The PS4 Pro – Changing the Console Market – Extra Credits
A few weeks ago, we finally saw the official announcement for what we all knew was coming: the PS4 Pro, or as I like to think of it, the PS4.5. So what does it mean? Does it change gaming or is it just another weird hardware cash-grab? Before we can talk about anything else, we have to discuss the one thing that Sony won’t actually say outright: the PS4 Pro is clearly part of their huge bet on VR. If you’re wondering why they decided to up the horsepower of the PS4 at what seems like a sort of random time, I’m fairly convinced that it has to do with decisions made at the height of the VR hype machine. Probably around the same time that Sony decided to give the greenlight to Playstation VR. Because, to run the same games that we’ve been seeing on the PS4 through a VR headset, at the same fidelity that we get on a TV, requires a more powerful machine. If Sony was willing to gamble on VR enough to make their own headset, they would have to ensure that the VR experience on their console wouldn’t just be plain worse than the non-VR experience. After all, if you’re trying to play a first-person shooter that runs fine on your TV but runs at half the framerate on your headset because the console just doesn’t have the power to render those head mounted dual screens fast enough, you’re probably just going to take the headset off and go back to playing the game where it runs smoothly. And in the technological arms race that is console gaming, if you’re predicting that VR is the next big thing, you can’t be left behind. Hence, the 4.5. Personally, I think that console VR Is a very risky gamble. I’m pretty sure it’ll be quite some time before it pays off, if it ever does, but that leaves us in a weird place because regardless of how quickly VR hits mass adoption, now we have two different machines claiming to be the same console and I think the unintended consequences there are huge, or perhaps I don’t give Sony enough credit. Maybe they are the intended consequences, who knows? Now, Sony says that every game that runs on the PS4 Pro will also run on a standard PS4 and I am sure that they are absolutely going to enforce that, for a while. But the game development community always wants to play with every ounce of hardware they can get their hands on, and having a game with the best graphics, the coolest physics, or the biggest world, translates to more sales, so you can bet that developers are going to start building for the PS4 Pro even if they aren’t allowed to make their titles run exclusively on it. After all, Sony has explicitly said that the PS4 Pro is being put out there to run your games better. So while games may have to run on both the PS4 in the PS4.5, nobody ever said that they have to run as well on both machines. Now, I’ve heard a lot of talk on the internet that this isn’t going to happen because developers would never make two versions of their game just to get a little bit more power out of the PS4 Pro. It’s just too expensive. And that’s true, but it’s a little bit of a misunderstanding of how game development works. See, we don’t make a million different versions of our games to run on a million different specs of PC, for example. We make one game with some easily scalable parts, like clipping distance or lighting quality stuff that can easily be scaled down as needed. And the world of the PS4 and the PS4.5 is going to be the same. I think you can safely consider the PS4 games of the future as PS4.5 games with their graphics settings turned down a notch, because I think that’s how most devs are going to think of them. So now the real question: is this a good thing? There are parts of me that actually want to say yes. In previous console generations, console architecture changed radically with each new iteration and the underlying OS of each machine changed nearly as much. This meant that it was incredibly difficult to do things like play games from the previous machine’s library on the new powerful machine – which, of course, won’t be an issue here. It also meant that companies had to manufacture a completely new machine every time, scrapping all of the efficiencies of their old production pipeline and resetting much of the economy of scale that comes with producing millions of console units. But here, Sony can instead simultaneously focus on making the PS4 cheaper to produce and making the 4.5 better. This essentially means that the original PS4 will shift to being sort of the entry-level console in the market. Don’t have the money for a PS4.5 right now? Consider the PS4 instead. Or, maybe you’re not yet sure that games are your thing, but there’s this one game that all your friends want you to try. Well, pick up a PS4. It’ll cost you less. I mean, I’ve known many people who didn’t really play games, but then stumbled onto one PC game that they just loved, and the next time they wanted to buy a PC, they went for a much beefier gaming-focused device and soon started buying all sorts of games to play on it. Now, I’m not saying that the exact same thing is going to happen here. A PC is something that many people happen to have anyway, whereas even a starter PS4 is something that you’d have to be interested in games in the first place to get. But if Sony can focus on continuing to lower the price, It’s quite possible that they could make the PS4 very competitive as a home media machine that just so happens to play games when you decide you want one. On the flip side though, I think we might start having a much mushier slide between console generations, because someday developers are just going to start making games that simply don’t work on the old PS4, and yeah, there will be an outcry when it happens, but it’s kind of inevitable. I mean, think of it like the PC market: at no point has anyone ever declared “from this day forward this PC’s hardware will be considered the minimum spec for all PC gaming and no new games are to be developed that require something more powerful to run. This is the floor now and forever. No one says that and it would be really weird if they did, but that’s pretty much how consoles have worked for decades. Now, consoles like the PS4 might start working like the PC space, where you can keep playing new games on your original console long after the higher spec versions have been released, but as new games are made to take advantage of the new hardware, your PS4 is gonna start seeing longer load times and then maybe lower graphics settings until eventually, your poor little machine struggles to pull 30 frames per second on most games and you finally had enough and you decide to just upgrade. And in a lot of ways, this might actually be better for consumers than simply killing a console off every few years. After all, millions of old PCs can still run games like Dota 2 and WoW and Counter-Strike. Now, there will be a place for long term games like those in the Playstation universe, and a place for people who just can’t afford to buy the latest gaming machine every time a new one comes out. But on the other hand, it’s one more step towards consoles becoming more like PCs and one more step away from the simpler times when you put a cartridge in a box and it just worked. No OS updates, not even worrying about system specs. It’s a trade-off. See you next week!