PlayStation 4 Pro: re-balancing the power narrative

Back in the latter days of the PS3 and Xbox 360, many people were convinced that we had arrived at the end of the gaming consoles as we knew them. The buzz was all about browser gaming (in the halcyon days of FarmVille), and then mobile gaming. Among the most vocal critics of the future of traditional gaming were pro-Apple tech pundits like MG Siegler, to whom the vision of a gaming-oriented Apple TV dominating gamers’ living rooms came all too readily. All that Apple had to was click a finger, and the whole industry would be theirs.

We all know that’s not how things played out. PS4 and Xbox One have outpaced their respective predecessors in sales, and the former in particular has surpassed all expectations. At almost 50 million in sales 3 years after release, it is as far removed from being ‘in crisis’ or ‘killed by Apple’ as a console is possible to get. While Xbox One has suffered in comparison, together Sony and Microsoft – with almost 70 million sales – have nevertheless proved that console gaming remains in great demand.

It would be misleading to say, however, that the PS4 was a product born of defiance. The opposite, in fact: partly in reaction to the perceived threat from mobile and set-top box gaming1, PS4 was designed to be affordable and accessible with the ability to ensure backwards-compatibility going forward. With internal components customized around existing off-the-shelf chips from AMD, and a pressing need to not be loss-leaders, PS4 was much less technologically ambitious compared to previous eras2.

So far this has been sufficient to drive sales and to maintain the loyalty and interest of the core gamers. The sheer amount of time since the release of the previous consoles3 meant that the new ones didn’t need to be formidable technical powerhouses in order to present clear graphical improvements. However, with PS4 now firmly a part of the x86 family, the gaming console has opened itself up for a new comparison – and a renewed competition: the gaming PC. There are multiple reasons for this, but to summarize: the extended lifecycle of the PS3; the aforementioned conservative specs for PS4; the mobile app revolution which essentially removed casual gamers from the addressable market for traditional consoles; accelerated advancements made in PC graphics cards over the past decade; and Steam’s emergence which, as well as offering PC gamers perhaps the most convenient, comprehensive and customer-friendly distribution platform of them all, did much to console-ify PC gaming in terms of the integration of service, ease of use and commonality of input method4. Ultimately, the PC did much to catch up to consoles in the areas it was behind in, while widening the already-significant gap in performance to the extent that an i3 processor with a sub-$150 graphics card like GTX 950 can outperform PS4. With no casual gamers to appeal to in order to stimulate sales, core gamers are more or less the only segment that Sony can capture, and the fact that PS4 is made to look so modest next to even a fairly budget gaming PC is not going to help drive further revenue. The runaway success of PS4 showed that there remained a tremendous amount of hunger for high-fidelity console gaming. Sony has also seen first-hand that consumers do care about things like resolution and framerates. With most of the casual customer base that propelled the Wii to a 100m unit sales decamped to iOS and Android, PS4’s growth depends on taking more users away from Xbox One and PCs, as well as convincing existing PS4 owners to upgrade. Arguably Sony has achieved the first part; the second and third segments are more tricky to win over, and near-impossible to achieve with the baseline PS4 specs.

So it makes a lot of sense for Sony to release PS4 Pro now, rather than wait for the full console lifecycle to play out, when the PS4 would be even more painfully outdated. Sony’s stable of first-party developers as well as close relationships with indie studios mean that it can continue to rely on a steady stream of exclusives, and while this may be distasteful to PC die-hards, it also tempts others without consoles to think seriously about getting a PS4 Pro. In Sony’s favour is the shrewd way they have managed the PS4 Pro’s release. It has a year’s headstart on Microsoft’s Scorpio hardware, and it costs the same as the launch price of the original PS4. By ensuring an immediacy of availability at a deceptively reasonable price point, Sony is treading the same proven (if still rather elusive) marketing and business path that has been so successful for Apple5. Microsoft will counter that Scorpio will be more powerful6, but in Sony’s favour is the likelihood that Microsoft will find it difficult to price Scorpio at anywhere other than north of $399, and that the combination of the graphical improvement that the PS4 Pro does deliver (2.3x over vanilla PS4) and its earlier release should prove sufficient to encourage upgrades and defections.

PS4 Pro is being released in three days’ time, and the fact that there’s not a lot of hype and fanfare around it is going to help Sony. It’s proof that the company has not gone out of its way to create artificial excitement, and the expectations should therefore be easier to manage. Instead of being heralded as the new future of PlayStation, PS4 Pro is being presented as just another, more premium (albeit still affordable) option, something for gamers who want better and faster to consider but not something that will fracture the player base. Customer resentment and confusion are likely to be kept at a minimum. Mid-lifecycle hardware upgrade of this magnitude is new frontier for the console manufacturers, but in the age of annual smartphone and tablet releases, it’s not unfamiliar for tech consumers. PS4 was a product of necessity, and commoditized as a sensible design choice. PS4 Pro further commoditizes the gaming console, and helps Sony to not fall further behind the latest graphics technology. PS4 showed that the age of console gaming was not over; PS4 Pro could go onto show that it may in fact be the beginning of an evolving new era.

 

 

  1. …and also in reaction to the excesses of the PS3 launch.
  2. Also, for arguably the first time, this generation saw the home consoles unable to present a graphical advantage over the PCs at the point of their launch.
  3. For reference, PS1 to PS2 was 5 years 3 months; PS2 to PS3 was 6 years 8 months. PS3 to PS4 was 7 years.
  4. Xbox controller becoming the de facto controller for PC games is one of the my favourite developments in PC gaming in recent years.
  5. Best examples are the 2nd generation MacBook Air and iPad 2.
  6. 40% more powerful than PS4 Pro, by Digital Foundry’s reckoning.
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