A few weeks ago, Microsoft's Phil Spencer announced that the Xbox One could see mid-cycle upgrades in the near future. Now, according to a report from Kotaku's Patrick Klepek, we know that Sony may be doing something similar. Sources tell the site that the company is developing a "PlayStation 4.5" which will offer greater graphical power and which will be able to run games at 4K resolutions. This new model would retail for $400, which was the price of the current $350 model up until this past holiday season. While multiple sources reportedly confirmed this to Kotaku, Sony declined to comment.
There aren't many more details than that at this time, but if you're interested in more info on the reporting itself, make sure to go read Patrick's story. What there are a lot of at this time are a lot of big questions about how Sony plans on pursuing this strategy. What, if any, sort of VR integration will we see in this new hardware? Exactly how much more power would this new unit have? Would the "PlayStation 4.5" be a stop gap between now and an eventual PlayStation 5, or is the whole platform shifting to the incremental upgrade model that we see in smartphones and tablets?
Though I've used the "iPhone" analogy a lot to describe this idea recently, I'm increasingly unsure that it's a solid metaphor for this situation. Smartphones are fundamentally different than game consoles. For many of us, our phones a constant presence in our lives, a McLuhan-esque extension of the self, not just free-time hobby machines (though they sometimes also serve that purpose). Are people really interested in moving into a two or three year replacement cycle for our game consoles in the same way that they do with their phones? Would phone-like subsidization make that a more attractive option?
Perhaps no question is as important as: How will Sony's fans respond to this? Last month on the Beastcast, we had a chat about the current state of game consoles, and many of the responses we received were clear: People love consoles because they're convenient. A single purchase will last you at least five years, and you don't need to worry about compatibility, performance options, or hardware upgrades. So if I'd just purchased a PS4 for 349.99 in the last few months, I'd be livid right now. And I say that even though I know that there are a lot of positives behind this sort of thing. Giving the PS4 a power boost would allow the platform to keep up with the PC (and now, it seems, the Xbox One too), it lets VR developers to push their games a little further, and it means that if I ever do get a 4K TV, my PS4 games would look great on it. Except my PS4 games actually won't unless I go out and drop another $400. At that point, why am I not thinking about jumping ship?
(I should note, briefly, that from a non-business standpoint, there is one question more important than consumer retention: How much additional electronic waste will come from more rapid console cycles? The constant trashing and replacement of technology is sort of a big problem right now, y'all)
In writing this out, I've almost instinctively typed out "this is a mess" like five times now. There's so much to keep in mind when trying to analyze this decision, and with no official statement from Sony on this, speculation runs wild. I may have criticized the vagueness in Phil Spencer's talk back in early March, but at least he laid out a broad vision for the future of Xbox. Obviously Sony would've preferred for this not to leak out at all, but by proactively addressing the new Xbox One initiative ahead of any leaks, Spencer was able to control the message. But with regards to the PlayStation 4.5, all we have is social media skepticism and our own best- and worst-case scenarios.
The hope is that when this is all settled, we'll look back at this and think of it as an incredibly exciting moment of positive change for the console market. But with so little to go on, that's asking for a lot of faith from a consumer base that is already facing a rapidly changing market, a new luxury-priced VR ecosystem, and an overall lack of strong console exclusives. Hopefully we'll have a lot more specific information in place by the time E3 is over, if not sooner. Until then, all we can do is wait and see.