PS4K – Will an Updated PS4 Damage the Brand?

Update 2 (4/19/16): Last night, Eurogamer confirmed Giant Bomb’s information, stating that they have access to the same documentation. Eurogamer confirms in the article that the PS4 and PS4K/Neo SKUs will coexist in the market and play all of the same games. Their analysis shows a 1.3x CPU boost, a 2.3x GPU boost, and a 24% increase in memory bandwidth. One curious part of Eurogamer’s story is that the dev kits will be shipping with the same, Blu-Ray drive rather than a UHD-Compatible drive. If this limits the console’s ability to play 4K Blu Ray discs, it takes away one of the biggest selling points for me. With development kits heading out to studios and Sony riding into E3 like Jack Sparrow, hopefully we won’t have to wait much longer for a full reveal.

Update (4/18/16): Giant Bomb has confirmed some new details about the “PS4K” through its sources. First of all, the console is code named “Neo.” Some leaked specs show that Neo will have a faster CPU clock speed and a significantly improved GPU. Although the Neo doesn’t require 4K native rendering for games, Sony will encourage developers to aim for it. The hardware will upscale to a 4K display resolution for games that aren’t able to hit it natively. The leaked documents also show that Neo will exist alongside the original PS4 and that Sony will place limits on developers to prevent Neo-only games or features. All games must reside within the same space on PSN as well. In other words, no special Neo-only game modes or multiplayer servers. Based on this leak, it sounds like Sony’s path will align with at least some of my must-haves below. Do these leaks help to sell you on the PS4K? Let us know in the comments below!

Original Post (4/15/16): Over the past month, rumors of a mid-cycle hardware upgrade to the PS4 have been popping up all over the internet. It all started at GDC when Kotaku started hearing from their sources about the potential hardware revision. At the time, much of the story focused around better performance for PlayStation VR games as well as displaying games in 4K resolution. As a result, the hardware became dubbed the “PS4K.”

Since the story initially broke, gamers have been hungry for more info on the mysterious new PlayStation. Many current PS4 owners feel like this will force them to upgrade hardware earlier than the typical console cycle would mandate. Others are excited by the thought of buying into a premium PS4 experience. Among the divisive forum discussions between these groups, one question seems to be coming up more often than the rest: Can Sony release a mid-cycle hardware refresh without destroying the good will it has built under the PS4 brand?

When the discussion of what a PS4K would be first arose, we had just a little information to go off of. About two weeks after the initial story broke with Kotaku, however, NeoGAF user OsirisBlack added quite a bit of detail to the high-level rumors based on some insider knowledge. There’s a lot of information in his posts, but here are the major points…

  • Hardware will include an improved GPU and possibly an improved CPU.
  • The Blu-Ray drive will be capable of playing UHD 4K Blu-Rays.
  • Games that aren’t able to run natively at 4K (most, if not all, of them) will be upscaled to 4K resolution.
  • Existing games likely will not see improvements unless patched by the developers.
  • Developers are already working with the hardware and a list of examples were given that will take advantage of the higher spec including God of War 4, Eve Vakyrie, and Gran Turismo Sport among others.
  • Pricing will likely land between $399-499 USD.

These leaks have been verified by the NeoGAF moderators, which means that OsirisBlack proved to them (via private conversations) that he was in a position to know this information. Because of this verification, this post will assume all of the above is factual from this point forward.

Given this additional information, the PS4K has started to seem like a more significant upgrade over the PS4 than was initially thought. If a PS4K actually launches with such a big technical jump over the original, will it be possible for Sony to market and sell the new hardware without alienating their customers who have already bought a PS4 since it launched in 2013? If they’re smart about some key decisions, I believe they can.

From the start, the most important restriction Sony needs to place on developers is – and I can’t stress this enough – no PS4K exclusive games. People that sprung for a full-price PS4 at launch did so under the impression that they would be able to play every PS4 game that comes out in this console generation. Adding a refreshed model that’s required in order to play certain games can easily create confusion in the marketplace, as we’ve seen with the new Nintendo 3DS. If a handful of games are only playable on the revised hardware, it’s easy to feel left out when you own legacy hardware.

Another big concern for current PS4 owners is what the performance gap will be like on any given title when played on each version of the hardware. I think it’s important for Sony to drive home a consistent message for what improvements the PS4K will bring. If potential buyers know up front that games may run at a higher resolution or be scaled up to 4K on the new hardware but that framerates will stay the same across the board, they can make an informed decision about whether or not to upgrade. However, if improvements are left completely up to the developers we could quickly see an ecosystem where some titles run at a higher resolution on PS4K while others use the extra horsepower to beef their game up to 60fps or add in higher quality textures, changing the overall look of the game. If left unchecked, this could alienate large groups of PS4 owners who feel forced to upgrade to the newer hardware for different reasons. While optimization will ultimately be up to the individual developers, it would be great to see Sony publicly push for PS4 to remain as the “lead” development platform while providing developer guidelines for ideal (and consistent) optimizations for the higher spec machine (i.e. resolution over framerate or visa versa).

In addition to these key concerns, there are some other strategies that could certainly help to get the PS4K going on a positive note. For starters, an early adopter upgrade or trade-in program would go a long way to ease public concerns and help win the PR battle early. If people feel like an olive branch is being extended to them, Sony is less likely to find itself on the wrong side of public outcry…something it certainly benefited from at the start of the console generation. Another possible way to keep the message positive is to go all in advertising 4K with the upgraded SKU. Because 4K TVs haven’t found wide-spread adoption yet, many consumers will feel less like they’re missing out if the public image of the PS4K is that it takes advantage of 4K screens in a way that the original PS4 can’t (upscaling, UHD Blu-Rays, 4K streaming). It would also help move units to the high-end crowd as it would likely be a very affordable 4K media machine comparatively speaking.

Ultimately, public perception and the PR message are key here. You’ll never be able to please everyone, but you also can’t antagonize your existing user base. If they play this carefully, Sony has the opportunity to change the gaming industry for the future, bringing its hardware model closer to the incremental upgrade standard set in the smartphone industry. But, if they rush a product to market with little thought about how it’ll be perceived, they could easily undo a lot of the good will that they’ve built back up since the PS3 reveal…and I’m not sure they want to go back there.

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