The PS4 Pro-blem: Electric Boogaloo

 

Well, time to revisit the PS4 “Pro”.

I wasn’t particularly sold on the “Pro” variant when it was announced, and my PS4 remains in a stubbornly “off” position as it is until I can get another DualShock 4 (reliability issues for the controller are not unheard of, sadly, and this was my third that broke just the wrong side of warranty). I lamented, in a crude fashion I admit, that the “Pro” suffered from a distinct and notable issue – a retread of a mistake Nintendo made in 2015, when it launched the New Nintendo 3DS XL. Launching a slightly upgraded version of a console that already has tens of millions of users ends up with two problems; one, games make use of the upgraded hardware and the old hardware can’t run the game (Hyrule Warriors: Legends), or the upgraded hardware doesn’t get used or gets used poorly – see the majority of 3DS games released.

Yesterday, Sony announced since its launch, one in five new PlayStation 4 sales have been “Pro” purchases, which – with around 10 million since then – means that two million PS4 “Pro” consoles have been sold, roughly. Bitchin’ and all that.

And?

Truth is, the PS4 “Pro” landed squarely into the same pitfalls the New 3DS XL did. On the one hand, you have games like The Last Guardian, which ran like a dog on older PS4 units preferring to optimise for the “Pro” (and we’re shocked its sales were so poor?). On the other, you have games like World of Final Fantasy, which were better on the older PS4 units due to extremely poor optimisation for the “Pro” variant. Most games, however, simply haven’t bothered either way – they haven’t added or changed anything for the benefit of “Pro” users, so they’re ultimately getting roughly the same experience as everyone else minus possibly a couple of seconds of loading time here and there.

trico

Trico is adorable but cute doesn’t excuse that mess…

It’s hardly a ringing endorsement for the Pro, is it? Most games don’t bother, and those that do oscillate somewhere between pissing off the larger base audience or pissing off the niche Pro audience. Sony is trying… but as it turns out, Pro support is hard and takes time, and it seems the majority of older games won’t even be spruced up for the Pro in the long run.

The reason why the Pro isn’t getting that support isn’t surprising – 58 million PS4 sales and only two million of those are Pro? That’s 3.4% of the audience – let’s be generous and round up to a whole four percent. Put in those terms… why appeal to a significantly smaller audience when the majority of users out there – ninety-six percent – are on the basic, run-of-the-mill PS4 unit? There’s little to no end benefit for developers to put in the additional work that the Pro and its somewhat-4K angle delivers. If a game sells two million units, and let’s say that four percent of those buyers are Pro users – that’s a trifling 80,000 units. If you’re expending an additional X million in budget for such a small audience, you need to expect a return – and simply put, it seems no-one believes there to be any serious return involved here.

It’s such a small portion of the userbase that Sony will be hinging the future of the “Pro” in the next, say, year or so against the Scorpio – Microsoft’s supposed 4K-Capable new console coming out later this year, touch wood and all that. Thing is, the Scorpio – for all the pomp and ceremony – has a similar issue; the games Microsoft are insisting must also support the base XBox One console, and if you are to believe that machine has sold a supposed 30 million units – odds are in the short term, barring some miracle, most games will be pitched for the older console with a more solid install base already there. Selling the two side-by-side only ensures that you deliberately dilute sales of the new system.

That is, at least, something Nintendo got right with the Switch. The Wii U was dead and buried months before the Switch arrived, and even today – with the Pokémon Ultra Sun and Moon reveal – it’s clear that Nintendo itself is starting to sunset the 3DS, hopefully so from April 2018 onwards it can put everything behind the Switch. Nintendo got the message largely because they made the mistake years before Sony and Microsoft – New 3DS XL sales were low, and the New 2DS XL is a cheaper variant of the 3DS XL that will carry things until, eventually, the whole pool dries up entirely. Nintendo also realised game sales for New 3DS XL titles were hardly stellar – a million here and there, but compared to juggernauts like Pokémon Sun and Moon, shifting 15 million within a quarter? It’s a drop in a bucket in an ocean of potential sales, and more than that – it costs a lot more to push these more optimised games too, requiring a lot more reworking – it goes both ways, costs money to upscale to 4K as it does to downscale to 400 x 240.

Unless Microsoft comes out this year with a massive change of heart and declares the Scorpio to be the start of a completely new console cycle that won’t require developers to ensure XBox One compatibility, Sony is betting on the wrong horse here. The mass majority of users are still 1080p users – base console users – and unless one of the two has the giant, coconut-sized kahunas to actively and wilfully cut the old console off… these new consoles will only be a fractional part of the overall picture.

