Unless you're completely oblivious to non-Xbox gaming news, you have surely heard about or even witnessed Wednesday's PlayStation Meeting. Such a moniker carries with it that "big deal" event status for which Sony was obviously going when they invited journalists to New York for the unveiling of their worst kept secret, the PlayStation Neo, now officially known as the PS4 Pro. Maybe you aren't in the market for the device, and if not, you're not alone. The reaction has been less than stellar for Japan's electronics giant. Still, the PS4 Pro has now and will continue to have influence and similarities to Xbox's forthcoming console, the intriguingly codenamed Project Scorpio. With a likelihood of several months between where we are now and where we'll be when the Scorpio is given its proper reveal, we thought it would be prudent to speculate and infer what the PS4 Pro may likely mean for the Scorpio.
On stage for much of the PlayStation Meeting was Sony's resident genius Mark Cerny. His official title is Lead System Architect and unlike a lot of job titles that use corporate speak, he's actually as important as that sounds. He offered vital information to anyone looking for the gritty details regarding the new device, but those numbers and specs came at the cost of the normal user. While the audience was full of only industry insiders and journalists, plenty tuning in to the stream live online might have been turned off by his librarian demeanor and lullaby-like technical jargon. Microsoft needs to take what Sony did and package it better.
Plenty of people will want to know those specs and they should be made available easily alongside the Scorpio reveal next year, but what they can't do is spend 15 minutes explaining the minutia of what HDR and 4K can do for our games. These are visual upgrades, right? Perhaps they can learn from the golden rule of writing -- show, don't tell!
Luckily for Microsoft, Sony went first and took the time to explain in layman's terms what all these upgrades mean. Several months from now, when the Scorpio is shown off, the general consumer gaming market will be more familiar with all of the mumbo-jumbo that Sony felt that they needed to excruciatingly explain.
The PS4 Pro reveal was met with mixed reactions.
This seems to speak to the main issue surrounding the entire endeavor for both them and Microsoft, however. These consoles that are on the way aren't representative of new generations. They're just future-proofing devices that are meant to capitalize on increasingly ubiquitous technology that the current systems can't handle. 4K and HDR presentation are things that were only available to early adopters back in 2013-14. The market share simply wasn't big enough for console manufacturers to build their systems around it, especially when that would have meant even higher pricetags than what we got three years ago. It's not that Microsoft and Sony didn't see this emergent technology coming -- Sony is making a lot of it themselves, after all --it's just that the time wasn't right to package those features into consoles that wouldn't do the vast majority of consumers any good. Just like it happens with all new technology, the manufacturers waited a few years until these new features were more user-friendly.
People speculated as what the PS4 Neo might be billed at its official unveiling. Some said that maybe the Neo was its real name. Others predicted things like PS4 Plus, or just simply PS4, or even more simply just "PlayStation" to denote its place as the new standard for the brand. The Pro is a fitting name for what they're trying to do, that being to market to the high-end tech-savvy gamers who have invested or will soon invest in top tier televisions. There's no doubt that Project Scorpio will look to do something just like this. So what might its name be? Just "Xbox" or "Xbox One"? Maybe they'll attach another letter to it like the slim's "Xbox One S" title. They've been adamant that the Scorpio is not a new console generation so the name will probably reflect that, but maybe they shouldn't fear creating that separation between the One and whatever is coming next.
Like I said, Microsoft can't come out next spring or summer and spend 15+ minutes on the numbers and terms about which most people just won't understand or care. That sort of presentation is what made Sony's show uncomfortably boring. However, it is very
important that they do take pause on one aspect of the Scorpio -- the oft-mentioned six teraflops. Now, before I bore myself and you with the very technical speak that I just denounced, suffice it to say that the Scorpio's reported six teraflops would put it on par with many high-end PCs and, here's the most important part for Microsoft, would put it substantially ahead of the PS4 Pro's offering. On stage, Sony never mentioned specifically how powerful their Pro model is, although a press release later confirmed the 4.2 figure that was rumored. Their website only says the following:
PS4 Pro is significantly more powerful than the standard PS4 model. PS4 Pro’s advanced graphics processor unit incorporates many features from AMD’s latest “Polaris” architecture, as well as some fully custom hardware innovations, and is considerably more powerful than the GPU included in the standard PS4.
Why have they remained vague about the numbers despite the deep dive of specs in every other way? Because they know it doesn't compare to next year's offering from their competitor. Sony's loss should be Microsoft's gain. They need to stress things like how the Scorpio is the most powerful console ever, maybe even spend the months ahead explaining what more teraflops means (so that they don't waste that time at the reveal event). Sony doesn't want Microsoft to draw those comparisons head to head, which means that it's exactly what Microsoft should do. They're a distant second place in this console lifespan, and it's unlikely that this generation will last as long as the previous one. If they want to have any chance of closing the gap, this is it.
Microsoft has already come out and stated "the performance delta [between Scorpio and PS4 Pro] will be obvious."
Because teraflops are like the clay with which developers can mold their games how they best see fit, it's going to be interesting to see how they do that. Sony boasted how first-party and some third-party games like Uncharted 4: A Thieve's End
would feature improved visuals thanks to game updates. Whispers from the post-PS4 Pro side of things says that developers aren't all that interested in going back and upgrading their games' visuals for the potentially small userbase of Pro owners. Xbox needs to work closely with third-parties, not just their first-party games, to promote smart use of what the machine will offer, and to make studios want to improve their games to suit their new machine. If only first-party titles are receiving visual upgrades, that will create a chain reaction of negative consequences. A low install base means third-party developers won't be interested in patching their games, which means fewer people will buy the new consoles and will lead back to even fewer studios that are working to improve their games' visuals via patches. It's the same deadly cyclical problems that are facing virtual reality gaming right now. The Scorpio needs to hit the ground running to make it worthwhile for anyone involved: consumer, developer, or manufacturer.
