Technology

PS4 Pro: A generational leap or misstep?

The PS4 Pro model Image copyright Sony
Image caption On Wednesday, Sony showcased its upgraded PS4 model - the PS4 Pro

Three years after Sony launched its PlayStation 4 and dragged the games market out of a sales slump, the company is taking its machine along an uncharted path.

On Wednesday, at the PlayStation Theatre in New York - the same venue in which the PS4 was first revealed some four years ago - Sony showcased an upgraded console, the PS4 Pro, for the first time.

The PS4 Pro represents a break from a 40-year home console tradition. Since the days of the Sega Master System in the late 1980s, it has been commonplace for console manufacturers to gradually roll out slimmer, smaller and sleeker editions of existing hardware.

Sony released several iterations of the PlayStation 2 during its 13 years, and rival Microsoft shipped five different Xbox 360 models across its 10-year lifespan.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionWATCH: Sony reveals PS4 Pro

But the PS4 Pro is the first time Sony has offered a substantial hardware upgrade mid-generation.

It is a system bolstered by a more advanced GPU and processor, and packaged with faster memory, making it capable of rendering games for ultra-high definition 4K televisions.

It might carry the PS4 logo, but elementally this is a new console.

Here's the twist: what makes PS4 Pro different from a PlayStation 5 is that it is designed to play the full library of PS4 games and have no exclusives of its own.

"This is an unprecedented step. We've not seen upgrades of this nature before, at least not on home consoles," said Christopher Dring, the editor of games retail publication MCV.

One key reason behind Sony's move, Mr Dring said, was to ensure the PS4 did not lose pace in a market that showcases more powerful technology at an alarming pace.

"If you look at the [original] PS4 at its current specs and compare that with the latest PC, it's already looking outdated. With PS4 Pro, Sony has a chance to stay at the forefront of gaming technology," Mr Dring told the BBC.

"More than ever, consoles are competing with PCs, and I think more and more Sony and [PC platform owner] Valve are becoming rivals."

Image copyright Sony
Image caption The PlayStation 4, which went on sale in November 2013, has now surpassed 40 million sales worldwide

Smart casual

Yet Sony's plan is not merely to sell new silicon to diehard games enthusiasts, according to IHS games analyst Piers Harding-Rolls.

It represents part of a two-prong strategy, with both the PS4 Pro and the original PS4 targeted at different kinds of gamer, he said.

"With the [PS4 Pro], Sony can offer a premium product to an audience that wants the best games experience possible, while also allowing it to lower the price of the 'standard' console," he told the BBC.

Mr Dring agrees, and added that a low-price original PS4 would be crucial in drawing in the more casual consumer - the kind of buyer that helped drive sales of mainstream titles such as Fifa and Call of Duty.

He said: "More than anything, Sony wants to expand its user base, ultimately so that it can sell more games.

"In my estimation, the first people to buy a PS4 Pro will be people who already have an Xbox One or PS4.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionMichelle Fleury reports from the PlayStation Pro event

"But the original PS4 will likely be promoted with more family-friendly games in mind, which will be just as important."

Since it first went on sale in November 2013, Sony has sold more than 40 million PS4s.

At an alarming pace, the system has been embraced across North America, Europe and Asia, but Sony still has a long way to go if it wants to match the success of the best-selling console of all time, the PlayStation 2.

"Since the PS4 and Xbox One came out, business started flying," said Mr Dring, who has monitored the games market for nearly a decade.

"It's been not on the same level as the Wii or PS2, I don't think, but we're only a couple of years into the cycle and there's already an estimated 60 million new consoles sold [PS4 and Xbox One combined].

"But if PS4 wants to get anywhere near the success of PS2, Sony needs to broaden the market.

"The death of the Wii, in particular, has turned off the family audience a bit.

"That's actually a big problem for the likes of Sony."

According to Mr Harding-Rolls, the PS4 Pro also serves as a pre-emptive strike against the expanding empire of games systems, from iPhones to Amazon Fire TVs, and Nvidia Shields.

