposed into a virtual space. In fact, Microsoft already has a proof of concept in their “holoportation” demo for the Hololens. And even now, anyone who has spent time in social VR environments can tell you, the sense of physical presence you get adds an enormous amount of realism and immediacy to an interaction, even if the avatar is relatviely primitive. 

But why? Why go through all the trouble just to simulate your friend sitting next to you?

There is a level of intimacy that you get with couch gaming that simply cannot be replicated online. In a global environment where we are increasingly separated by space and using the internet to stay in touch with each other, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to stare your friend in the face as you stomp him in Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite, even if your friend lives half a world away? It may not be a perfect analog to a face-to-face visit, but it can bring us closer together. We've had voice chat for decades now, but this would represent a true step forward for online social gaming experiences. 

And it’s Sony that is uniquely positioned to make this social VR dream a reality. They've already dipped their toes into recreating couch play with Share Play, they have a headset capable of producing a virtual theater, and they currently have the largest console install base with the most accessible VR setup. All it would take now is a little bit of interest in bringing face-to-face gaming to a virtual space.