Making those 4K patches free to developers is another crucial part of the process. Initially, it was reported that Sony would consider charging developers to patch their games to be compatible with the new features like HDR and 4K resolution, but that was thankfully proven false. Xbox has long been notoriously difficult to work alongside in regards to patching and certifying games, which has hurt their relationship with companies in the past, especially indie studios. Would anyone consider spending hundreds on a console that offers better graphics for just a handful of first-party games? Of course not, and that's why it's key to keep the third-parties excited about what you're doing and happy to get involved.
Virtual and Augmented Reality
The most surprising part of the PlayStation Meeting for me was how Sony glossed over what the Pro does for their nearly-here PlayStation VR headset. When rumors began swirling that these mid-cycle consoles would be coming out, I assumed that it was to better serve virtual reality gaming, but apparently the PSVR will run just fine on the standard PS4. That is, at least, the feeling that I got when they didn't stop to deep-dive on all of the benefits that VR will receive from the Pro. The Xbox team has still been mostly silent about their plans for VR, but as the entire industry still feels like VR (and for Microsoft, AR) is the future, they need to be clear about whether the Scorpio aids that in any way beyond just the visual upgrades that traditional games will be receiving too.
a relationship with the Oculus team, but when and in what fashion is yet to be announced. Next year is going to be huge for Xbox, not just because of the Scorpio but because of the likely reveal of these plans as well. Showcasing them in tandem with each other, along with some big ticket exclusives (for the headset, not the Scorpio) can help to sell the importance of the new machine. That is, if it does actually improve those new experiences, which apparently Sony's counterpart does not.
All of this brings us to maybe the most important part of all. Brand loyalists won't be swayed to the blue or green team without a really good pitch. Some people are so dug into the trenches for Xbox or PlayStation that they'll never defect to the "other team". For those that will listen to both sides and make an informed purchase that is most beneficial to them as the gamer, the one area that can sway minds more quickly than any other is the bottom line. "How much will this cost me?" We've heard of what the Scorpio is apparently capable. We've seen Spencer and his team refer to it as the most powerful console of all-time. Sony's avoidance of some of the hard numbers means that they're afraid of what's about to be revealed for Microsoft, too. If the Scorpio can deliver on those promises, it all adds up to what sounds like an expensive purchase for consumers. Can the Scorpio match PS4 Pro's pricepoint of $399 for the 1TB model? Better yet, can they undercut it? A more powerful system at a cheaper price would be the steal of the century, but that doesn't seem realistic. Assuming that they can at least match the price of the Pro, it'll be releasing a year from now. By then, it seems likely that the Pro might get a temporary price drop of somewhere around $50. It's going to be tough for Xbox to play catch up, like they're so desperate to do, with this new, bizarre release schedule from the two companies.
The stunted release of these mid-cycle consoles is introducing so much uncertainty. Console gamers have had things a certain way, a predictable way, for generations now. Every five years or so we would get new leaps forward in our gaming machines. The last generation went on longer than usual, perhaps due to global financial crises or perhaps because technology wasn't ready to push manufacturers to make something new just yet. Now the slim and upgraded models of both manufacturers' machines are bringing about a smartphone-like iterative market.
The Xbox One S already does most of what the PS4 Pro does and at least one thing that the Pro doesn't -- Ultra HD Blu-Ray presentation. When the Scorpio is ultimately released around this time next year, it's going to be a massive step forward for Xbox, at least in terms of those buzzwordy teraflops. The Xbox One boasts under 2 teraflops. The PS4 Pro is said to offer about 4. Project Scorpio, with its 6 teraflops, feels closer to a new console cycle than what Sony is doing with the Pro. At this point, it seems like the Scorpio will have to deliver more than just the visual enhancements that the Pro offers, because the Xbox One S is a near perfect analog for the Pro as it is. Does Microsoft regret getting involved with the Scorpio? I don't think so. But I do believe that they're struggling to build their message. If the Scorpio isn't truly the start of a new console generation, what is it? It has to be more than what the Pro is, but what if it isn't, and what if we might already see the PS4 Pro as a failure by the time that it releases?
Assuming this console generation lasts only as long as they typically do (roughly 5-6 years before being replaced as the latest machine) and not as long as the previous outlier generation, we are already halfway through the lifespan of our Xbox Ones and our PS4s. It's clear that Microsoft, like Sony, is afraid to call their new machine the start of a new generation. Calling them anything other than high-end versions of the existing
console generation with the same
ecosystems can scare people, and can leave a bad impression on those that thought that their expensive console would have some longevity before being replaced with something much better.
In PS4's case, it's clear that the Pro isn't a huge leap forward, so the branding makes sense. The Pro, more than anything, is probably intended to sell more Sony equipment across the board, like all of those 4K TVs that they manufacture. But Microsoft isn't in the console market to supplement TV sales; they've entered into an arms race and all of the talk that is coming out of the green team so far reveals that they, at the very least, intend to go down swinging this generation, all while building for the future. They've had a lot of problems with their messaging over the past few years, seen famously with the Xbox One reveal but even as recently as the One S feature set, too. They need to get this one right. Is the Scorpio a direct analog to the PS4 Pro? If so, where does that leave the Xbox One S? And if it's not just the direct competition to Sony's Pro model and it's something more, maybe even a generational leap, why can't we just call it that?