Console gaming has always been a business of hardware revisions and minor tweaks. Several years after the launch of a console, a new slimline version is usually released to replace the old model, featuring power reduction and a refined chassis that doesn’t skimp on performance. With the advent of mass storage in our consoles, we’re also used to different sized hard drives being offered at different price points. Console iteration isn’t exactly a new phenomenon.
However, Sony plans to release a PlayStation 4.5 codenamed Neo, which bucks the trend in that regard. According to leaked console specifications, the PlayStation Neo will offer upgrades to the CPU, GPU and memory speeds. While this is a half-step in terms of performance, the plans suggest that the new console will be able to output 4K scaled resolutions, meaning that the Neo is essentially a console revision that will offer functional benefits over the original PS4. Given that the likes of Netflix will be offering 4K streams and 4K Blu Rays will soon be available, there seems to be a distinct advantage in having a device that will be able to handle all this UHD content.
The leaked plans suggest that game developers may be required to patch in Neo support for their games from as early as October this year. For the 35 million PS4 owners out there, this initially sounds like their console is being superseded after less than 3 years on the market. There has been an understandable concern expressed by those users, with many expecting their old console to be rendered obsolete in a short space of time. This is especially alarming considering the fact that consoles do not have a great history of mid-cycle hardware additions. The Sega CD and 32x were both designed to extend the life of the Mega Drive, but failed to catch on in any meaningful way while fragmenting the customer base, meaning that very few developers took advantage of the hardware. Given this history, there’s no wonder that PS4 owners have been distressed by this news.
However, the leaked documents suggest a different story. Sony seem very keen to keep system parity between the PS4 and the Neo, expressly stating that there will be no Neo-exclusive games. Games for Sony’s platform are forced to support both consoles to pass certification. While the Neo may offer performance upgrades such as higher graphical fidelity and higher framerates, the Neo will not get any exclusive titles that PS4 owners will miss out on.
New adopters of the PS4 may be annoyed by this, but the fact is that the performance upgrades offered by the Neo are not a major step forward; certainly nothing like a generational leap between the two. Buying a Neo will not automatically unlock a glorious 4K world of 60FPS gaming. Both consoles still contain essentially the same parts, it’s just that the components in the Neo have generally higher clock speeds. While this unlocks greater potential in the Neo’s hardware, this isn’t likely to result in anything radically different to what you see on the screen today. For the average consumer who cares very little for resolution specs and framerate counts, a negligible boost in fidelity is unlikely to make them regret their purchase. Considering that games will be required to work on both consoles, and considering that the architecture is largely the same with only clock speed differences, you’re unlikely to miss out on anything major with a standard PS4.
Besides, the existence of the Neo doesn’t take away the graphically rich experiences that are currently on offer in the form of Star Wars: Battlefront, The Order: 1886 and The Witcher III. Looking to the future, there’s still an amazing amount of beautiful looking games already in development for PS4 such as Uncharted 4, Horizon: Zero Dawn and Final Fantasy XV. It’s obvious that there’s still a lot of life left in the PS4, and Sony has to be careful to message this correctly to the public so as not to alienate their current user base.
This kind of console revision may become the standard for the video games industry in the future. Technology trends suggest that, while performance improvements are continuously being made, there are diminishing returns to be had. Miniaturization of chips is proving to be much more incremental than ever before, meaning that the generational leaps we have been used to with consoles past is being reduced. The graphical jump between PlayStations has been lessened every time, with the jump from PS3 to PS4 a much smoother transition than PS1 to PS2. Perhaps a 2-3 year refresh is a better strategy rather than launching a new “generation” every 6-7 years, especially when it is difficult to image what a generational leap to a PlayStation 5 might look like these days.
Given that Microsoft have already laid their cards on the table and said that they are looking at a similar refresh for the Xbox One, it’s clear that both companies are trying to stay relevant. Looking at the mobile market where hardware is refreshed every year and a PC market where components are miniaturized and improved upon in rapid succession, console makers cannot ignore such trends. Technology is a rapidly evolving beast, and it seems that the public are more receptive to near-constant updates than they ever have been. Maybe the time is right for the PlayStation Neo, provided they change that awful codename for something not linked to Keanu Reeves.
Besides which, it could be that this new console isn’t even aimed at us consumers. Sony have yet to announce the Neo in public, meaning that all the information we have is based on leaked documentation and rumours from developers that have got their hands on dev kits. The fact that Sony are actively courting development studios and remaining tight-lipped in public suggests that their priorities are elsewhere. Of course, console makers will always send out dev builds of their hardware well in advance of a console’s launch, but the fact that Sony haven’t even attempted to address the public despite their plans being leaked suggests that they aren’t developing this with us in mind.
Soon after the PS4 launched, concerns were raised from some developers regarding the longevity of the hardware. The PS4 is on an x86 PC-like architecture this time round, making it much easier for developers to port games from PC (the standard development platform for most studios) to PlayStation. However, considering that an average gaming PC bought today can outstrip a PS4 in terms of raw power, an upgrade is likely in order to make them a viable option. With the Neo, Sony appears to be introducing a halfway house so that their platform remains competitive with PC gaming, after which performance can be scaled back slightly for the PS4. The Neo appears to be an extended hand to the development community; a way to get them developing for the platform and to address their concerns about the lifespan of the PS4 in a rapidly-changed tech sector.
Sony appears to be making moves to ensure that this move is as simple and painless as it can be. The Neo experience will be identical in that the cross media bar will be the same, it will connect to the same PSN store front, and share the same online community of the PS4. Sony are also enforcing a policy that stops developers from creating version-specific game components, meaning that you won’t get additional game modes or options on the Neo as opposed to PS4. The Neo will not offer any exclusive peripheral support either. Essentially, players on both console revisions will interact with them both in exactly the same way.
Traditional console gamers might be used to the idea of plugging in a box that will play the latest games for the next few years, and in that respect nothing is changing. PS4 might not always be playing games in an optimal fashion, but that was always the case when compared to PC ports. Ultimately, Sony’s plans suggest that it will be business as usual on that front, but if it offers an opportunity to aid development, then we should be all for it.