Back at E3, both Microsoft and Sony had impressive press conferences, but it was the former that leveraged the show to introduce two brand-new pieces of hardware, the Xbox One S (out now) and the far more powerful Project Scorpio, set for 2017. You could argue (and some of us did) that Microsoft actually had the better E3 showing, but with yesterday's Sony conference in New York, where the company confirmed the PS4 Slim, unveiled the PS4 Pro for this November and HDR support for all PS4 consoles as of next week (via a firmware upgrade), did Sony take back any of the momentum Microsoft had gained in Los Angeles? What does the PS4 Pro mean for the current console war and its combatants? The GI.biz staff weighs in on Sony's announcements below.
I have to say that Sony's NY conference was a real PR masterstroke. With Xbox One S already on store shelves and interest in HDR and 4K TVs now growing as prices have been falling, Microsoft's platform was the only one to consider if you're serious about getting into higher fidelity gaming. In one fell swoop, however, Sony threw down the gauntlet and probably gave a lot of consumers who were thinking about Xbox One S or waiting for Scorpio some pause.
Starting next week, all PS4 units will receive an HDR upgrade - no purchase necessary. That's a huge move, because while 4K resolution is a very nice feature, it's actually HDR that's going to make a bigger difference to the average gamer's eye. As it stands now, you have to buy an Xbox One S to get HDR functionality from Microsoft (I've inquired with Xbox PR to see if there are plans for a similar firmware update to enable HDR on Xbox One and will update accordingly).
"Between a new, slimmed down PS4, the PS4 Pro and the upcoming PlayStation VR headset in October, Sony truly is primed for a huge holiday season."
And if you're the early adopter type that wants to upgrade to true 4K gaming, PS4 Pro is actually quite intriguing at just $399. Numerous games that have already released will get enhanced graphical fidelity and the machine will support true 4K rendering of games - again, on the Xbox One S, what you're getting is upscaled 4K video output, not 4K rendering. Gamers who had been waiting for Xbox Scorpio may very well be enticed this holiday to pick up the PS4 Pro instead. For you tech types, while Sony did not disclose PS4 Pro specs, only saying that graphical output would be doubled and that the CPU's clock rate would be boosted, it had been rumored prior to the conference that Neo would support over four teraflops of graphical computing power. The original PS4 has under two, while Microsoft is promising six teraflops with Scorpio. Perhaps that will make Scorpio worth the wait, but in the meantime Sony would appear to be reinforcing the momentum it's had all generation-long with the PS4.
Between a new, slimmed down PS4, the PS4 Pro and the upcoming PlayStation VR headset in October, Sony truly is primed for a huge holiday season. In an era where people had begun to say consoles wouldn't matter anymore, it's fascinating to see battles like this unfold, reminiscent of the days of Sega Genesis vs. Super Nintendo.
Poor Sony, you spend weeks planning a console reveal event and Apple ruins it by removing a headphone jack and dominating social media for the day. A headphone jack! It's enough to make you put your whole PR team on suicide watch.
Personally, I'm excited about the Neo, henceforth to be known as the PlayStation 4 Pro. (Seriously, who at PlayStation HQ is the frustrated Matrix fan? Send me your hot tips.) I like the way Sony handles its infrastructure and the idea of getting to play all the games I love, but just a little bit prettier, is all a nerd with a disposable income wants these days. I mean look at us all, they've started removing vital bits of mobile phones and we'll still upgrade because it's what we do. Whack a Pro title on something and we're in.
"Ultimately it won't come down to technical specs; the console war never has."
What does this mean for Microsoft and the Scorpio (horoscope fan?) and which way will gamers go? PlayStation has been quieter on specs but promises true 4K gaming, but the Scorpio comes with 4K Blu-ray support. These small details are the battlefield on which consumer dollars are won. PlayStation has the edge right now, its September event is fresh in the mind while E3 memories are already a hazy blur.
