With the news from earlier this morning that had Sony confirm the existence of the yet-to-be-titled upgraded PS4, I wanted to do a deeper dive on the subject matter that’s had some gamers riled up. Instead of following a traditional article narrative, I will instead tackle a few key points revolving around the advent of PS4 4K. So sit back, get comfy, and let’s dig in on why a PS4 4K is actually a good idea.
Devaluing the PS4
I’m not sure if the above header is correct for this but in general, I’ve seen a lot of gamers upset at the possibility that a game could be released and look better on the new console. However, this is an absurd notion to hold and the reality is that better versions of games have always been coming out – be it on mobile where new hardware is introduced at least once a year or on PC where new powerful CPU/GPU combos are always pushing the boundaries of games. In fact, it’s possible that among PC gamers, 10 friends could play the same game while experiencing vastly different visual fidelities. Ironically for gamers, one thing that plays a huge role in how we experience our games is the TV we use yet nobody is complaining about better TVs hitting the market and making their title look inferior. Chances are that Uncharted 4 looks breathtakingly different on a new Sony 4K TV than a 5 year old Vizio.
All of this is a long winded way of saying that there has always been a difference in a game’s visual quality. In all likelihood, there has never been a time where we’ve all experienced the same exact quality gameplay and that’s okay. It’s not as if with the introduction of PS4 4K, that previously announced titled like Horizon: Zero Dawn or Gran Turismo Sport will suddenly look worse. It’s just that there could be better versions of them – which brings us to our next subject.
Bait and switch
It’s worth remembering that every title we’ve seen on PS4 thus far, be it the visually appealing Horizon or the games we’ve seen on PlayStation VR, has been running on PS4 hardware. There has been no trick in motion from Sony where these yet-to-be-released titles have actually been running on an unannounced hardware and in order to enjoy them as you’d seen, a new console purchase will be required. Instead we’ve yet to see what PS4 4K can actually offer so if you’ve been happy with the progress of games (and I mean come on, just look at Uncharted 4), rest assured that you haven’t been deceived and that there is plenty of mileage left on PS4.
4 year old hardware
A common belief among gamers, developers, and press is that the previous console cycle lasted too long. Seven years in technology is an eternity. To put that in context, when the PS3 was released (November 11, 2006), there was no such thing as iPhone – which wouldn’t be unveiled for another 2 months and go on sale for another 6 months – yet it’s hard to think of a world where the iPhone didn’t exist. Sure, Sony might have been a bit behind on this trend but PS3 launched with very little online capabilities outside of a HTML-based store and basic friend capabilities.
Now could you imagine PS4 having launched without that? Instead what we got was a console with robust online capabilities and live streaming options from day one. But now the PS4 is three years old which means its hardware is four years old, at least. Again, if we step into our time machine, four years ago, Apple had yet to announce the iPhone 5s, which means an era where Apple didn’t offer larger-screened phones or even Touch ID which powers services like ApplePay. Now those features and services are ubiquitous with Apple and taken for granted.
On the other side of the pond, PS4 was released during a time when Google was just getting Android 4.3 Jellybean to users and Sony was just into its first year of having 4K TVs released. Back then, we also didn’t have services like Periscope, SnapChat was getting out the door, and the future of Facebook was in question with the popular thinking being that they’d hit a ceiling.
Again, all of this is a long winded way of saying that, while it might not seem this way, the PS4 has aged and technology has changed a lot in the 3 years since the console was released – and that’s not taking into account that PS4 and the hardware that powers it have been in development for that much longer.
What PS4 4K can bring
It’s hard not to get excited about what PS4 4K can bring to us, and here are just a few examples – but I invite you to let your imagination run wild.
Every day, more and more consumers are purchasing 4K sets. In fact, at CES 2016, Sony didn’t even bother showcasing their HDTVs and with pricing falling year over year, I wouldn’t be surprised if Sony stopped selling HD sets altogether in the near future. Heck, you can pick up a decently-sized 4K TV from lesser brands for under $1,000. But the 4K revolution will not be televised. Sure, there has been some talk of 4K broadcasts from your traditional cable providers, but the reality is that 4K will truly be fueled by services like Netflix, Amazon, and YouTube.
