Why do I have the horrible feeling we’re not learning from past mistakes?
It’d be easy to tear down the underwhelming PlayStation 4 “Pro” (yes, I am going to use the bunny ears for that).
Of course, I’m not one for easy targets. Sony’s reveal comes at a time when Microsoft is going for high-end Native 4K gaming, and a time when Nintendo – arguably after years of experimentation behind closed doors – are poised to deliver what amounts to a hardware revolution with the modular Nintendo NX ecosystem. With such wildly divergent paths being forged by its rivals, Sony may be wise to just play it safe and not rock the boat. After all, despite lower hardware sales than anticipated and falling software sales, as well as growing consumer dissatisfaction in the brand, there’s method in the madness. Why be different… when you can do the same old thing that developers are used to?
The problem I have with the “Pro” – a shorthand of Professional, denoting something designed for professionals (high end, high spec and expensive, something that the PlayStation 4 “Pro” isn’t any of) – is that it’s an incremental hardware upgrade.
We saw this last year, of course, in the New Nintendo 3DS. An incremental hardware update of the Nintendo 3DS, it boasted more memory and power that allowed it to play custom-tuned Wii games, decrease loading times and overall speed up performance of the device compared to its lesser-powered compatriot. Games could look prettier, load faster and that made it the latest must-have device on the market. I, too, was suckered into spending £180 on the New Nintendo 3DS. Only weeks later to be subjected to Nintendo themselves detailing the Nintendo NX, and the coming weeks and months began to paint a picture of a modular device that was doubtlessly going to be the machines inevitable replacement – a 720p handheld that can play games of Wii U quality is the message we’re getting now, and it’s undoubtedly an incredible technical achievement.
As time has gone on, I’ve come to terms with my rash purchase of the New Nintendo 3DS. But it certainly demonstrated a lesson that I should have learned before I blew so much money on a handheld upgrade; incremental hardware increases aren’t indicative of lasting change, rather they’re the final last gasps of hardware clinging on for dear life, waiting for the inevitable next machine to come along, step on its fingers and send it plummeting into the depths of Silicon Hell. For all the short-term benefit, the reality is Nintendo was aware from the outset of the New Nintendo 3DS release that a new piece of hardware was in the works, a piece of hardware that would be a significant next-gen step up from the New 3DS, and still set about releasing it anyway. And now we find ourselves waiting for the NX Reveal coming in the next few weeks, after a year and a half of realising both the Wii U and New 3DS have been on life support, waiting for Big Bad Nintendo to come along and pull the plug on their all-too-brief existences.
The PS4 “Pro” comes across, for me, as a similar situation. It’s an incremental hardware upgrade – though for Sony, there’s an added and unspoken benefit to this strange situation. They promised, as the PlayStation 4 launched, to shift a hundred million PlayStation 4 units. Currently, after almost three years, Sony is sitting on an estimated 43 million sales. Which is impressive, save for the fact the lead console in the last three console generations had, by this stage, sold closer to sixty million units. Sony’s PS4 “Pro” is designed to stick close enough to the original PlayStation 4, alongside the Slim Model (a pointless debacle if ever there was one), to motivate the customers they have to buy again, and inch the PlayStation 4 brand closer to that mythical 100 million. Who cares that this will leave millions of old second-hand PS4’s on shelves waiting to bring down the retail price and cannibalise Sony’s profits?
Of course, Sony’s disquieting performance made me think there’s something being unsaid. And it would be ludicrous to suggest that after three years of research and development, the best Sony’s hardware engineers could come up with was the PS4 “Pro”. If that were true, I’d suggest Sony ought to find new engineers or just pack up and go away. It of course isn’t true, because this isn’t Sony’s next big console. It’s their New Nintendo 3DS moment; it’s their little naughty upgrade, the clinging on for dear life until the magical pixies/elves/oompa-loompas (delete where applicable) deep within the bowels of Sony Interactive’s R&D Division can finish putting the final bells and whistles on whatever Sony’s next big console is. Sony knows that whatever this new big project is, that it’s not going to be ready to compete with the Nintendo NX in March, or the Scorpio during the 2017 Fall Season. Chances are good whatever it is, it’ll likely arrive sometime in 2018, a year after the NX and Scorpio have launched.
