15 November 2016

Why the PS4 Pro and Project Scorpio are unnecessary and why they’ll hurt the industry and console gaming…

"And I'll have a side of large fries with that..."

Now that the PS4 Pro is launched and its hardware performance and games are being fully analysed by places like Digital Foundry we’re starting to get a better picture of what the future looks like for this side of the console space. 

The future does not look good so far.

Sure, on the one hand, we have glowing reviews of image quality and post processing effects but on the other hand we have worse performance than on the base PS4 equipment: poor frame pacing, lower minimum frames per second, etc. 

So what are we looking at here? Is it just that these are all old games, ‘back-ported’ to work with increased effects and/or resolution on the Pro and that the developers have put in a minimum amount of effort? This is certainly possible and it may be that, for all games coming out, we will see better support of the increased hardware performance in the Pro.

However, this sort of goes back to my previously-made point, splitting resources to cater to multiple hardware targets will necessarily result in a more poorly optimised game if you remain with the same overall total resources. This is why on PC, with all its myriad configurations, there are ‘unsupported’ configurations or why, sometimes, certain pieces of hardware have buggy performance in a game. It’s difficult to test all use-cases and thus issues can slip through the cracks.

Now, certainly, two configurations are better than what is essentially an infinite number of configurations but it still adds complexity to the whole process because your QA team needs to run through the whole game at least twice just to ensure performance is met during the whole experience. If that performance is not met then it’s another round of optimising or reducing settings before QA have to run through the game again.

I don’t know what the exact certification process for PS4 Pro is at the moment but it’s clear that it’s mostly a self-filled list of checkboxes because these issues that are being observed in the compatible launch titles would not have gotten through proper certification by a dedicated team of testers on SONY’s side. If it did then we’re looking at very shoddy reasons of letting the games through because it would be embarrassing to have so few compatible games at the launch of a new system.

You will be seeing a lot of this sort of thing going forward. Just wait until next year! Technobuffalo are on the case!

It’s possible that, going forward, developers will offer more fine-grained options for Pro users – allowing them to tweak their settings like we do on PC. Sure, enabling all the settings will work but it may not produce the most optimal experience. That would be my preference on the software side of things.

My preference on the hardware side of things would be for SONY to drop the base model of PS4 (now the slim) in favour of just having the Pro as their PS4 entry on the market. Sure, it’s nice to have the low-cost SKU out there for cheap buyers but at the moment, both marketing and development are split between two audiences – neither of which are truly comparable.

Audience-wise, the majority of players are utilising a 1080p screen and a minority will be utilising a 720p screen. The percentage of players who will be viewing the games on a 4K screen will be infinitesimally small at this point in time. Of course, having a 4k-capable (well, 1440p capable, really) console might help push people to buy into that technology despite most viewers sitting too far away from their TV screens to get the benefit of the increased pixel numbers, not to mention the lack of content on TV, cable, Blue Ray and streaming services. So SONY marketing are really stuck on how to push this forward other than just shouting ‘4K’ at consumers – which they will only be able to do until the much more powerful Scorpio comes to market, then it becomes Microsoft’s chant.
Since HDR has also been enabled on the base PS4 model there’s not even that feature to differentiate the Pro for consumers to latch onto.

Developer-wise, the Pro is a tiny section of the PS4 install-base. Putting in a tonne of resources into optimising the experience on the Pro doesn’t make sense. It would make more sense if all new PS4 purchases going forward were limited to the Pro model – but since we have the PS4 slim, they are not. So, the install-base is going to take a long time to grow, it will never catch up to the cheaper, already more numerous base model and the fact that the benefits for 1080p TV owners are negligible and that the initial games are not well-optimised for the Pro all conspire to turn consumers away from buying the Pro model in the first place.

I totally do not regret getting this body!

So where do we go from here? 

I see Project Scorpio landing with pretty much the same issues as the PS4 Pro and I see it struggling to get out of the gate in the same way. The issue is what the strategies of Microsoft and Sony really are:

Sony have come right out and said that they plan to keep console generations but that they may have multiple SKUs at different performance points per generation. Whereas Microsoft have talked up (but not outright committed to) a smooth Apple-like ramp where games work across two or more consoles before they are left behind

Personally, I prefer console generations with static hardware and longer generational time periods (e.g. 8-10 years). I think that gives developers enough wiggle room to become experts in optimising for the given hardware, allows them to build on their install-base and economise the production process a bit in order for them to buffer themselves against the expense of the jump to the next generation. It gives consumers good value for their money, not only in their initial investment but also in terms of the online ecosystem. Hardware manufacturers are able to optimise their production line and cheaper production processes through die-shrinks etc. – they get a chance to recoup their losses more easily by being able to sell at a profit or breaking even on each hardware sale.

A move to either of the strategies I outlined above will undermine the above benefits to the two sides of the console gaming business for the developers and platform holders. Consumers mostly get away with it because they don’t have to upgrade any more often than they did before (assuming similar timelines between incompatible console revisions).

Really, I think both companies are still in a wait-and-see mode. They released the current generation at a time when a lot of new technology was coming with improved production techniques but couldn’t wait for those techniques or technologies to fully hit the market and so both the PS4 and Xbox One were underpowered as future-proof devices*. This may mean that this console generation is the only console generation where we have a multi-tiered console performance.

*Future-proof as in: 10 year-lifespan of a console generation where a good proportion of people will be utilising 4K screens and possibly VR applications.

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