Apoc­a­lypse Neo

How Sony’s new, more pow­er­ful PS4 risks di­vid­ing a com­mu­nity

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What a dif­fer­ence a decade makes. It was at E3 2006 that Kaz Hi­rai, then pres­i­dent of SCEA, jus­ti­fied the late ar­rival to the mar­ket of PlayS­ta­tion 3 with the im­mor­tal line, “The next gen­er­a­tion doesn’t start un­til we say it does.” Ten years on, Hi­rai is head of Sony as a whole, and the com­pany may be about to kill the very con­cept of the con­sole gen­er­a­tion stone dead.

That, at least, is one of the more plau­si­ble ex­pla­na­tions for the new-model PlayS­ta­tion 4, cur­rently co­de­named Neo, that has evolved from a whis­per on the GDC show floor to the in­dus­try’s worst kept se­cret in a mat­ter of weeks. Of­fer­ing a sig­nif­i­cant boost in pro­cess­ing power, Neo is the first of its kind. It’s not the same hard­ware in a new, slim­mer shell. Nor is it a true gen­er­a­tional leap. It’s some­where in be­tween, a mod­est up­grade that poses more ques­tions than it an­swers. What does this mean for those who stick with the launch model? What does it mean for PlayS­ta­tion 5 and be­yond? And how are de­vel­op­ers tak­ing the news that their work­loads have just sub­stan­tially in­creased for what, if they’re lucky, will only trans­late to a mod­est in­crease in sales?

While Sony isn’t ex­pected to pub­licly con­firm Neo’s ex­is­tence un­til its E3 press con­fer­ence, the facts have been widely re­ported, and long since es­tab­lished. The new con­sole will of­fer a third more CPU power than the launch model and more than dou­ble the GPU, and will in­crease mem­ory band­width by a quar­ter. It’s a clear ad­van­tage over the base PS4, but Sony is in­tent on pre­serv­ing its con­sole as a uni­fied plat­form, so there will be no Neo-ex­clu­sive games or game­play fea­tures. Games will still ship on a sin­gle disc or down­load pack­age, run­ning in Base or Neo mode de­pend­ing on the host hard­ware, with the lat­ter of­fer­ing im­proved vi­su­als and fram­er­ates.

While Sony is in­sist­ing on 1080p as the min­i­mum res­o­lu­tion for the Neo ver­sion of games, the hard­ware is ca­pa­ble of run­ning games in 4K, though it seems un­likely we’ll see many games tak­ing ad­van­tage of it for a good while. Sony man­dates that games must, what­ever the res­o­lu­tion, run at least at the same fram­er­ate on Neo as they do on the stan­dard PS4. A game run­ning in 4K would need to ren­der four times the pix­els of a 1080p frame, with­out com­pro­mis­ing on re­fresh rate. Good luck with that.

“I’m not sure many teams will ei­ther want to de­liver, or be able to de­liver 4K,” says one source, a se­nior cre­ative at a com­pany mak­ing big-bud­get games. “We all know what 4K did to movies – it made ac­tors look older than we thought they were, and ev­ery­thing else had so much de­tail it sim­ply lost all be­liev­abil­ity. I see this adding time and frus­tra­tion to art pipe­lines all over the world.”

While 4K may still be some way off, Sony wants all PS4 games re­leased from Oc­to­ber on­wards to ship with a Neo mode (though games re­leased be­fore­hand can still sup­port it, while older games can have sup­port patched in). Big stu­dios mak­ing games for re­lease this win­ter are likely fac­ing an even big­ger job now that they have to op­ti­mise their game for what, de­spite the name, is es­sen­tially a new plat­form. That, our source says, will in the short term at least mean “more bugs across SKUs. Teams will be big­ger, with more peo­ple pushed onto triple-A prod­uct to get it done. In about three years, when ev­ery­one has re­ally caught up, maybe we’ll see some mas­sive graph­i­cal im­prove­ments. But from what I see, no de­vel­oper in the world is yet to get the best out of PS4.” And if this is the new nat­u­ral or­der of things, they never will. The ben­e­fit of the tra­di­tional con­sole cy­cle is that de­vel­op­ers have sev­eral years with a piece of hard­ware with a fixed spec, and as their un­der­stand­ing of its in­tri­ca­cies grows, so the tech­ni­cal stan­dard of games im­proves. But it’s harder to get closer to the metal if it keeps be­ing re­con­fig­ured. De­vel­op­ers tell us that they be­lieve Neo will be the first of many. Mi­crosoft is also ru­moured to be mak­ing an up­graded re­vi­sion of Xbox One in­stead of an en­tirely new con­sole, and it seems in­creas­ingly plau­si­ble that the plat­form hold­ers are fi­nally lis­ten­ing to the con­sole-mar­ket doom-mon­gers and chang­ing things on their own terms, rather than wait­ing for the me­teor to hit. Neo, some be­lieve, sig­nals the be­gin­ning of a shift to the Ap­ple model, where up­graded hard­ware gives de­vel­op­ers a boost in power every year or two, while giv­ing the con­sumer the choice of when they up­grade and the prom­ise of com­pat­i­bil­ity with their ex­ist­ing game li­brary to sweeten the pill.

