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Last week during GDC, Kotaku reported that there is a "PS4.5" in development. The upgrade is alleged to offer more power so the PS4 can support 4K graphics for games. Beyond that, details are inconsistent. Is it actually a separate console similar to the New 3DS or is the PS4.5 just something that attaches to the PS4 like the upcoming processor unit needed for PlayStation VR? No one knows for sure, or even if it will actually release, which of course complicates the whole situation. Regardless of how the PS4.5 will ultimately shake out, I think in general the PS4.5 would be a bad move for Sony, developers, and gamers, as the negatives would far outweigh the benefits.
I'd like to start by talking about the main thrust of the rumor which is fairly strange overall. The one facet of the PS4.5 that Kotaku's sources mostly agree on is that it is being developed to support 4K graphics with one developer even jokingly referring to it as the "PS4K." The default PS4 can support 4K pictures and videos but it can't support 4K graphics for games due to the large amount of processing power required to do so. While 1080p is the standard resolution developers are expected to shoot for, PS4 games can fail to reach that as developers prioritize other aspects of the presentation.
Is a PS4.5 actually worth it just for 4K game graphics? The amount of 4K TVs in the wild isn't terribly large due to the high cost of them, but the tides are changing. It is expected the big push for 4K TVs will begin in 2017 and a majority of households are expected to own them by 2025. Assuming the PS4.5 hits later this year, a majority of people won't be taking advantage of its 4K features. For people that do have 4K TV's though, the question then becomes how much content is actually out there for them to consume. Since the default PS4 can already display 4K pictures and video, it would be up to developers to create 4K content to justify the PS4.5's existence as intended. As with the jump to HD, 4K assets will undoubtedly drive up the file sizes of games which the default PS4 hard drives already severely struggle to hold. Similarly, the bandwidth needed to download even larger files remains out of the reach of many which may be the real limiting factor to 4K's growth.
If pushing 4K really is the goal of the PS4.5 I wonder how many games will actually benefit from it. Again creating 4K content is a lot more work to properly support and I don't think many developers are in a position to support 4K. The number of big AAA graphical showcase games are shrinking every year and I'd argue even then few truly impress on the raw graphics front since the bar is constantly being raised by the top few like Naughty Dog. This generation in particular has thus far only seen a modest bump in graphics compared to previous generations as many developers have been making cross gen games. Only for the first time this year will a majority of developers be developing purely current gen games and I don't know how many still will want the extra challenges 4K brings.
Of course though even if pushing 4K content and selling 4K televisions is the goal of PS4.5, the reality is that the extra power can be used however developers see fit and thus here lies the real problem that the PS4.5 will divide the market. Nearly 40 million PS4's have been sold to date which means 40 million people will need to upgrade to the PS4.5 to claim the benefits it brings. Without even considering exclusive software, there is a very real fear that developers will take advantage of this extra power to make their games run as smooth as possible and thus they'll neglect the majority of PS4 owners. If the PS4.5 is powerful enough to support 4K, there is a significant amount of power to be claimed.
As for how bad this could potentially play out, you can look at how certain 3DS games run on the New 3DS versus the old 3DS. In Smash Bros. 4 for example, the game is significantly more ambitious than the original system's specs support so it has to shut down as much of the OS as possible in order to trick the system into running it. Even then, it still feels like the system is cracking at the seams in order for the game to run, which just doesn't feel good. Playing Smash Bros. on the New 3DS however is a revelation as it runs silky smooth and all of the 3DS OS is available to you. Another example is Hyrule Warriors Legends which runs exceptionally poor on the old 3DS and still struggles on the New 3DS.
If it enters the market as a second higher priced option, the PS4.5 could see a similar adoption rate to the New 3DS versus the old 3DS and with the PS4 being such a successful system these kinds of optimization woes will strike a far larger swath of games and gamers which would be unacceptable. Essentially the move misses the point of why consoles are popular in that you don't have to upgrade them in order for them to remain fully relevant throughout their life. Releasing a PS4.5 would break the trust of fans who expect their console to last them through Sony's touted 10 year product cycle. It's a much tougher pill to swallow than something like the New 3DS especially because consoles are far more of an expensive investment than handhelds. Furthermore, with this generation barely divorcing itself from the past generation, and thus having barely even begun, asking early adopters to upgrade stings even more.
I really question then why the PS4.5 is even being considered in the first place. 4K isn't here yet in a meaningful way and despite the push for 4K content and TVs, 4K has many hurdles to overcome that may slow its adoption. The PS4.5 is further confusing considering this generation is being claimed to be shorter than the last one. If the PlayStation 5 is coming out three holidays from now in 2018, does the market really need to be split for its last two prime years and beyond? If the PS4.5 actually releases the following year it would appear to be even more worthless in that sense.
If it is coming this year though, the PS4.5 would have to compete with PlayStation VR which is clearly Sony's primary focus as that has implications far beyond the PS4 and the upcoming Ultra HD resolution transition. Can Sony really push these two separate initiatives especially with Nintendo's NX also likely releasing this year? Something has to give, and that's why PS4.5 as a separate box makes even less sense since it would steal attention away from PlayStation VR. Of course the one factor to consider is that the PlayStation VR processing unit and the PS4.5 are one and the same which is something one of Kotaku's sources believes to be true. This would lessen the sting of upgrading to PS4.5 because that support box has been known for a while to increase the power of VR games and its extra features may be limited exclusively for that. Yet another Kotaku source contradicts that idea though by believing that it is a separate console that would allow Sony to raise the price back to $400 and increase profit margins. Having the processing unit equal PS4.5 just doesn't make sense considering it has been attached to VR exclusively for so long and thus wouldn't be some crazy new development that developers are only learning about now.
That largely concludes my thoughts on the PS4.5. I think the idea of half console steps like the PS4.5 or modular consoles as discussed with Xbox a few weeks ago just don't fit well with the console market. Console investments are large and we expect them to last at least five years. We don't need further divisions that muddy people's enthusiasm and distort the quality of games. The market is volatile to begin with and many developers are probably ill-equipped to take advantage of the dramatic increase in power just yet. It's uncertain that the PS4.5 will ever be released, and I sincerely hope it doesn't. If this generation will indeed be shorter than the previous one, something I hope isn't true, the industry will be better off waiting for a proper successor to the PlayStation 4.
That concludes my latest blog! Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed it! I'm curious to hear your thoughts about the PS4.5. Do you think it will actually come out? Will it be a good thing to release a half step or modular console and would you even be interested in buying one? I always enjoy reading and responding to your comments so feel free to share them below!