OPINION: You can argue the case for PS4.5, but it’s a hell of a risky strategy

Ben Parfitt
OPINION: You can argue the case for PS4.5, but it’s a hell of a risky strategy

What appears to be concrete talk about an updated version of the PlayStation 4 is probably the most interesting thing to have come out of GDC last week.

For those who missed it, Kotaku seems to have what sounds like pretty firm inside news on a new version of PS4 that has upgraded innards. And we're not just talking about a smaller CPU, better cooling or slimmer chassis – this console would offer upgraded specs that boost game performance, allow for 4K gaming and improve the PlayStation VR experience.

It's not just PlayStation, either. Similar rumours have been heard about Xbox One, and Microsoft itself even seemed to allude to the possibility of a mid-generation upgrade, although Phil Spencer later calmed the chatter.

My gut reaction is that no, this can't be right.

After its PS3 struggles and the tremendous inroads made by Xbox 360 throughout the previous generation, Sony has done astonishingly well to swing the console market momentum back to its favour. Why on earth would it risk undoing all of that?

What's the risk, you may ask?

After all, we see the iterative update model in action across plenty of sectors. There's a new iPhone every year, PCs can be upgraded almost daily if a user so chooses and Nintendo isn't afraid to upgrade its handhelds. Even cars are updated annually.

In fact, consoles stand more or less alone in the update cycle they employ. Technology is such a fast moving sector and the notion that you can release a gaming box (that even at launch lags behind PC) and then stick to that spec for four, five, six or seven years is, on the face of it, quite ludicrous.

Obviously internal design changes are different. Platform holders are constantly tweaking the innards of their machine, shrinking the chips, improving the ventilation, sometimes slimming down the machine or adding in minor compatibility upgrades. But with the arguable exception of Xbox 360's jump from component to HDMI, these changes rarely alter the overall proposition – providing an early adopter's launch machine continues to work, their experience of it is precisely the same as someone with the newer design.

A PS4.5 would completely shatter this.

Even if Sony were to insist that all future PS4 releases were compatible across both machines, a huge, huge chunk of the 36m+ current PS4 owners would be livid that the later machine would offer a ‘better' experience than the older device. That is, by any definition, them ‘losing out', even if they're playing the same games.

Can you imagine the internet masses being cool with PS4.5 owners enjoying higher framerates of boosted particle counts, or new PS VR launches looking significantly better on newer hardware?

Speaking of VR, that complicates it further. The device's big drawer is that providing you are a PS4 owner, you can enter the world of VR for 350. If it were the case that those with a newer PS4 get ‘better' VR than those with an older machine, not upgrading would for many simply not be an option. That brings the cost up to Oculus/Vive territory.

One of the central appeals of console gaming, traditionally at least, is that consumers know that when they buy that box they're set for at least half a decade. If that ceases to be the case, it's a very real possibility that some could jump ship to PC. What reason would they have not to? Yes, the initial outlay is larger, but once you're set you're looking at smaller, staggered upgrade investments, all of which are entirely optional and can be focused on what improvements are most important to you. And your games are going to be at a higher spec than consoles. And cheaper.

You can see why Sony would want to up the technical clout of its machine, however. And there are ways it could look to appease its fanbase.

A trade-in scheme would certainly be a big help. Those who don't really care can carry on as normal knowing that they can still play all upcoming PS4 titles. Those who do care, however, would likely be perfectly happy to pay, say, 100 (maybe more) for a spec increase. They'd probably also be happy to plug an upgrade directly into their hardware, but I'd be surprised if Sony went down this route.

A far bigger problem would be if developers had the option of making their games PS4.5 compatible only. Yes, we've seen that on handhelds with the DSi and New 3DS, but so far exclusive titles have been very thin on the ground – and commercially a complete flop.

If Sony does do this, it will be the riskiest play it has ever made.

There's a chance consumers are so accustomed to the model elsewhere that they will just accept it, perhaps even embrace it. However, there's also the very real risk that Sony could face the sort of backlash that ruins a platform. In this interconnected world the shared fury of internet communities can have a very real commercial impact, a lesson Microsoft has learnt with Xbox One. Sony had best have a strategy in place to deal with this if this journey is one it intends on taking.

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