Most people don’t have 4K yet. And most people won’t be upgrading to 4K yet. These new consoles are significantly more expensive – the Pro is £100 more expensive for the most part (and the Scorpio might optimistically be £450, a whole £200 more than a base XBox One! And that’s the optimistic price!) and require additional expense in a 4K TV for the most part. It’s a lot of additional money when you could play the game on a cheaper console, on your current TV, and the only downside is maybe – possibly – you’ll see a few seconds loading delay here and there.

This half-arsed, half-baked approach however is entirely Nintendo’s doing though.

Sony and Microsoft were blind-sided in 2006 when Nintendo dropped the Nintendo Wii. It was not an HD console, when Sony and Microsoft had gone all-in on HDMI. And it sold gangbusters for several years – dramatically outselling the competition, sometimes by margins of 8 to 1 in a given month. Nintendo couldn’t keep up with demand and even got away with a retail price INCREASE within the first couple of years. Sony and Microsoft were left utterly scratching their heads – how could anyone not want to immediately jump ship to HDMI and play prettier games on more powerful hardware? It wasn’t until around 2010 – four years of annihilating the PS3 and XBox 360 – that people began the shift to HDMI, and PS3 and XBox 360 sales began to increase alongside the Kinect and PS Mo-hahaha, no, I couldn’t say it with a straight face. Sorry.

It wasn’t until last year that many big-name games entirely dropped old-gen versions too – though FIFA 18 is still pitching to the PS3 and 360 crowd I believe – and the end result? A crash in sales for many of these franchise brands. Not a surprise, and to be expected – it had to happen at some point, after all – but still a painful reminder that moving on is hard to do.

This is why the PS4 “Pro” and XBox Scorpio sit in the same position; someone has to have the courage to spite their other audience, and right now, the only company that had the balls to do that has been Nintendo – who, with 14 million Wii U sales, perhaps considered that market small enough that pissing them off wasn’t a big issue (and since the projection now is the Switch will outsell four and a half years of Wii U sales in under 12 months, you can’t argue with the end result). So you have two more expensive variants of already existing hardware and provide no real, tangible motivation to encourage migration towards the more expensive system?

alextrebek

I’ll take self-defeating business decisions for 600, Alex.

Right now, neither the Scorpio or the Pro are willing to push a new console generation. And I sort of understand why… the two companies don’t want to cut it off early and risk comparisons to their last-gen sales figures, which could hurt their share values a little. Sony in particular promised their shareholders 100 million PS4 sales – a figure it’s unlikely to ever meet, considering the PS3 production is finally over and never reached that sum. Neither company wants to be the one to admit this generation was a train-wreck overall for sales figures, and so begins arguably another year-long game of Chicken, with both companies hoping the other will flinch, cry uncle and finally concede that it’s time to move on.

Yeah, swallow that one for a second. Sony and Microsoft are doubling-down on the current generation because they’re afraid what will happen if they just admit what we all happen to already know – the last four and a half years have been mediocre for the most part and many of us are more than happy to move on – see the Nintendo Switch sales, now comparable to how the Wii was selling, for evidence of what could happen if you just faced up to reality and admitted to us all that it’s time to get the hell out of dodge and start a brand-spanking-new hardware cycle.

In the meantime, expect Sony to continue to do what it does best to its ailing hardware segments – pay tangential lip service, offer half-hearted content and patches and ultimately end up largely forgetting the whole damn thing (as a Vita owner, it hurts to say that but it’s time we ripped the band-aid off). Microsoft may have no choice but to go all-in on Scorpio support – but Microsoft is Microsoft, and it could ultimately cushion that financial blow (even if it ultimately means its shareholders demand once more the XBox brand gets cut off – and the next time around, they might just get their wish…).

If talk is indeed correct, Sony is deep in R&D for the next PlayStation console anyway – it would be PlayStation 5, let’s just face that head-on since Sony doesn’t go in for any of that high-brow naming nonsense (rightly so). The Pro is its New 3DS moment – and it’s getting the exact same end result. Small slice of the market ultimately meaningless in the long-term, coming at a point when all attention and talk is instead focused specifically on the speculation of a new-generation hardware instalment. Few games have made use of the Pro, few are likely to, and it’ll be a niche part of an overall market that will in a year or two be canned in favour of an actual, all-new hardware cycle.

You know, like the Nintendo Switch did.

Seriously, Nintendo made those mistakes in the last few years. I know the games industry has a short memory sometimes but seriously – Sony, Microsoft, rather than pinch ideas from Nintendo in your usual fashion, perhaps you could do the wisest thing in your lives and learn from their mistakes instead.

It’ll save us all some hassle in the long run.

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