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Sony's PlayStation 5 hints confirm an eight-year PS4 lifespan

Rejecting hardware updates in favour of a full generational refresh, Sony implies a PS4 successor will come in 2021 - but how big a leap can that offer?

The surprise which has greeted Sony's oblique allusion to its plans for PlayStation 5 stands, in a sense, as a pretty impressive testament to just how solidly positioned the PS4 is in the minds of consumers right now. Much of the reaction has seemed confused, asking why Sony would talk about PS4 winding down and its broad plans for a replacement when the console is doing so well. Indeed, while there has been speculation about what PS5 might be like, one thing notably absent is any sense of a real appetite for new hardware, or a feeling that PS4 itself is exhausted as a platform.

It's easy to forget that in console terms, PS4 is a pretty old dog now. It will celebrate its fifth birthday later this year, which is practically geriatric in this industry. By this point in the lifespan of the original PlayStation, the launch of PS2 was only months away; PS2 itself was succeeded by PS3 after six years on the market (and that was arguably somewhat late - Xbox 360 appeared after only five years of the PS2's lifespan). The last generation, lasting well over seven years, was the real outlier, but it now looks like part of a trend. Sony's tacit confirmation that it won't be launching a PS4 successor for at least another three years means that PS4's run on the market will be eight years or more.

"Notably absent is any sense of a real appetite for new hardware, or a feeling that PS4 itself is exhausted as a platform"

The key reason for that, of course, is that we're seeing diminishing returns from the technological advances made by gaming hardware. The leap from the SNES-era systems to the PlayStation was absolutely extraordinary, and the jump from the PlayStation to the PS2 was also dramatic. The Xbox 360 / PS3 era introduced HD graphics, which were a major improvement but nothing like the previous generational jumps. PS4 and Xbox One games obviously look far better than their predecessors, and their upgraded versions (PS4 Pro and Xbox One X) introduce 4K gaming to the mix.

But for all the extraordinary power packed into these devices, the actual degree of change represented by the move from PS3 to PS4 is the smallest of any generational shift. Even granting a couple of extra years of technological advancement before PS5 turns up, it will likely be an even more subtle upgrade in real terms (albeit undoubtedly a dramatic one for those who concern themselves with teraflops). As such, it's easy to understand why many consumers look at their PS4 - happily whirring away on HD spectacles like God of War or Horizon - and think to themselves, 'really, you're already talking about replacing this?'

The lifespan may have been extended to eight years, but the real thing that's lacking is a sense of what a new generation will actually bring. In previous generations, by this point we'd have been looking at tech demos and concept work showing breathtaking approximations of what the new hardware would do (occasionally landing platform holders in hot water for being economical with the truth along the way), while screenshots and videos of PC games would be blowing console owners away and making their ageing hardware feel terribly inadequate. Five years into this generation, however, we're just not at that point. Cutting edge GPUs and CPUs are capable of some amazing stuff, but put side by side with what consoles are doing, the difference simply isn't what we'd generally think of as a generational leap.

"Sony's next console will almost certainly be the closest thing to an evolutionary successor that the company has ever done"

This slow-down in the returns from progress in graphics technology goes hand in hand with the other reason why some people seem surprised that Sony is talking PS5 - namely the sense that this might be the last 'traditional' console generation, with everything from now on taking the form of incremental hardware upgrades. That concept has been pushed hardest by Microsoft, whose Xbox One X does seem to point towards a future broadly along those lines - but PS4 Pro also seemed to suggest that Sony had a similar notion in mind. The possibility of a console generation being prolonged by a decade or more thanks to regular updates to the same essential base hardware has become surprisingly pervasive. Some people are unsurprisingly a little taken aback by Sony speaking about a PS4 successor in terms which seemingly reject that model.

It's worth noting, though, that short of a really dramatic conceptual overhaul - essentially making PS5 into something that turns the concept of a PlayStation on its head - Sony's next console will almost certainly be the closest thing to an evolutionary successor that the company has ever done. The days when the firm used PlayStation as a testbed for proprietary hardware and curiously marketed custom silicon (hi Emotion Engine; hello Cell) are long gone - whatever configuration of hardware the company settles on for PS5 will likely look pretty much like a linear evolution of the PS4 in many respects.

