So… PlayStation 4K.

So, it’s a thing. And I’m not entirely sure Sony is being completely honest with us on this….


According to most websites, PlayStation 4K is a real thing that is happening.

It’s a strange choice for a generational refresh; considering the Nintendo NX is quite likely to be, by definition, a new generation console (got to love those technicalities), Sony’s decision to extend the lifespan of the PlayStation 4 by incrementally increasing its hardware specifications seems rather odd on the surface. After all, most don’t even believe that the PlayStation 4K will be capable of rendering top-tier games in a native 4K resolution – which does make the 4K aspect of the working name suspect. And if Sony is to keep up with generational hardware, the 4K will not have very long on the market to make any real impact; if the NX releases late 2016 or mid 2017, Sony will need a new console to come out late 2018 at the very latest, or face the scary proposition that Nintendo got slapped down with earlier this generation – third parties could already be significantly tied down to the NX hardware, which will have an already-established userbase (hopefully bigger than the Wii U has enjoyed). Sony cannot afford to rest on its laurels – for all its PlayStation 4 success, the company still isn’t in the best financial shape overall and the PlayStation division is being spun off entirely – though whether this is to protect it from potential Sony catastrophe or to see if it can survive on its own fiscal merit is definitely up for debate.

So, if the console will struggle with native 4K resolution and it isn’t a brand-new generation of console set up to compete with the Nintendo NX, what exactly is the point of the PlayStation 4K? Well, I don’t think there’s any real mystery – I believe it has everything to do with PlayStation VR, and Sony being a little economical with the realities of what its VR Headset is capable of on basic PlayStation 4 architecture.

You see, VR Headsets seem to put quite a heavy burden on the CPU and GPU of a machine. The required specifications for the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive aren’t exactly what you’d call “mid-range”; many will require a wholesale PC upgrade in order to functionally utilise these display devices. Which, factored into the actual cost of the headsets, makes them an extremely niche market for the foreseeable future. PlayStation VR was meant to be different; an entry-level, low-cost alternative.

This is quite similar to Nintendo’s 3DS and the New 3DS variants, and Hyrule Warriors: Legends makes a stellar point here for us. Because on the older 3DS hardware, the game struggles to maintain a constant 20FPS, slowing the action down considerably – and when you take into account the speed at which combat happens in any Warriors-branded game, that’s just not good enough now. On the New 3DS, the opposite is the case – the game runs extremely well, smoothly and cleanly. Despite the incremental hardware increase mid-generation, Hyrule Warriors: Legends demonstrates how completely different both machines are technically.

Sony is likely facing the same issue with VR; it is likely acutely aware that for PlayStation VR to have any chance, it has to work without compromise – or, if there is compromise, then as little as is possible to manage. PlayStation 4 already faces significant issues with many of its games technically speaking; frame rates have been somewhat sketchy, and some games have proven to be challenging to get up to speed. Facing technical hurdles in the face of new games needing and requiring better hardware a mere two and a bit years into its cycle is a potential disaster for Sony, and it will be a borderline apocalyptic catastrophe if the Nintendo NX delivers hardware capable of running newer games at 1080p and 60fs.

Rather than be faced with running VR games in a compromised manner, Sony is instead banking on PlayStation 4 owners being willing and able to upgrade from their already-owned console to the newer, slightly more powerful version. And chances are that may be a short-term success; it would certainly help Sony add more to its PlayStation 4 sales record, because as I said before, the PlayStation 4 is overall in sales about 20% behind leading consoles from prior generations. 10 million or so may sound like a drop in the ocean, but a drop is a drop and no company likes the idea that their console sales may be slowing to a crawl – which explains Nintendo’s rush to get the NX on the market. And odds are also good that the 4k will run many current PlayStation 4 games in a much better way; Bloodborne often struggles, and it’s a shame to point that out because it tells us that the PlayStation 4 was wheezing on under-performing hardware a year into its life cycle. However you slice that, it’s not good news.

