Sony Still Believes In Traditional Console Generations

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Eurogamer’s latest article on the PlayStation 4 Pro — an interview with PS4 architect Mark Cerny, is a beefy rundown of everything Sony did with the Pro and also how it relates to the basic PS4. An important part of it to note however is that it clarifies Sony’s current stance on hardware transitions, which actually kind of goes counter to what I’d been guessing might happen.

It’s a long piece, mainly about the hardware minutia and about how inexpensive it is for developers to take advantage of that extra horsepower. A point that might stick out however is that PS4 games really won’t run any better on the Pro unless developers specifically patch them. When running unpatched games, the Pro will simply revert into a mode that runs identically to the basic PS4. This might sound a bit counter-intuitive when you look at how other companies handle hardware upgrades while supporting the same software library.

The most direct comparison is the Xbox One S, which has been proven to give many games minor performance improvements without any action on the part of game developers. Mobile apps run better or worse on different Android or iOS models often regardless of whether developers issue patches. When you install a new graphics card in your computer you get improved performance for every game right there. Most sectors of computing have created an environment where, within each platform, better hardware simply means better hardware, with better performance across the board. In the environment of a console, this doesn’t mean a game capped at 30 frames per second automatically rising to 60, but it could mean a 30-capped game that frequently drops below that on one set of hardware dropping less often and running more stably on a new piece of hardware.

Cerny goes to great lengths to explain Sony’s decision in the article. Basically, they seem to have run into compatibility issues with a lot of games when letting them simply run in a clocked-up mode. The Xbox One S has the same CPU and GPU as the basic Xbox One, but that GPU is a bit faster in the S. The PS4 Pro however has a clocked-up CPU and a different GPU configuration. It also seems like Sony gave PS4 developers lower-level access to the console’s chips, tying them more closely to its precise performance levels. This lets developers potentially get more out of it but causes problems if the hardware changes in any way at all. Microsoft on the other hand seems to have more abstraction in the Xbox One development environment to make games scale between hardware configurations, which is what most platform holders do in the PC and mobile worlds. So, Sony just decided to let developers control if and how their games take advantage of the better hardware to make sure they work properly. A lot of the Eurogamer piece is about how easy it supposedly is for developers to do this.

Personally, this has really decreased my chances of getting a Pro. Now that’s going to depend on whether every PS4 game I own or plan to buy ends up getting an update that provides an appreciable difference on 1080p screens (I won’t be moving to 4K for a while).

Sony’s stance on this suggests its view about future console generations as well. I’ve done something like five blog posts this year suggesting that consoles should switch to a model where the machines simply go through periodic updates while supporting one ongoing software library like mobile devices do (though maybe not as rapidly). This seems to be precisely what Microsoft wants to do. Sony however seems to still be attached to the old way right now.

“What becomes clear is that Sony itself – perhaps unlike its rival – does not believe that the concept of the console hardware generation is over,” Eurogamer writes. ” I came away with the impression that PS5 will be a clean break, an actual generational leap as we know it. I do not feel the same about Project Scorpio, where all the indications are that Microsoft attempts to build its own Steam-like library around the Xbox brand, with games moving with you from one console to the next.”

The article’s description of the Pro gives me the impression that Sony still likes the idea of highly specialized, custom hardware inside consoles made for specific tasks, and games being designed specifically for that hardware. It’s obviously useless to speculate in-depth about the PS5 at this point though. Who knows whether it’ll have some kind of backwards compatibility. What does matter I think is that Microsoft is explicitly talking about doing backwards compatibility going forward, and it could create a huge difference in how PlayStation and Xbox are perceived five or more years down the line. Carrying my library with me from one machine to the next is one of the main reasons I switched to PC.

BULLETS:

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