Sony’s New Strategy is Smart but Underwhelming

Originally Written on September 11, 2016

It’s finally here.  After months of leaks and speculation, Sony finally came out and announced their new hardware.  The new, slim PlayStation 4 as well as the PlayStation 4 Pro were shown off for the first time last week at the PlayStation Meeting 2016.  The conference did a good job of positioning Sony for the long run, but it failed to garner a ton of excitement and has actually received some heavy backlash.

After bragging about the success of the PlayStation 4 for a little bit, SIE CEO Andrew House announced the PlayStation 4 Slim, a console that leaked recently and was already in people’s hands a week before the conference.  It turns out that the reason it was already in the wild was because it is launching this week on September 15.  It also will not be called the PlayStation 4 Slim.  It is going to replace the existing PlayStation 4 model as the base unit and cost $299.99.  This is a smart decision.  Sony is not confusing the market with three skus and is not positioning the slim as an upgrade to the original PlayStation 4.  It is just the original console but cheaper to produce and purchase.  It will fit in as the lower end console aimed at families and people who play games casually.

Paragon shows a clear difference that isn’t reliant on 4K or HDR

Going forward, this new model of the PlayStation 4 will be paired with the PlayStation 4 Pro, which took center stage for the majority of the conference.  The Pro is being “targeted to hardcore gamers and those invested in 4K and HDR displays”, and it will “sit alongside and compliment the PlayStation 4”.  This was fairly obvious going into the conference.  The console, formerly code named Neo, is a more powerful PlayStation 4 whose main audience is those who care about having the most high end version of a product.  It will cost $399.99 when it launches on November 10.  The existence of these two consoles allows Sony to have their cake and eat it too.  After great success with the PlayStation 4, they now have an avenue to dip into the casual market with a cheaper option as well as get some of their hardcore fans to adopt what would likely be their second PlayStation 4.  Also, the overarching company of Sony gets to have a product out there that they can use to push 4K televisions.  From a business perspective, Sony’s future is clear and well thought out.

But there’s another business aspect that I find more interesting.  Both House and lead PS4 system architect Mark Cerny stressed that the PlayStation 4 Pro is “part of this console generation” and is “not meant to blur the lines between generations”.  This is a comment directly aimed at both people who think the games industry is heading to a more incremental upgrade path (à la smartphones) as well as Microsoft’s Project Scorpio which according to Xbox head Phil Spencer exists “beyond generations”.  These comments tell me that the Pro is just a mid-generation refresh and that in two or three years we will see the announcement of a PlayStation 5.  It also puts the Pro’s purpose into a greater context.  Both Sony and Microsoft had a lot of success with the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 generation, partially because it was much longer than its predecessors.  However, late in that generation there were a lot of complaints about performance from the most hardcore fans and a lot of people migrating to PC gaming.  The Pro is an artificial extension of the current generation that Sony hopes can allow them to avoid the same issues they faced from 2011 to 2013.  This is mostly speculative on my part, but it makes a lot of sense when you look at the comments from Cerny and House.

These particle effects in Infamous were another stand out moment

But aside from what appears to be a really smart and appealing business strategy, the actual tech behind the PlayStation 4 Pro is somewhat underwhelming.  In addition to 4K and HDR support (the latter of which will be patched into existing PS4s), Sony has doubled the GPU of the original PS4 and “boosted” the clock rate.  This was expected based on leaks, but it is disappointing to see where their focus is.  The GPU got the more significant upgrade while the CPU got a much more ambiguous “boost”.  For those who don’t know, the GPU correlates more directly towards effects and resolution while the CPU affects frame rates.  The fact that Sony’s priorities lie with graphical fidelity as opposed to how well games play is a disappointing discovery to say the least.  Some major games, such as Bloodborne, The Witcher 3, and Fallout 4 look fine but could benefit from a performance boost.  But with the upgrades the Pro is getting, those kind of improvements seem unlikely.   One other thing to note is that according to Mark Cerny the games are “impressively close to realizing the complete potential of 4K displays”.  This confirms widespread suspicion that the games on the Pro will not be running in native 4K and will instead be up-scaled.  Nobody should have reasonably expected this thing to output at native 4K, but Sony tried to hide this fact as much as they could.

This doesn’t mean that the upgrades coming alongside the PS4 Pro are meaningless.  They showed a lot of footage of games running on a PS4 Pro, and they look very good.  The draw distance and textures in Insomniac’s Spiderman game look fantastic.  The lighting in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is clearly improved.  The HDR in Days Gone really makes the colors pop.  The particle effects in Infamous: First Light have gotten a massive upgrade.  There are even upgrades for those with regular 1080p televisions, most clearly visible in the form of Paragon’s texture quality.  The differences are noticable, if not game changing, and that’s with me watching the presentation over a stream.  The impressions were predictably more positive coming from people in the audience.  While it’s maybe not the upgrade some people were looking for, games do look better on the PlayStation 4 Pro.

EA finally showed actual Mass Effect Andromeda footage

There are other issues both with the presentation and the device.  In terms of the conference, they showed very little comparison footage.  This was a huge problem when they were showing games like Horizon Zero Dawn and Mass Effect: Andromeda which we have little to no reference point for.  They also didn’t talk about the very promising idea of having different options allowing players to focus on frame rate, resolution, or visual effects; a feature that will be present in Rise of the Tomb Raider.  PlayStation VR was surprisingly absent from most of the conference, and UHD blue rays are surprisingly absent from the console.  But despite these problems, Sony ultimately achieved what they were trying to, even if it is not the most exciting thing in the world.

At the PlayStation Meeting, Sony put themselves in a good position and hit all the notes that they needed to hit.  Both the new PlayStation 4 and the Pro are at reasonable prices that will cause them to sell very well this holiday season.  The upgrades on the Pro are meaningful, especially if you buy one of Sony’s very own 4K televisions, but they aren’t so drastic that people who own a regular PlayStation 4 should feel like second class citizens.  As for me personally, I’m happy with the console I have right now.  If it breaks or the Pro gets a hefty price drop in a year or two I might upgrade.  But I don’t feel any pressure to do so and don’t feel like Sony is leaving me behind.  They also stressed that this endeavor would be easy and beneficial for developers, and I don’t know whether or not to believe them.  Jonathan Blow came out in support of the device, and I assume that we will hear both positive and negative opinions from other prominent indie devs in the near future.  The PlayStation 4 has sold 40 million units in just three years, and Sony didn’t do anything last week that is going to slow sales down.