Of course, the problem is if Sony starts heavily implying that you need the PS4K in order to enjoy PSVR to its fullest extent. PSVR’s biggest perk, right now, is that it’s cheap. That was the fundamental gimmick – compared to other headsets, it was comparatively a bargain. But if you need the upgraded console to enjoy PSVR; well, that’s going to add extra expense on top of the headset. And let’s assume for a moment here that the 4K launches at £300 – tack on the additional £350/£400 needed for the VR Headset and the PS Camera, and you’re now at £650/£700, which is more than the Oculus Rift and less than the HTC Vive, though the Vive does come with more things as standard. Suddenly PSVR isn’t looking like the bargain it once was, is it? Oops and all that.

So, the question for me is – is VR coming too early, or has Generation 8 officially outlived its purpose? That’s an interesting question and I’m not sure I have an answer to that. Most of us want to leave the quagmire of Generation 8 far, far behind already. Most of us are officially done with it; it’s been nothing but lofty promises and eventual let-downs. But consoles do need, at least, a minimal market time. If Sony were to reveal the PlayStation 5, for example, to go alongside the PSVR – one, that would kill sales of the PlayStation 4 stone-cold dead, in much the way the announcement of the NX a year ago killed any chance or hope of a Wii U sales resurgence. It would also reflect very poorly on Sony and it’s coming Sony Interactive company spin-off; coming in off the back of a console that couldn’t even stick out four years? Nintendo gets a lot of stick, but even they’re toughing it out!

Whatever the case may be, I don’t know what I think about the PS4K. Personally speaking, I’d prefer a new generation in 2017 but that’s just me. I think the time has come for us to just admit Generation 8 was a mistake – and by token, the last year or two of Generation 7 ate into potential market time that this generation could have enjoyed. But Sony needs PlayStation 4 to continue to clock up sales figures so its spin-off can enjoy more shareholder value. If Sony were to call it quits at this point, at roughly 40 million console sales, it would be a significant body-blow to their plans. Hence the 4K console – but why 4K? Why not “PlayStation 4X” or “PlayStation 4 VR” (get it? “PlayStation For VR”? Eh? Eh! Oh…).

But I think this is all about damage limitation anyway. 4K screens are starting to creep into video games – a good thing, I’ll admit – and Sony doesn’t want to admit that for all its virtues and successes, the current hardware model of the PlayStation 4 just isn’t going to cut it for VR or, perhaps, games in the next year or two. It’s hardly a new thing either; Sega had a sightly upgraded Mega Drive in the early 90’s – Mega Drive and Mega Drive II. But change happened fast back then with the advent of CD-ROM, and Sega’s add-ons and bolt-ons for the Mega Drive (Mega CD and 32X) came at the wrong time for the company, hoping to buy itself more time before a new generation hit hard.

I do hope Sony isn’t trying the same thing; it doesn’t work. Nintendo tried it with the New 3DS, and reports are it wasn’t successful for the company overall. I believe it’s always good to accept when a hardware generation is over – to give it over to new hardware. It’s good for the market and its good for hardware in general, giving impetus to push new technology and improve it in preparation for a new cycle. No-one likes sitting on games waiting for a new console; but is it worth the additional expense of pushing a new incremental machine just to eek out an extra year or two on the market? I’m not entirely convinced.

Still, it’s a brave move and it may work out for the best. But I am convinced this is less about 4K gaming and more about making sure PlayStation VR gets its moment in the limelight. Factoring in the hardware requirements for other VR headsets, it will still be significantly cheaper than the competition. And I’d certainly not complain if it meant that the coming Dark Souls 3 could be played at a higher frame-rate (though I think Dark Souls 3 will come for the NX Home Console with that baked in). But it’s still evidence that this generation of hardware isn’t enough to run many of these games and/or devices at an acceptable standard – and that’s as damning as I think you can get as a realisation.

No-one wants to admit it yet, but we all know this generation is a dead horse. I’d prefer Sony didn’t try to beat one last gasp out of it…

 

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