They really did it. Those maniacs! They blew it up!
Yes, Sony announced their half-step PlayStation 4 upgrade — the PlayStation 4 Pro — for release this year. Two months from now, in fact. We all knew it could happen, but few among us expected Sony to pull the trigger quite that quickly.
Contrast that to Microsoft, who gave us fair warning for Project Scorpio, its own incremental console upgrade; they revealed it at E3 for a comfortable 2017 release. While that probably wasn't the brightest business move (why buy an Xbox One this fall when something better is right around the corner?), it did at least give consumers fair warning. Here comes something expensive! Start saving up now!
The PlayStation 4 Pro's rapid arrival this November presumably represents a conscious attempt by Sony to undermine Microsoft... but it also feels like a bit of a necessity, as its specs turned out to be somewhat anemic next to the numbers that have been promised for Scorpio (for example, Pro will offer 4.1 teraflops of processing power vs. Scorpio's 6 teraflops). Even more surprisingly, the Pro even lacks features that Microsoft has already made available in the very, very modestly upgraded Xbox One S, which debuted a month ago — the ability to play ultra HD (4K) Blu-ray discs, for example.
More concerning, however, is the fact that Pro arrives a mere month after PlayStation VR. That's $800 of new hardware Sony is putting out in the span of a month — one effectively a new platform (despite being dependent on other hardware), the other more of a quality-of-life upgrade that inevitably seems likely create a divided experience for the PS4 Pro haves and the original PS4 have-nots. Even as CEO Andrew House stood on stage and talked about Sony returning to the innovation and consumer awareness that defined the "early days of PlayStation" — another tacit admission that the company badly miscalculated many things about PlayStation 3 — the incipient arrival of two costly pieces of Sony hardware seem all too familiar to anyone who remembers the PS3's original combination of feature bloat and sticker shock.
House didn't totally repeat history by recommending fans run out and get a second job, thankfully, but it's hard not to look at the mounting costs of PlayStation fandom and feel a twinge of discouragement. Maybe it's some inevitable curse on the games industry that as soon as one console maker gains the upper hand they immediately turn around and screw themselves (and their customers!) over. The dust has barely settled on PS4's comfortable lead over Xbox One, and here we go again. And of course to advantage of Pro at all, you'll need to have invested in a 4K HDR-capable television. Decent models currently start at about $800 and go up from there.
The saving grace this time around is that, unlike a true generational debut, neither PSVR nor Pro feel entirely essential. Especially since standard PlayStation 4s will receive an HDR upgrade patch to make them more competitive with Xbox One S! In a way, that makes these two new Sony devices' close proximity and enormous cost a little more aggravating — all this money for a modest change! — but at least it means everyone who just wants to play Horizon: Zero Dawn or Days Gone can do so without spending an extra cent.
And, frankly, that may be the ideal course of action for anyone who isn't in a hurry to rationalize being an early adopter for an Ultra HD television. PlayStation 4 lead architect Mark Cerny spent a remarkable amount of stage time today giving a rundown on the benefits of high dynamic range graphics, ultra-HD resolution, and temporal anti-aliasing, but his presentation seemed shockingly light on meaningful details that impact any part of the game experience beyond visuals. Sure, those distant pedestrians would be smudges at 1080p, but how will that actually improve the way Spider-Man plays? Mass Effect: Andromeda has a smoother-looking cutscene than any previous game in the series, but its debut performance lacked any details on how combat plays out or what BioWare is doing to deepen the game narrative or enhance the dialogue choices.
One thing the PlayStation 4 Pro likely will accomplish will be to enhance the PlayStation VR experience. As I've mused before, the biggest drawback to PSVR so far is that its low resolution offers a poorer experience than competing VR standards; because the tech has been constrained to the standard PS4's capabilities, though, that's the best Sony could offer. Unless Sony PR has been hiding an incredible secret about PSVR, the headset model that launches next month will be the same low-res version that we've been demoing for the past couple of year or two. Cerny has said the Pro will increase the visual quality of PSVR games, but the hardware fundamentally lacks the resolution to compete with Oculus Rift — a limitation the Pro could help transcend. With more powerful console hardware arriving a month after that, is there any doubt that Sony has a more impressive iteration of PSVR in development?
Between the nagging sensation that PS4 Pro is being rushed out the door to get a jump on Scorpio and the prospect of a more visually immersive PSVR model somewhere in the not-too-distant future, Sony's upcoming hardware roster runs the risk of confirming all those ominous editorials about the unhappy future of incremental hardware revisions rather than proper generational leaps. The first parties have publicly touted Apple's annual iPhone schedule as an inspiration... but they appear to have overlooked some crucial facts. You can subsidize your iPhone through your cellular provider. A smartphone is a versatile, almost indispensable, multipurpose device, unlike a games console (especially one that lacks support for ultra HD discs). And it's not as though the entire world leaps as one to buy each revision Apple puts out; if anything, the annual model has fostered resentment, as consumers who would be perfectly content to keep an older phone in use for several years have come to resent the launch of a new line and the OS updates that go along with it... and, not coincidentally, render older models obsolete by loading them down with features that render them unusably sluggish.
Sony and Microsoft (and, who knows, maybe Nintendo too) have chosen to walk a difficult path, one that may burn their most loyal fans. As SEGA learned 20 years ago with its own incremental console upgrade, the 32X, consumer loyalty can be remarkably fragile. Hopefully, it will be sturdy enough to survive the latest stress test being inflicted upon it. I find the idea of boosted graphical capabilities as intriguing as the next video game fan, but I'm not sure the cost involved will be an easy pill for budget-minded console enthusiasts to swallow. At what point does PC gaming become the more economical and sensible alternative?