It would be pretty unsurprising if PS5 played your digital library of PS4 games seamlessly (physical games would depend, of course, on still having a Blu-Ray drive in the system), granting a nigh-on perfect degree of backwards compatibility. And, from Sony's perspective, it would helpfully locking consumers into their console choice to some degree, since losing a big library of digital games would be a strong incentive not to switch to a different platform.

"Sony's role as a first-party publisher on its consoles is rapidly approaching the point of being as important as Nintendo's"

Of course, in the absence of serious returns from upgrading the chips inside the system, a more dramatic overhaul of other aspects of the console becomes more likely. As I pointed out last week (and Sony statements this week effectively confirmed), the PlayStation Vita has had a much more significant impact on Sony's thinking about game consoles than the commercial troubles it faced might suggest.

Sony may not have made a final decision on what PS5 will look like or its unique features just yet, though it must be approaching the point of making that determination soon. Either way, it would be genuinely surprising if at some point there haven't been PS5 prototypes floating around the company's labs that fit with the kind of hybrid handheld/home console model of the Switch, or which experiment with the notion of an eGPU dock for a portable device.

Even in those scenarios, though, the fundamental hardware would likely be broadly compatible with the architecture of PS4. If Sony hasn't embraced the ever-upgraded console model, its next device will certainly be a direct and largely compatible evolution of its current hardware for the first time in PlayStation history.

This is likely the last we'll hear about PS5 for quite some time. PS4 may be entering its twilight years, but that's actually a vitally important period for Sony. The next few years will see the company trying to consolidate what it's built with PS4 in such a way as to bring that enormous stock of goodwill and brand value over to its next console - studiously trying to avoid the disastrous mistakes of the PS2 to PS3 transition along the way. The most important task for the company is to ensure that the last few years of the PS4's lifespan are defined by a series of huge software hits, games that establish and cement in place the franchises which will push consumers to get on board with PS5 in three or four years' time.

Sony's role as a first-party publisher on its consoles is rapidly approaching the point of being as important as Nintendo's, and consolidating that position is going to require pretty amazing execution over the next few years - not to mention avoiding being distracted or losing focus as development resources switch over towards PS5 launch window titles in the coming year or two. It's going to be a hell of a balancing act, but if Sony can pull it off it will be entering the PS5 era with the deck firmly stacked in its favour.

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Latest comments (10)

Christopher Dring Publisher, GamesIndustry.biz29 days ago
The challenge is to avoid the late console cycle slowdown that hurt the end of the PS3/360 life, when publishers became increasingly risk averse and we were on a treadmill of annualized or bi-annual sequels. Sales really slowed down towards the back-end of the last generation. GaaS could play a crucial role of ensuring an 8-year cycle.

Sony will also need to keep watch on Xbox. It stole a 12-month lead on PS3 to great effect, it'll want to avoid that again. Of course, Microsoft may not be planning a new console at all considering its publicly stated strategy.

One of the other interesting things to consider is the fact most developers have barely got started on these machines. We've had one Bethesda game. No even one original Rockstar title yet. One Halo. One Gears of War. There's certainly more content that could come.
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Dan Pearson Business Development, Purewal Consulting29 days ago
Surely more than one Bethesda game? Wolfenstein 2, Dishonored 2, Elder Scrolls Online, Fallout 4, Doom, Prey, Evil Within 1 & 2...
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 29 days ago
Ask yourself what AMD can realistically produce in late 2020 that fits inside a $400 budget. At best, we are talking about the performance of a high end gaming PC of today. This will not be the generational leap consumers are used to from before. Unless there is a specialized chip to handle lighting and give games that raytracing look, it will be hard for the PS5 to find a distinct look.
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Collin Sparling Studying Master of Communication in Digital Media, University of Washington29 days ago
I'm truly curious how much the current rise in GPU and RAM prices will affect the production of the "PS5". I would assume that if we received this console any sooner, Sony would be selling at a loss. But this article nails it on the head. I don't see this or any console generation being a marvelous jump in hardware capability moving forward until the idea of gaming is revolutionized once again like the jump from 2D to 3D.
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Daniel Trezub QA Analyst, Ludia29 days ago
I find it really hard to believe in "backwards compatibility". Never happened before, why would that change now?
For example, why can't I load my savegames from PS3's MGSV or GTA5 (that are already in the cloud anyway) to continue playing it on my PS4? Anything about backward compatibility sounds like a big bad joke.
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Adam Campbell Game Production Manager, Azoomee29 days ago
The generational leap is always a lot bigger than what people expect. The mid generation update (ie PS4 pro) may mean performance increasing a factor of 5 than say 10 but it's still significant. The CPU architecture of the next consoles could easily be leaps and bounds above what we have now thanks to new manufacturing processes and architecture available for an APU of this kind.
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Paul Jace Merchandiser 29 days ago
"Some people are unsurprisingly a little taken aback by Sony speaking about a PS4 successor in terms which seemingly reject that model."