He said: "The console sector is under more pressure than it used to be.

"There are increasingly more devices that you can play games on, which are becoming increasingly powerful. That's not just smart devices like phones and tablets, that's also devices that connect to TVs. These TV devices haven't made a huge impact yet, but they're definitely encroaching on similar ground.

"So, I think Sony is responding by thinking that they need to keep the PS4 experience fresh."

Image copyright Sony
Image caption Over time Sony released multiple editions of its previous console, the PS3, but none of them were meaningfully different in terms of graphics and processing capabilities

Developer dilemmas

While selling two distinctly different versions of the same machine will come with its own marketing challenges for Sony, for games creators it could pose even more complex problems.

A distinct advantage that consoles have had over PCs is that their specs remain unchanged throughout their lifecycles.

Gradually, that tends to make life easier for developers.

The more programmers and designers that work on the console, the more the hardware becomes familiar, the more the code gets optimised.

It is not uncommon that, later in a console's cycle, its games tend to achieve remarkable feats not foreseen at the system's outset.

This advantage may not be true of the PS4 Pro, because developers will need to build the same game across two different hardware set-ups.

One independent PS4 games developer, who asked not to be named, said that using the PS4 Pro's advanced power to fulfil complicated processing tasks could create problems when trying to achieve the same feat on the original PS4.

"Where PS4 Pro might pose a problem is if you're building bigger games, or open-world games, and want to use the upgraded tech for more complex physics," they said.

"If, for example, you want to use PS4 Pro's extra power for a game that has no loading screens and streams all the data, that could be an issue when scaling for the 'vanilla' console."

The developer anticipates that there will not be such an issue if games creators utilise the new hardware for faster frame rates and higher resolutions.

Concerns should not be so much fixed on the PS4 Pro, but what comes afterwards, the developer said.

"If we're about to head into this iOS-style upgrade system, where every year or two years a new PS4 comes out, then that is a problem," they said.

"The best thing about consoles is you can put a flag in the ground on what your target technology is.

"Two separate systems make things messier, and even more would muddy the water. It will make it harder for developers to make assumptions about the future.

"If the PS4 Pro is the in-between console, then fine.

"If it's the stepping-stone to the PS5, then fine.

"If it's a start of a line of PS4 system upgrades, then that's a problem."

The developer added that, besides mentioning some of the potential pitfalls of developing for both PS4s, overall they had many reasons to be positive about the upgrade, especially that the new console would prolong the PS4's lifecycle.

That is, of course, if PS4 Pro keeps Sony's sales momentum going.

Image copyright Microsoft
Image caption Project Scorpio, which is scheduled to be released by the end of 2017, has been billed by Microsoft as the "most powerful console ever"

'Relatively niche'

While Mr Dring expects the new system to perform "very well", Mr Harding-Rolls struggles to see the broad appeal.

He said: "With Sony's strategy to allow the same PS4 games and content to be playable across both systems, that somewhat undermines the marketing potential of the PS4 Pro.

"The whole premise of selling hardware is to get new experiences on new machines, and that's what new consoles have done in the past.

"In this context, there isn't going to be any exclusive content on PS4 Pro."

In that scenario, he asked, what exactly were the reasons to buy the console?

"You have a slightly better performance than the original PS4, and you have 4K video, but those drivers - I think - represent a relatively small proportion of the total PS4 user base," he said.

"On that basis, who this new system appeals to is a relatively niche market."

Sony's chances are complicated further due to what Microsoft has on the horizon.

In June, at the annual E3 event in Los Angeles, Microsoft revealed its own plan for an upgraded console.

Codenamed Project Scorpio, the system is said to be a 4K-ready machine that will be powerful enough for virtual reality gaming.

"I expect Scoprio will offer better specs than PS4 Pro by quite a meaningful amount," Mr Harding-Rolls said, "but I also expect Scorpio to come out a significantly higher price point."

In order to match those specs, he said, Sony may need to offer a second PS4 upgrade down the line.

"But Sony might release a brand new console altogether for that task," he said.

More on this story