Sony recently announced a possible PS4.5, an upgrade to the PlayStation 4 that would allow higher frame rates for Virtual Reality support. Incorporating VR into gaming is all well and good, but what other implications would a PS4.5 have?
To begin, I will note that this isn’t a discussion on Virtual Reality in general, its place in the video game industry, or where I see VR going into the future. Honestly, I don’t really like the trend. It feels like the motion control craze of yesteryear, and I still hate motion controlled games. Wonky and unreliable motion control ruined Zelda: Skyward Sword for me, and made several other games unnecessarily painful to play. VR reeks of that same gimmicky overtone. As the technology rolls out, game developers are going to jump on it as quickly as possible, and probably put out a wave of games that use VR technology. Regretfully, this VR will probably be badly implemented, and shoehorned into games that really have no business utilizing it. I’m obviously not very keen on the idea of VR in gaming, but the rest of this post isn’t about that.
What concerns me is that Sony is releasing an updated console early in its lifespan. The PS4 launched in North America on November 15, 2013. Just 2 and a half years later, we’re already seeing a possible update for it? Don’t get me wrong, I realize there are often variations of consoles released throughout its era. The PS2 had the original version, as well as the top-loading slim version. The PS3 had the old fat 60 GB and 80 GB versions, the slim, the super slim (or whatever it was called) and probably more than just those. However, all these versions were spins on the same console, and they were all compatible with any games released for that platform.
If I’m understanding the idea of the PS4.5 correctly, games released post-rebuild may not be compatible with the original PS4 systems, at least not with the same frame rate and obviously not supporting VR functionality. Similarly, the recent “New 3DS” from Nintendo has an analog stick not available on previous iterations of the 3DS. Even if the games released after the introduction of the New 3DS work on old 3DS devices, the games are created with the analog stick in mind and owners of old 3DS devices don’t have that hardware available. In my mind, this is tremendously unfair to previous buyers, especially those who purchased before the announcement of the New 3DS and PS4.5 who expected the devices to last a while.
Is this going to be a growing trend in the video game industry? Is every console and handheld going to have multiple improvements and iterations, rather than stylized spins on the same hardware? When will be the best time to purchase a new console? Obviously, early adopters have always faced risks with new devices, but now it seems like we can expect early versions of the same console to be archaic and outdated before the lifespan of that console is even half over.
One of the biggest debates in gaming is the argument of PC vs Console. PC gaming has undeniable benefits of better performance, cheaper games, huge selections of indie and AAA titles alike, among others. However, these come at the cost of hugely expensive “rigs” that may or may not be compatible with the latest releases. Even if they are compatible, configuring the GPU, processor, motherboard, and all other components to play nice and actually run games can be a huge headache.
Consoles have traditionally been the ideal solution for those without the money or tech savvy to build and maintain a gaming PC. For somewhere around $300 or $400, you can buy a solid piece of hardware that works right out of the box. No need to buy individual components, no drivers or software to configure, and any peripherals like controllers are guaranteed to work with the specific console. When you buy a new game, you know immediately whether your console will run it by the label on the case. If you have a PS4 (until now), any game with a PS4 label will play on it. With the PS4.5, will that continue to be the case?
This opens the possibility of modular consoles. A uniform package, but with replaceable parts that can be upgraded over time. Ideally, there could be some simplification to make replacement easy even for someone who’s never built or disassembled a computer. However, how can game developers guarantee a game will run across all modular configurations? Furthermore, how is this so different from a PC even with the hardware simplified?
Perhaps there is a market for modular consoles. Admittedly, being able to upgrade individual components of a console would remove that end-of-lifespan point where the hardware is basically useless and has to be replaced with a completely new $400 sequel. However, I still feel the traditional console bundled up in a uniform package is the best dynamic for that facet of gaming. If someone wants a platform they can tinker with and upgrade as they see fit, the gaming PC industry has a huge number of options available, often with active support forums to troubleshoot. While there may be some initial growing pains to figure out how to assemble that first build, it opens up possibilities from moderate console-priced rigs, up to multi-thousand dollar behemoths. All the while, console players can know that a PS5 game will always play on a PS5.
Maybe the PS4.5 will offer nothing more than VR support and an improved frame rate. Maybe my worries about modular consoles and the death of the single package game platform are completely unnecessary. I just feel this is something we should carefully watch out for. Just because the PC Master Race crowd continues to push PC gaming over console peasants, I don’t feel like it’s an ideal solution for everyone. We don’t all have programming degrees and experience, we don’t all know how to strip a computer down to its core components, so why would we force these skills and training on people who just want to play some video games?
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