Microsoft was the one that said they were going that route, not Sony. And even though Microsoft said it they also said that they wanted to do something similar to the phone model that Apple and others implore but that they would NOT release new hardware every single year.

Their basis for doing this is simple: Microsoft owners don't like buying new hardware and then having to start all over again buying new games and accessories, etc. Sony owners and Nintendo owners also don't like doing this but every company has their own policy for this. Microsoft under their current leadership has hinted that going forward all new versions of Xbox One (and possibly any next-gen system not named a variation of Xbox One) would be backward compatible with all the games that work on the current models.

Sony probably doesn't want to do this because they are use to upgrading to a new system after so many years and the PS5's time is near. As for how much of an evolution this will be, don't fool yourselves. This is just going to be Sony's version of an Xbox One X: a more powerful system (most likely slightly more powerful than Xbox One X) that plays next gen games, games that look unsurprisingly similar to this gen's games.

"one thing notably absent is any sense of a real appetite for new hardware,"

True but hardcore Sony fans will still buy a new system if it's called PS5 regardless of how minor an actual upgrade it might turn out to be.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Paul Jace on 27th May 2018 10:48pm

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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 29 days ago
If the rumors are to believed, Sony is not moving away from AMD. There is also little to no reason for Sony to move away from their own current custom Linux distribution. Backwards compatibility is not an issue for Sony, it is a choice. Namely the choice of whether there is more money to be made by supporting backwards compatibility, or by releasing another round of remastered editions.

Microsoft's big attack on Sony is not enabling the consumer to buy software once and being able to play it on Xbox and Windows PC for all time. That did not work for the Vita, it will not work for Xbox and Windows Store. Microsoft's hidden power lies in realizing that the $3 billion Sony is making with licensing fees is small change for Microsoft and there is no need to split one operating system into two platforms to begin with. Microsoft used to beat all other platforms to death with Office, whether it made sense or not. After homework comes Fortnite on a low power WIndows PC, not Xbox and MIcrosoft must ask themselves what went wrong for them there other than not being Epic Games.
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Tudor Nita Lead Programmer, Gameloft Romania28 days ago
Leaps in consumer-facing fidelity can be had for surprisingly cheap. The PS4's CPU is just a lowly jaguar ( even when it came out ) if that's all you care about. Modifying that chip to better support parallelism and gpgpu tasks and a couple of cheapo chips that handled secondary tasks is what got it there.

But, pair two relatively cheap gpus, offer a plug-in raytracing sdk, use one of them exclusively for this, push a first party showcase designed arround it and... presto. Next gen stuff, for half of the price of a regular desktop.

Where consoles still have a lot of room to shine is exactly that. Weird ( but cheap ) hardware mixes that are unfeasible for the mass-market desktop space. Ageia comes to mind, for some reason.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Tudor Nita on 26th May 2018 7:57pm

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Christopher Dring Publisher, GamesIndustry.biz28 days ago
@Dan Pearson: Bethesda Games Studios, I meant. Obviously not Bethesda Softworks.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Christopher Dring on 27th May 2018 10:53am

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