According to a report by Kotaku, Sony is working on a new version of the PlayStation 4, featuring more powerful hardware. Anonymous developer sources have explained that the focus of the new PS4 will be increased graphical power, enabling games at 4K resolution. The new hardware would also allow for enhanced PlayStation VR games.
The PlayStation 4 does allow for 4K resolution for photos and videos, but 4K gaming and Blu-Ray support is not currently available. With the PlayStation VR coming in October, the PS4 also needs a little more horsepower to measure up to what's available on the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.
Kotaku has no idea whether this upgraded hardware will be an entirely new system or an upgrade to the existing PlayStation 4. There's also question related to how the new PlayStation 4 hardware would be sold, given that 36 million consumers already own the current PlayStation 4. Sources indicated that Sony had talks with developers about the upgraded PS4 at this week's Game Developer's Conference.
Sony declined to comment on the report, of course.
Kotaku has also heard whispers about the Xbox One heading down the same road. At the beginning of the month, Microsoft announced the Universal Window Platform (UWP), allowing developers to make games that would run on a number of Microsoft devices. At the time, Xbox boss Phil Spencer noted that UWP would let Microsoft separate software from the Xbox hardware.
"In other [consumer technology] ecosystems you get more continuous innovation in hardware that you rarely see in consoles because consoles lock the hardware and software platforms together at the beginning and they ride the generation out for seven years or so," Spencer said at the time. "We're allowing ourselves to decouple our software platform from the hardware platform on which it runs. We'll see us come out with new hardware capability during a generation and allow the same games to run backwards and forward compatible because we have UWAs running on top of UWP. It allows us to focus on hardware innovation without invalidating the games that run on that platform."
As I said before, the point here is that console platform holders are looking at mobile and PC platforms and asking themselves why they can't get in on that sweet annual or bi-annual upgrade money. There are benefits to this method: developers aren't tied to old, aging hardware for an entire console generation, potentially allowing games to become better over time. Nintendo launched the New 3DS and New 3DS XL three years into the 3DS' lifecycle and that system allows for more robust 3DS games, like Xenoblade Chronicles 3D.
An upgraded console also lets platform holders overcome potential issues in earlier iterations. On the New 3DS, Nintendo made the Circle Pad add-on a standard part of the new system to handle camera control in 3D games. Imagine an Xbox One with an improved GPU or more advanced memory like the PlayStation 4's 8 GB of GDDR5 RAM and you can start to see the possibilities.
On mobile and PC platforms, you end up having a sliding baseline with minimum recommended specs. The drawback to this sliding baseline is certain graphically intensive games simply won't run on older smartphones, systems, and operating system versions. (There's something to be said about the fact that static console generations tend to hold back PC gaming, as developers and publishers make games that can be ported between the PC and multiple platforms.) Currently, when you buy a PlayStation 4, you can be assured that the system will continue to run all games with the PlayStation 4 logo on their box. Once you introduce multiple versions of a console, then you start to grapple with consumer confusion at retail.
The primary issue is how these system upgrades are sold to consumers. With the PC, users are able to upgrade their PCs piecemeal or buy whole new desktops and laptops. With mobile platforms, the price of the smartphone is subsidized by monthly contract payments. The full price of an iPhone 6s without a contract is $649, but most users don't bat an eye because the real price of the phone is hidden in their phone bill. Currently, consoles lack a similar system.
Microsoft did test out a similar idea for the Xbox 360 at one point. The Xbox 360 Entertainment for All plan allowed consumers to buy an Xbox 360 for a cheaper initial price point (4GB/Kinect for $99, 250 GB for $99, or $250GB/Kinect for $149), but it locked them into a monthly Xbox Live Gold subscription for 2 years. The plan launched in May 2012, but the company killed it in March 2014, after the launch of the Xbox One.
Moving towards subsidized systems could see this idea of evolutionary consoles work out. Until then, it feels like a non-starter this early in the PlayStation 4's lifespan. Asking consumers to purchase a new PlayStation 4 every 2 to 3 years is a bit outlandish. On PC, the average lifespan of a desktop is around 4.5 years, though many enthusiast gaming PCs see a few small upgrades before that time. Especially with a $400 virtual reality peripheral coming to the PlayStation 4, asking many consumers to pay for a new PlayStation 4 is an uphill battle.
If this report is true, Sony will have to figure out all those issues and more, if it wants gamers to open their wallets.