Ultimately it won't come down to technical specs; the console war never has. It'll come down to slick marketing that hits the right demographic as the holiday season rolls around. Who can throw the biggest punches on social media? Sony has a cheeky charm when it comes to this game, but Microsoft has a giant ecosystem to put to use. Who will the media back? A little hype can go a long way when it comes to making people forget about missing HDR support or 4K Blu-rays. What games can you slip into our bundles, all gentle like? There's still plenty of time before release for someone to deal the deathblow.
As gloriously seductive as all of these new acronyms and abbreviations are, giving marketing departments throughout the industry juicy new superlatives to play with just as the sheen was beginning to fade from the (mostly unrealised) ideal of 60FPS 1080p, actually exemplifying the real advantages of the new standards of fidelity is going to be a tough job. Much like VR, both 4K and HDR are difficult concepts to show off, particularly when people are far more likely to be watching on HD screens themselves, and they're seeing nothing like the jump between SD and HD.
"When players are still regularly disappointed by upscaled HD at stuttering frame rates from the world's best studios, they might not be so keen to swallow the line of '4K everything.'"
There's also considerable hype-exhaustion. Consumers have been bombarded with the message that several successive generations of hardware and display technology have been providing 'ultimate contrast' and 'unprecedented graphical fidelity', and those promises start to ring hollow when they're so rapidly superceded. When players are still regularly disappointed by upscaled HD at stuttering frame rates from the world's best studios, they might not be so keen to swallow the line of "4K everything."
Then there's the fact that many are still sore over the knowledge that their consoles, which have sold in vast numbers so recently, are no longer state of the art, suddenly representing a compromise for developers. How long will the Pro be at the top of the PlayStation tree? Will Scorpio really be the upgradeable machine to 'end console generations' which Microsoft has hinted at?
But this is also relatively futureproofed tech and gaming is always a forward looking medium, at least tech-wise. Currently it's estimated that there are around two million 4K TVs in UK homes, with a million more expected to be added before 2017. Much like HD displays, that growth will be exponential, but saturation point is some distance away, giving both Sony and Microsoft a decent headstart on the march towards a new consumer standard. For now, it makes a lot of sense for both machines to make the most of what they can offer regular HD owners, hoping that the untapped potential of a machine you use every day is a powerful motivator to upgrade whatever is holding it back.
The announcement of PS4 Pro means it's time for another installment of "Get Off My Lawn Theatre," our recurring feature honoring the lost glories of yesteryear. Today's episode deals with the existential crisis facing the console market. Please enjoy...
When I was a kid, I loved console games because they just worked. I put a cartridge in the system, turned the power on, grabbed the controller and pushed start. I didn't need to load datasettes or delay my gratification with an afternoon installing a series of disks and then tweaking autoexec.bat and config.sys files to trick a game into working. And once a console game was up and running, it tended to work pretty well. Bugs and crashes were rare, and I could be reasonably sure the game was playing the same for me as it was for everyone else, because an NES was an NES was an NES, even if it was the redesigned top-loading NES.
"Get off my lawn."
But over the last 15 years, console game manufacturers and the general march of online technology have effectively undermined all the traits that made console gaming a preferable experience for me in the first place. Now there's almost no way to avoid buggy game releases, tedious installations and firmware updates, games that ship a skeleton of an experience that may or may not be fleshed out down the road, and business models that prevent games from ever feeling complete. (Dedicated portables still tend to be better about these things, but the less said about their prospects for the future, the better.)
Adding online capabilities to consoles has effectively imported many of the biggest drawbacks of PC gaming and added new irritants to the mix. With the announcement of the PS4 Pro and the Xbox Scorpio, consoles are also forfeiting some of the price advantage they've always had over PC gaming. In a world with hardware refreshes every two or three years, keeping up with the latest console tech won't be much cheaper than keeping a PC reasonably outfitted for gaming, if at all.
The industry is beginning to import the problems of mobile gaming as well. Assuming we never see the 3DO business model make a come back, device fragmentation in console gaming will never be the headache it is the mobile industry, but it's still going to be a non-zero problem.
The things I loved about consoles flourished thanks in large part to the walled garden ecosystem the manufacturers set up. But as time has gone on, Sony and Microsoft and even Nintendo have let those qualities wither. So without the lush garden I enjoyed so much as a kid, what's left to justify me putting up with all these walls?