Editorial: Sony and Microsoft Muddying the Market With Mid-Generation Hardware Upgrades

I have a PlayStation 4 Slim hooked up to my aging flatscreen TV. I eventually plan to transition to a PS4 Pro, but the system isn't speaking to me for a number of different reasons. For one, the price tag; at 400 bucks, it's an expensive upgrade considering it's not a proper new system, like a PlayStation 5 or something. For another, the improvements that it offers from a gameplay perspective are really quite negligible to the average gamer.

By Robert Marrujo:: Now, that's not to say PS4 Pro isn't genuinely more powerful than the baseline model, because it is, and by a lot. It's GPU is listed at 4.2 TFLOPs, compared to the 1.84 of a PS4 Slim. It also boasts a 2.1GHz 8-core AMD Jaguar CPU, again a marked improvement over the standard unit's 1.6GHz. That's a lot of specs, so to put it simply, the PS4 Pro is capable of rendering better visuals and more objects in-game, as well as cut load times in ways that the PS4 Slim can't, resulting in better performance. The problem is that because Sony insists that any games made for PS4 must run on both a Slim and a Pro, there's only so much a developer can do to take advantage of the latter without leaving the former in the dust.

The question then becomes, who is a PS4 Pro meant for? As I noted above, for the average gamer these improvements generally aren't going to mean all that much. Anyone without a 4K TV isn't going to see the improved resolution that some titles offer, for instance. There's also the matter of developers and where they choose to take advantage of PS4 Pro's increased horsepower, if at all. The people making games know that many consumers are gaming on a budget. If a PS4 Slim is going to deliver largely the same experience that a PS4 Pro will but at nearly half the price, there isn't going to be much incentive to plunk down that $399.99 from the consumer end and thus no reason to cater specifically to that market on the developer side of things.

As such, devoting development resources to take advantage of luxury hardware that most people won't have isn't a great idea. It's an issue that I fear Microsoft's Xbox One X is going to face when it hits the market, despite the record pre-orders that are being tracked. Back in June, IGN reported on an interview between the CEO of Sony Entertainment Europe Jim Ryan and Glixel about the sales figures for PS4, stating that "Almost one in five PlayStations sold since that launch in November has been a Pro. That's significantly ahead of our expectations."

Ryan went on a bit more, saying "Sometimes I think we can be guilty of ascribing too much rationality to gamers. People just want the best. Maybe they just want to future proof? I think we see the same thing from Apple customers too — there are people that want the best that you can buy." I'm not here to say I disagree with Ryan, but I do question his logic and wonder how healthy overall it is for the industry.

For one thing, people do indeed upgrade their Apple and Android phones on a regular basis, but there's a huge difference between devices that are intrinsically tethered to people's everyday lives and a gaming console. There's also no ignoring that service providers like AT&T and Verizon go out of their way to incentivize upgrading via trade-ins and other cost-cutting options, whereas Sony and Microsoft do not. The big two console manufacturers simply put out a product and ask consumers to fork over the full MSRP.

With these new intergenerational consoles being put on the market, consumers are being asked to upgrade their setups for significantly high prices not that long after the baseline models have been introduced. I've written in the past about the expensive price of gaming being a hurdle for people on a budget who want to play, and now I ask what those same consumers are supposed to do if suddenly video game console makers begin to ask for $400 to $500 every two to three years rather than every five to seven? As things currently stand, the only way to trade in and upgrade a console is via stores like GameStop, but rarely does anyone get back anything close to their initial buy-in price when doing that.

I'm all for slick graphics and better gaming experiences, but this seeming push to eliminate traditional console generations in favor of incremental upgrades is, frankly, alarming. As of now it's not a requirement; as I observed earlier, developers are creating games that essentially have to be able to still function on the older hardware that so many consumers have already adopted. That's now, though. Moving into the future, it's possible Sony and Microsoft might simply switch to a production model that does require upgrading to new systems like these.

That's perhaps being a bit alarmist. Ultimately, both Sony and Microsoft will have to see how many gamers choose to upgrade to PS4 Pro and Xbox One X in the longterm before pulling the trigger on a more aggressive business model. What I simply hope happens is that the numbers aren't there. I don't honestly believe that gaming needs to exist on the bleeding edge in order to entertain fans and sustain the market. PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 both were pushing close to a decade before being supplanted by this generation of consoles, and all indicators to date are that the market isn't losing interested in dedicated gaming platforms. Gaming will always be expensive, but it should never get to the point that only the rich can afford to play.

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