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