As of today, the delivery mechanism for 4K is a bit all over the place but with the standard now maturing, Sony can once again use PlayStation, like they did with PS3, as a Trojan horse – it was Blu-ray then and it will be 4K today. It’s worth remembering that Sony has been slowly working on their own TV delivery service with PlayStation Vue which should have an easy time transitioning to 4K, seeing how it’s delivered through an app. Now they can have one box that offers 4K TV to consumers no matter the service they want. PS4 already has native apps for Netflix, YouTube, and PS Vue so upgrading them to 4K is the next natural step.
If we remember back to the days of PS3, there was a sizable market for consumers who owned a PS3 simply for its Blu-ray capabilities. PS4 can do the same for 4K and if they decide to dip into games, VR, or other services provided along the way, all the better for Sony.
Of course with 4K TV comes 4K gaming. Who wouldn’t want Uncharted 4 to look that much more beautiful or for Bungie to crank things to 11 with Destiny 2 in a world that’s more immersive than ever? In fact, with Rise of Iron, the new Destiny DLC that lands this September, Bungie is only releasing the expansion on PS4/Xbox One, dropping PS3/Xbox 360 support. Though they’ve yet to comment on why, the people I’ve spoken with have indicated that all internal teams have moved on to next-gen (read current gen consoles). One big reason is the hardware limitations of previous consoles which would have made the new weather effects that we’ll see in the new content simply impossible on the old hardware at the scale they wanted. This part is really a no brainer and one of the big reasons we get excited by new consoles – better looking games.
Again, when PS4 was first unveiled, VR was just a twinkle in people’s eyes and yet in just a short few months, not only will PlayStation VR launch, but competitors like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive will have been on the market for a few months. Unless something goes dramatically wrong between now and PS VR’s release, it’s widely believed that Sony will dominate the VR space as competitor headsets cost nearly twice as much – and that’s before needing a $1,000+ PC to run them.
Sony’s ambitions of VR are grand and, in many ways, limited by what PS4 can deliver. If Oculus Rift needs a $1,000+ PC today to perform adequately, imagine what developers must do on PS4/PS VR to ensure their games look good on 4 year old hardware. With a more powerful console, Sony will be able to ensure devs have all the power they need at their disposal to deliver the experiences they want. Don’t read this as 4K VR but rather 1080p 60fps VR and that’s no small feat. Sony has already stated that they’ll reject any VR games under 60fps but I wouldn’t be surprised if many games on PS VR run at 720p on PS4 and perhaps 1080p on PS4 4K, but this is purely speculation on my end.
Gaming is merely one avenue for virtual reality. In just the past year, VR has been incorporated in the film industry to create new dynamic ways to experience films and those on Facebook have surely seen 360-degree videos which allow you to pan around and look at the videos from any angle you want. When not in films, VR has been used in photography to capture a much greater sense of the scene with a unique ability to better bring that shot to life. That’s just scratching the surface of VR. After all, I guarantee you that Facebook didn’t purchase Oculus Rift for $2 billion so they can compete in the gaming space.
One thing that Sony absolutely nailed with PS4 from launch was its community features, like natively recording gameplay and live streaming to services like Twitch. With more robust hardware, Sony can bring enhanced experiences for the live streaming community and further enhance social features like Remote Play. As it stands, I can stream games directly from my PS4 to my iMac in 720p, but could an enhanced console push that to 1080p?
And what about the greater world? Microsoft has just brought Cortana to Xbox One while Sony is bringing home automation features to its 4K TVs. A more robust and modern internal architecture could allow Sony to position the PS4 as much more than a gaming machine and as a true hub for the home.
In order for Sony to grow, so must PlayStation
In the past several years, PlayStation has grown from the gaming division of Sony to one of its key pillars. In fact, during the company’s Q4 FY15 earnings, Game & Network Services (PlayStation) and Sony Pictures were the largest earners for the company and tied at 17%. But in order for PlayStation to truly become a force to reckon with, Sony must grow the division beyond ‘hardcore’ gamers.
