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How the heck is Sony going to sell us on the PlayStation 4 Neo?

The challenge of upgrading mid-cycle

Sony is expected to introduce two new systems to the world of console gaming tomorrow. The first is the PlayStation 4 Slim, a system that has been all but reviewed before it was even announced. The second is the PlayStation Neo, an upgraded version of the PlayStation 4 platform that will offer more graphical power.

Sony doesn’t have to do much to sell us on the Slim. It will be the new baseline model of the PlayStation 4 moving forward and likely costs less for Sony to manufacture. If you go into the stores this holiday season to get a new PlayStation 4, the clerks will try to sell you a Slim. Less picky fans will likely benefit from legacy models of the PlayStation 4 that are sold for a lower price or with an extensive bundle of games and deals. It’s good for everyone.

But how the hell is Sony going to sell us on the Neo?

It’s a bigger question than you think

Sony has to make sure players who own the original PlayStation 4 don’t feel swindled while giving the entire potential gaming audience enough of a reason to either upgrade into the Neo or buy the more expensive hardware as their first PlayStation. It’s a tough needle to thread, and nothing like this has ever been attempted before in gaming.

What makes it so hard? This quote:

"All games will support the standard PS4 and we anticipate all or a very large majority of games will also support the high-end PS4," Andrew House, president and CEO of Sony Interactive Entertainment, said in a previous interview.

That statement means that developers and publishers will have to plan and budget for multiple standards. You can't create game modes or features that are only possible on the Neo. Every game, moving forward, is going to have to scale. This isn't anything new for PC gaming, but it could be an unwelcome addition to console development.

Sony is, in a way, trying to split development without splitting its audience. The PlayStation VR hardware launches next month, and the software we’ve seen for the system is assumed to be running on standard PlayStation 4 systems.

So developers releasing future games with PlayStation VR support may need to look at the PlayStation 4, the PlayStation Neo, the 4 with VR and the Neo with VR. Games that offer both flatscreen and VR experiences with enhanced visuals on the Neo will basically ship needing to run well on four different platforms.

That sounds fun.

So what would we like to see?

The holy grail would be a feature that increases the graphical fidelity of our existing game library, or at least a nice chunk of it. Imagine buying a system that allowed all your games to run at a rock-solid 60 fps at 1080p.

That feature is easy for me to type, but difficult for Sony to deliver. But that sort of upgrade — something that immediately improves the gaming experience in games already on the market — would be huge for the Neo.

The 4K issue is just as complex. Don’t expect all, or even many, titles to run natively at 4K. The technical demands are just too great, although Sony is likely excited to get more 4K capable video sources into the hands of players.

"While we can expect to see some native 4K titles on PlayStation Neo, the fact is that cutting-edge triple-A titles are unlikely to hit the same target," Digital Foundry wrote after creating a PC close to the leaked Neo specification. "At the base level, a 2.3x improvement in compute can't satisfy a 4x boost to resolution — and that doesn't factor in other limiting factors, such as a relatively small boost to memory bandwidth, and the lack of a 4x increase to pixel fill-rate with the new hardware. It may take some time, but we could get some good results though innovative upscaling."

What’s likely is that certain games will offer Neo-ready patches for their games when the system launches, with Sony exclusives being a lock for this sort of update. But what about the future?

The expectation is that the PlayStation 4 Neo will mostly be offering games running at 1080p at 60 fps with much more headroom for the developer to layer on many more visual effects. Find a friend with a fast gaming PC if you’re interested in checking out how this looks for yourself.

The question is whether players are willing to pay more for better visuals halfway through a system’s life cycle, not to mention how much stress and budget the Neo will add to the development environment. At least it's not one sided, as Microsoft is trying to do something similar with Project Scorpio. Tomorrow will likely be the first time either company has given us a substantial look at one of these mid-cycle upgrades, however. Microsoft's announcement of the Scorpio at E3 was little more than a buzzword-laden tease.

It may all come down to price, and what changes the Neo will bring to existing games or what features Sony will offer above the visual upgrades listed above. Trying to sell players on a new system while making sure every future title also comes to the existing platform is a new challenge for console gaming, and Microsoft is watching and taking notes.

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