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.