Only a few weeks after Microsoft mused openly about the possibility of faster, more incremental updates to its Xbox hardware, it's now Sony's turn to be under the same spotlight, with rumours gathering that the company is going to introduce a "PlayStation 4.5" this year - an updated version of the PS4 with some kind of boost to its hardware that's designed to help the platform support 4K TVs, PSVR headsets or both, depending on who you speak to.
The "depending on who you speak to" aspect is important, because from relatively humble beginnings, this is a rumour that's grown and evolved into something of a monster. There's little doubt that Sony has a hardware refresh in the works, but what that will actually consist of is another question entirely. The earliest rumours, and not coincidentally those I think are most trustworthy, suggested that the main target of the refresh was 4K support - developers have supposedly been calling the new system "PlayStation 4K" - but didn't give any real details of what that would entail. The connection with PSVR is one that seems to have come organically from a range of assumptions by journalists or commentators online; if Sony is doing a more powerful PS4, and also doing a VR headset, doesn't it stand to reason that the more powerful PS4 is designed to drive a better experience for the VR headset?
"[Sony's stance] represents a fairly momentous PR mistake... There is an increasingly widespread assumption that PS4 hardware sold now will be deeply inferior to what appears later this year, especially for PSVR"
Through all this, Sony has remained absolutely silent - a "we don't comment on rumours" stance that's not unusual for a platform holder, but which, in this specific case, represents a fairly momentous PR mistake. With the "PS4.5" being covered not just in specialist media but by mainstream outlets, Sony finds itself with a potentially hugely damaging story spreading like wildfire and mutating as it travels, which it has done precisely nothing to get out in front of. There is an increasingly widespread assumption that PS4 hardware sold now will be deeply inferior to what appears later this year, especially for PSVR; there's certainly disquiet among the almost 40 million people who have bought PS4s, many of whom now believe that their consoles will be outmoded only a year or two after purchase.
Maybe that's actually true - in which case, Sony needs to accelerate its communication plans and get out in front of the story to explain what's going on, why it's making these decisions and how it's going to guarantee a good experience for its existing 40 million PS4 customers. More likely, though, it's not true, or is an utterly warped representation of the truth - in which case Sony even more desperately needs to tackle the story, which threatens to bring the PS4's thus-far uninterrupted PR love-in with the gaming public to a juddering, acrimonious halt.
My suspicion is that many of the rumours regarding PS4.5, though widely believed, are invented nonsense. That there's new hardware in the works is fairly obvious, but a refresh of the console's hardware after selling 40 million units or so isn't exactly an unusual step. Some changes to the PS4, mostly around cost but also focused on miniaturisation of components and so on, will have been on the roadmap since before the original hardware even launched. However, the idea that these changes are going to bring in major upgrades to the console's internal components stretches credulity - and would also, it's worth noting, stretch Sony's capacity to either cut the console's price or earn decent profits from hardware sales.
Here's a scenario that sounds more likely. Sony Corporation, as distinct from Sony Computer Entertainment, has a problem; people aren't upgrading their TVs. Sony has invested vast amounts of money in the creation not only of 4K televisions, but also of the recording and broadcast equipment required for 4K content - but the whole ecosystem has yet to catch on, and 4K remains largely something you only see at trade shows or in electronics store showrooms. 4K will almost certainly catch on, one way or the other - but if it doesn't get a boost soon and start being adopted in a major way, Sony can kiss goodbye to much of the investment it's put into the technology.
Ah! But Sony has an ace up its sleeve; PlayStation 4, the fastest selling console in history, already at 40 million units and likely to exceed 50 million by the end of the year. Existing PS4s can't play back 4K content - but Sony is unlikely to have forgotten the important role PS2 played in driving adoption of the DVD standard (or the admittedly less notable role of PS3 in getting people to buy Blu-Rays), and the 4K ecosystem could really, really do with the boost that would come from a few tens of millions of consumers owning a home console capable of playing back 4K media. Why not, then, refresh the PS4 hardware to add 4K playback capability, giving the console a new selling point and hopefully helping the rest of Sony Corporation to sell its TVs, cameras and broadcast equipment at the same time?
"It's not that more rapid, incremental updates to consoles aren't possible or even desirable; the model Microsoft hinted at for future Xbox consoles...is something that is probably inevitable for future consoles. The thing is, that's not a model you can switch to mid-lifespan"
Note that I'm talking here about "4K content", because in this scenario, we aren't necessarily talking about 4K games; in fact, it's vanishingly unlikely that any PS4 hardware update would play games in native 4K resolution. If there's a clever chip around that can inexpensively do high-quality upscaling of HD content to 4K, perhaps that could be included in the new hardware and existing games upscaled to the new resolution - but this would not be remotely the same as upgrading the PS4's GPU and all the rest of its internals to output native 4K from games. In fact, the innards of the PS4, from the perspective of videogames, could remain exactly the same; the console would gain the ability to play back 4K video content, or display various other content at 4K resolution, without actually changing any of the internals that play videogames.
If that sounds like a terribly boring PS4.5 compared to the rumours of a system with a GPU twice as fast as existing PS4s and what have you, well, it is. Consider the alternative, though; a genuinely significantly upgraded PS4.5 would create a two-tier system among PS4 owners, essentially allowing some players to enjoy better frame rates or nicer graphical effects than others. That in itself is anathema to console owners, as the whole unspoken but absolutely vital contract between a platform holder and its customers is "this will last for years"; console owners sacrifice the bleeding edge performance PC owners enjoy in favour of a stable, reliable, long-lasting platform. It's even worse if you throw PSVR into the mix. The existing PS4 actually drives PSVR very impressively indeed (and I think much of the "Sony needs PS4.5 for PSVR" narrative derives from the inaccurate assumption that PS4 isn't up to the task of VR), but if Sony pushes out a new version of the hardware that's enhanced for VR, the extremely strong implication is that existing PS4s will give a sub-standard VR experience. That's bad with normal games, but absolutely devastating for the company's VR ambitions; poor framerate in VR means headaches, nausea and vomiting, and if Sony is going to ship an upgraded console in order to provide "better" VR, they may as well start shipping complementary sick bags to every existing PS4 owner who buys a PSVR headset.
It's not that more rapid, incremental updates to consoles aren't possible or even desirable; the model Microsoft hinted at for future Xbox consoles, which could be something more like a mobile phone contract (paid in installments, with a new console arriving automatically after 24 months, or whatever) is something that is probably inevitable for future consoles. The thing is, that's not a model you can switch to mid-lifespan; it's got to be the clearly indicated and communicated intent of the console from the outset. Sony could do it for PS5; but throwing out an incrementally updated PS4.5, springing it on existing owners out of the blue, would be a misstep that could honestly be on par with Microsoft's catastrophic initial Xbox One reveal.
Again; I don't think that's what's happening here. I suspect, based on the reports we've seen and what I've been told in private, that the updated PS4 will make very little difference (if any at all) to the gaming experience; a videogame played in a PS4.5 will run pretty much exactly the same as a videogame played in a PS4, and that goes for VR as well. The difference will be in video output options and media playback capabilities, aimed at providing a buttress to the Sony mothership's ailing 4K plans. The problem is, I'm guessing; an educated guess, but not half as educated as I'd like it to be. I'm guessing because Sony's letting this rumour run wild. It's time for them to get out in front of their own story and explain their plans - not because we're "entitled to the truth", or whatever, but for the simple commercial reason that nothing is more valuable to a platform holder than the trust of its customers, and right now, many of Sony's PS4 customers simply aren't sure what to think.