Sony shared a number of great announcements yesterday, including the confirmation of the PlayStation 4 Pro and the news it would launch this year at the competitive price of $399.99. The new model of the existing PlayStation 4 was also finally acknowledged to exist. It's not the products that were doomed, but the event itself.
Sony was basically faced with an impossible task. This is why.
The PlayStation 4 Slim leaked in every way imaginable
We knew almost every detail about the upcoming hardware revamp of the PlayStation 4 before the event, because the systems were already out in the wild. This was the first time I’ve read a review of a system that the manufacturer refused to admit existed.
No one onstage winked at the fact we knew about the system, or had seen so much of it. It seems like something Sony was rushing to announce to get the whole mess behind them.
The plan for the announcement had been destroyed by the press, but Sony CEO Andrew House read from the teleprompter as if he had a gun to his head and the only instructions he was given were "don’t deviate from the script." Even a joke about the leaks would humanize the company, but instead, the announcement solidified the idea that gaming PR is often rigid and joyless.
It’s hard to explain what the PlayStation Pro does
The PlayStation Pro is a more powerful system that will make your games look better. But not all of them. And some games will look better on 4K television sets. But they will also look better on televisions that support HDR.
And others will have a higher frame rate! But some will just look better while the frame rate stays the same. PlayStation VR games may look better, with an increase in "rendered pixels."
There is no simple feature to point to when selling the system to the public, especially if they don’t have a 4K television or a display that supports HDR. The system is more powerful, sure, but the benefit you’ll see as a player will change from game to game and will depend on your display.
Even developers seem a bit confused over what's being offered:
correction: RiseOTR uses higher-res+upscale. It was their PR that was purposefully ambiguous/suggesting 4K native w/out actually stating it.— B.Stiernberg (@bill_at_zeboyd) September 8, 2016
I still wanted to tweet about it because offering a 1080p30/improved and 1080p60/standard is what pleases me most.— B.Stiernberg (@bill_at_zeboyd) September 8, 2016
Games that run in 4K natively are going to exceedingly rare on the PlayStation 4 Pro, and it sounds like many games will give you a choice of running the game at 60fps or enjoying more graphical effects. It’s up to developers to decide how they’d like to leverage the power of the PlayStation 4 Pro, which means options will differ from game to game.
So outside of Sony saying "there is more power and your games will look better" in a very general way, there isn’t really an easy to understand what upgrade that will be seen in a wide variety of games, and we're already seeing some confusion about which games are offering what resolutions and frame rates.
This is a tricky system for which to write an elevator pitch.
It’s even harder to show what the PlayStation 4 Pro does
Showing a before and after for HDR on a television on a stage that’s being shown through a livestream means that any improvements in the image is going to be lost to the vast majority of people watching at home.
Most of us don’t own 4K displays, and, even if we did, it’s not like the online infrastructure in the US is strong enough to enable dependable 4K streaming.
So we kind of had to take Sony’s word that it all looked great. There’s no way to show this stuff of in a meaningful way during a press conference to anyone who isn’t sitting in the audience.
We had a number of editors at the event, and they confirmed that the image quality on the screens was impressive in person. The rest of us watched blurry images of a hopefully amazing presentation on a live stream.
The PlayStation 4 Pro doesn’t play 4K Blu-rays
There are a limited number of ways to get 4K content on your shiny new 4K television, and, due to the aforementioned nature of streaming 4K content, the best way to show off what your television can do is to buy your 4K content physically. It’s the most effective way to demo your screen while watching video.
Except those discs won’t play on the PlayStation 4 Pro. This feature is something the Xbox One S, which is now on sale for $299.99, has no trouble with. This news was one of the big headlines that dominated the tech press directly after the show, and it was bad news.
Plus, this limitation allowed Microsoft to dunk on Sony pretty much immediately. That’s not an ideal situation for a product announcement.
Yes, physical media matters. People who spend money on the latest and greatest in televisions want to see what they can really do. Streaming won’t offer that, and only some PlayStation 4 games will support native 4K resolutions. The best source for 4K content as of this writing isn’t compatible with the Pro.
Sony seems to have lost the power race
Microsoft has to be feeling pretty good right now. The goal of Project Scorpio, the higher end Xbox One coming next year, was always to make sure Microsoft had the most powerful console. Now everyone knows that Microsoft will beat the PlayStation 4 Pro in terms of sheer power, even though Sony has a head start of about a year.
We don’t have a lot of information about Scorpio, but Microsoft was more than happy to jump on the phone to point out that its existing hardware can handle 4K Blu-rays when the PlayStation Pro can not, and that its upcoming system will be significantly more powerful than the Pro.
It’s a pretty good counter-argument to Sony’s announcements, and significantly dulled the edge of what Sony hoped to achieve.
Microsoft will have struggle with these challenges too, but less so
The problems I’ve listed above will be faced by Microsoft as well, but in a year more people will have purchased 4K displays, they’ll have a system with more powerful hardware so the advantages will likely be both more uniform and easier to describe, and we already know the Scorpio will feature a drive that’s ready for 4K Blu-rays.
Sony had a good show in some ways, and I’m personally looking forward to purchasing the Pro, but bad news began to hit the second the curtain fell, its main competitor felt comfortable touting its advantage in power, and the graphical gains were hard to see or understand, unless you’re already pretty technically savvy.
Sony had good news for us, but it stumbled badly trying to communicate it. Microsoft will have a number of advantages that will help the Scorpio's eventual event avoid many of these issues.