And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. I’m not stupid enough to think that Sony arriving in 2018 with new hardware solutions for the market is a terrible notion – heck, the NX and the Scorpio can soften the market up, show a little flair, see how things go and Sony and its brand affinity can come in later. Sony is notorious for its sharp marketing (as well as its dumb marketing at times), and giving your competition the extra time and space – and rope, let’s be fair – to then brew up some new potent marketing point isn’t a bad idea at all. I’d even go as far as to say it was clever. A wise, calculated gamble even.
The problem is that no-one is being honest about this. The Nintendo NX, from the leaks we’ve had, is a quite revolutionary new concept – a modular hardware ecosystem, something that comes with risks but huge rewards too if Nintendo can capitalise on each individual market that the ecosystem can maintain, whilst drawing in the tablet and handheld markets into a home console space. The XBox Scorpio is a high-end console that seeks to co-exist with the huge growing PC Gaming market – drawing in those who’ll see the Scorpio as a compliment to their gaming PC needs, a sort of living room equivalent, if you will. Both have been in the works undoubtedly long before the Wii U and XBox One even got to market – particularly with the NX, because there’s plenty of circumstantial evidence to suggest that the Wii U and 3DS could have and perhaps should have been sharing the same ecosystem all along. Sony wants us to believe that the “Pro”, a small hardware upgrade and a bit of supplemental 4K Upscaling, is their next new big thing? No, come on, not even I would allow such a nonsense to stand. It’s ludicrous, and few people are talking about how much of a nonsense it really is.
Sony wants its current userbase to upgrade – which is fine, but it’s a short-lived affair and the short-term profits that can be generated from this kind of hardware refresh can also create consumer unrest, as was clear to me last year. Nintendo sold plenty of New 3DS units. That wasn’t a surprise. But we had no idea, weeks later, Nintendo would reveal the NX. And we had so little idea that the New 3DS was effectively a stop-gap, rather than a lasting piece of hardware. Sony already has a lot of consumer unrest – the PS Now! debacle was a mess, PS Vue still has issues and with little big-name software to go by, consumers haven’t been positive about a PS Plus price-hike either.
Even if the PS4 “Pro” is decent, the fact remains that it is likely to be tempered down to being much like the PS4 “of Old”; the New 3DS got some special exclusives to generate excitement, but they’ve been few and far between for some time. Most have accepted that the overall audience is stronger for sales than a specific niche for new owners of the refreshed model, and games have endeavoured to appeal to the majority rather than the minority. Sony already admits not all games will benefit from the additional power – as many simply won’t see patches to improve performance on the PS4 “Pro”. After a brief fling with a few big patches for some bigger games, what is to say that developers will simply stop bothering taking any advantage of the new hardware and just resort once more to catering to the wider audience, rather than invest in a small niche?
So what exactly is the point?
Well, this is just it – I’m not sure. The New 3DS situation is recent enough that it can’t have bypassed anyone with a functioning brain-stem at Sony R&D. Or perhaps the New 3DS was seen as a successful stop gap – and Sony decided hey, we’ve copied Nintendo plenty in the past, one more can’t hurt right? Either way, I’m not sure I like the idea of a stop-gap console when there’s the very real prospect that sometime in 2017, or early 2018, Sony Interactive will pop up and go, “Oh and here’s our next-gen console.” I mean, they’ll at least wait longer than a few weeks – sorry Nintendo, but we’re really not going to let that one go – but it’s a threat looming large over the “Pro”. That it’s just a temporary measure, rather than a lasting one.
The NX is Nintendo really going to town, and I can’t wait to see it. The Scorpio is an interesting idea and I can’t wait to see it. And I’ll admit it – I cannot personally wait to see Sony’s next big console. That is, when they have the balls to actually reveal it, because the PS4 “Pro” isn’t it. And I’m not going to pretend for one moment that it is just to please a bunch of sycophantic fanboys and press junkies who really need to stop sucking up to companies.
People will buy it – of course they will. People bought the New 3DS, after all. But once bitten, twice shy. I see what Sony is doing here… and I’m not falling for that one again…
Call me when you’re ready to show off your real new console, Sony.