This is risky busi­ness. The day Sony an­nounces Neo is the day it tells some 40 mil­lion peo­ple that they no longer own the most pow­er­ful con­sole on the mar­ket; that if they want their games to look their best, they must re­buy a con­sole they al­ready own. What works for the plat­form holder – and it’s easy to see

“I’m not sure many teams will ei­ther want or be able to de­liver 4K. We all know what 4K did to movies”

why Sony would like to ex­tend in­def­i­nitely a gen­er­a­tion it’s win­ning at a can­ter – doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily ben­e­fit the end user. In the short term it may hurt Sony, too: why would you buy a con­sole now when a new one’s com­ing down the line?

It may sig­nal the end of the con­sole cy­cle, may well up­set the largest in­stalled base on the planet, and may cause mass mi­graines in the de­vel­op­ment com­mu­nity, but the im­pend­ing re­lease of PlayS­ta­tion VR is forc­ing Sony’s hand. The clue is right there in the name: lest we for­get, the orig­i­nal co­de­name for PlayS­ta­tion VR was Project Mor­pheus. The rec­om­mended spec­i­fi­ca­tions for PCs run­ning Ocu­lus Rift or HTC Vive far out­strip what’s un­der the cur­rent PS4 hood. PSVR’s ap­peal­ing price point, and com­pat­i­bil­ity with the world’s big­gest-sell­ing con­sole, means Sony is well positioned to cor­ner the vir­tual re­al­ity mar­ket when its head­set launches later this year. How­ever, power is a prob­lem, as the lead de­signer at one EU stu­dio tells us: “There hasn’t been a real out­cry for more power, apart from de­vel­op­ers mak­ing VR stuff – and those are weighted more heav­ily at the mo­ment. VR is the most ex­cit­ing de­vel­op­ment in the in­dus­try right now, and if it’s here to stay then there will be a lot of de­mand for more pow­er­ful hard­ware.” If you want hon­esty, how­ever, you need to talk to the tech guys. As one CTO puts it, “PSVR was go­ing to be ter­ri­ble on a [launch] PS4. It was go­ing to be truly aw­ful. Some­thing a bit more pow­er­ful starts to bring VR into range. If you want to deal with the crazy re­quire­ments for per­for­mance in VR, you ab­so­lutely have to do this.”

And it’s among the more tech­ni­cally minded cor­ner of the de­vel­op­ment com­mu­nity that we find the most op­ti­mism for the Neo propo­si­tion. It’s a risk for Sony, which has spent the past three years rid­ing a wave of near-ab­so­lute good­will but is about to tell its au­di­ence their box is no longer pow­er­ful enough, mak­ing them worry they’ll be left be­hind if they de­cline to up­grade. It’s an ef­fec­tive dou­bling of the launch price of PlayS­ta­tion VR. Lead­er­ship teams at stu­dios all over the world will be scratch­ing their heads over how Neo’s ex­tra power should be used, how much it will cost, and whether it will ac­tu­ally all be worth it. But peo­ple whose job it is to write game code? They’re all over it.

“I’m not in­ter­ested in mar­ket­ing strate­gies or adop­tion rates or what­ever,” our CTO source says. “I’m not con­sid­er­ing that. But as some­one who does the tech­nol­ogy for videogames, some­body dou­bling my GPU and adding 30 per cent CPU is bril­liant. I’d love that every two years. I’d love it every six months, if pos­si­ble. All I want is the most pow­er­ful hard­ware that I can get my hands on.” Sony will be cross­ing its fin­gers and hop­ing the mar­ket feels the same way.

Games such as RIGS (above) and Drive­club VR (right) have been built from the ground up for PSVR, but it’s in mul­ti­plat­form games that the head­set’s short­com­ings will be most ap­par­ent

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