In an earlier piece, which I recommend reading to put this all in perspective, I outlined the future of PlayStation with where Sony might take PS5 and PS4 4K plays into that path. Here is a quick excerpt of that piece:
Throughout its 20-year history, PlayStation has done quite well for itself.
- PlayStation – 102.49 million
- PlayStation 2- 155 million
- PlayStation 3 – 83.8 million
- PlayStation 4 – 40 million YTD
Do you know how many iPhones Apple sold in 2015? Over 250 million units – and their lifetime sales figure will likely approach 1 billion by Q1 2017. And that’s just Apple, who caters to the premium market. Then there is every Android unit out there with 1/5 the cost of an iPhone
The reason I point out these numbers isn’t to directly compare Sony to Apple or consoles to mobile, but to put the numbers PlayStation is currently posting (which is double of what Microsoft is doing with Xbox) into context. In the greater tech field and consumer market, PlayStation is simply a blip. I can assure you that nobody at Sony is pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into PlayStation with the mindset that this will be a business that will on average sell at most 100 million units if it’s firing on all cylinders in its 7-8 year lifespan. Their ambitions are far greater than that.
At the same time, it’s silly to assume that Sony will be able to drastically increase PlayStation sales in a way that it will become a global player in the way Apple or Samsung might be. After all, the Wii, which was always priced below PS3 and catered to casual gamers (I think that was the only console that somehow showed up in our parents’ and grandparents’ houses) and it only managed to sell around 102 million units; even that was during its nearly 8 years on store shelves.
This means that, in order for PlayStation to grow, Sony must look beyond its core gamers and expand the base of who the PS4 caters to.
Sony can focus on two things
But this doesn’t have to come at a sacrifice. There is this notion among gamers and some members of the press that, if PlayStation expands its core functionality, it would come at the expense of gaming, but I find little evidence of this. PlayStation as an architecture is purely a delivery platform. Business aside (and what I mean by that is that Sony must ensure that the hardware inside PS4 4K is powerful and nimble enough for today and tomorrow while also not costing so much, like it did with PS3, that they stumble out of the gate and need years to recover), as long as Sony can provide compelling hardware that’s capable of more than gaming, why should that hurt the core gamer? It’s not as if because the new console is designed with 4K in mind, which would allow Netflix to release a 4K version of their app, that it will somehow affect the development of games coming to that console.
Now don’t take this to mean that I believe this strategy can’t be screwed up. After all, the whole reason Microsoft is so behind with Xbox One is that it was a console that was going to bring Windows, DVR, voice commands, and motion control features to gamers and in the end, it failed to deliver on nearly all of them. But the problem here isn’t that Microsoft wanted Xbox One to do many different things, but that they were all poorly executed with little forethought given to how they can enrich the core experience. Microsoft simply took on too much with too little planning and the end results are obvious.
Sony on the other hand started humble with PS4 – it’s a console for hardcore gamers. Now that we’re three years into that cycle, we already know the narrative and it’s time for Sony to grow and expand beyond it. It’s again like saying that iPhone launched with 10 core features and that Apple should have never expanded beyond it. Instead, with each new iPhone, the previous features were improved upon while new ones were added and chances are that 10 different people do 10 very different things with their iPhone, thanks to the nimbleness of the platform. A key reason for this is that Apple keeps pushing the underlying software and hardware forward which opens new avenues for developers to build upon.
With PS4 a raging success, Sony can do the same thing with PS4 4K and introduce a new iteration that expands upon its predecessor and pushes the boundaries of what it can deliver. In the end, it’s a win for Sony if they can attract new users to their console while giving previous owners something worthy to upgrade to without waiting nearly a decade – and for those of you out there who might not see a value in what’s being offered, you still win. After all, Sony did announce that PS4 4K and PS4 will be sold alongside each other (much like how when Apple releases a new iPhone, the previous models are still offered at a discount price), so don’t be surprised to see the PS4’s price cut further this year.
Do you think Sony can position PS4 4K as a machine that’s built for more than gaming and therefore grow their user base?