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The state of the PlayStation 4 Pro

Are people buying it?

Heading into E3, the PlayStation 4 Pro faces challenges both real and imagined.

There’s a perception among some non-owners that the PS4 Pro doesn’t offer benefits for many games, that there’s not much reason to buy it if you haven’t made the jump to 4K. On the flip side, many PS4 Pro owners — at least anecdotally, via scouring social media, forums and Reddit — feel like the system should offer even more than it does.

Both of these assumptions are honestly expressed, but neither is completely true. And that in and of itself is part of the uphill climb Sony has with the Rolls-Royce of its PlayStation product line in the coming year.

The front of the PlayStation 4 Pro, featuring 2 USB 3.0 ports Scott Nelson/Vox Studios

Are people buying it?

Sony has never expressed an expectation that the PS4 Pro would become its best-selling PS4 model, but how is it doing so far?

“Six months in ... almost one in five PS4s sold is a Pro,” Sony Interactive Entertainment America president and Sony Worldwide Studios chairman Shawn Layden told Polygon in an interview last month.

That’s not a huge number taking into account the fact that it includes the November release of the hardware itself, but it’s not bad. And Sony believes it’s less than it could have sold. “As with VR, that number has been restricted by our ability to supply the market,” Layden said. “So as with VR, we are just coming into free supply now and that figure will increase.”

SIE Europe and SIE global sales and marketing president Jim Ryan added that almost 40 percent of PS4 Pro buyers are existing PS4 owners upgrading their system. “People buy things for a whole bunch of different reasons,” Ryan said. “It could be that they have just bought a 4K television and they wish to make the most of that in their gaming world. It could be that they are thinking of buying a 4K television in a year or two's time.”

While the PS4 Pro is improved hardware with tangible benefits on a number of titles, it’s not truly new hardware, and unless some intrepid developer crosses the rubicon and makes a game that requires the Pro, it will remain a luxury good among luxury goods. But almost four years into the console generation, many buyers are likely skeptical of the $400 price on the PS4 Pro, and until it comes down, many prospective PlayStation players will likely stick with the much cheaper slim or even base PS4 models.

Are developers supporting the PS4 Pro?

With just 20 percent of PS4s sold being Pro models, the incentive for developers to aggressively support the more powerful hardware is easy to question. Before the console launched, it was unclear how the Pro would support older software released on the PS4, and, of course, how newer games would take advantage of it. Many were rightly skeptical of the former in particular.

The good news? Games are supported more often than you might think. Recent titles like The Surge and Injustice 2 offer excellent PS4 Pro extras right at launch. A number of older titles such as Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, Dark Souls 3, Diablo 3 and plenty of others have received considerable updates, especially for owners of 4K televisions.

The main challenge in this regard is one of opacity — developers and publishers have largely remained mum on the upgrades PS4 Pro owners might see with upcoming titles. Perhaps worse for Sony, prospective purchasers often can’t tell what kinds of improvements they’ll see if they jump in on the more expensive option.

There are signs that this could be changing, however. Some developers are starting to more clearly articulate the benefits of this new class of enhanced consoles, including Destiny 2, easily one of the year’s highest profile releases. Developer Bungie has explained in detail the improvements PS4 Pro owners will see, including 4K resolution support for users with the gear to take advantage of it.

What are the benefits and why are they so confusing?

The PS4 Pro has an opacity problem, but it also suffers from a serious tendency toward over-complication. Even games that offer unqualified support for PS4 Pro can present an incredibly confusing set of trade-offs for players. In part, this is due to the disparate desires of different users and different priorities for the PS4 Pro’s more powerful hardware.

The principal divide appears to sit between those users with 4K televisions and those without. 1080p content on a 4K display is upscaled, which can result in a soft, less detailed image than that display is capable of presenting. For 4K TV owners, a resolution increase from the de facto standard of 1080p can provide a dramatic increase in visual quality for video games, much more so than with movies or television. There’s an approximately 400 percent increase in resolution from 1080p to 4K, but even doubling 1080p to 1440p resolution leads to a significantly clearer, sharper image.

Of course, most PS4 owners don’t have 4K TVs — even most PS4 Pro owners don’t. Even the most wildly optimistic industry predictions last September forecasted 15 million 4K televisions sold in North America in 2016 (and actual sales data is extremely hard to come by). This suggests most of the PS4 Pro’s prospective purchasing base is still firmly rooted in 1080p displays.

Sony still wants those users to buy PS4 Pro, and developers also want to appeal to them. Moreover, many players would rather games look “better,” rather than sharper, sacrificing higher resolution for more complex visuals at 1080p.

Sony’s platform requirements seem nebulous on this end, and many developers attempt to straddle a line between support for higher 4K resolutions and/or better visual quality at the 1080p resolution the overwhelming majority of players will actually see with PS4 Pro.

The result is a mess.

In the games that handle this best on PS4 Pro, players will need to choose between different performance resolution modes in the game itself. Take this year’s Ni-oh, for example.

Ni-oh straddles the aforementioned line about as well as any game on PS4 Pro. Users with a 4K TV are given two visual settings to start with. “Movie Mode” emphasizes a dynamic resolution that aims for 4K with a frame rate cap of 30, whereas “Action Mode” lowers the the maximum dynamic resolution to 1080p with a locked frame rate of 60. This isn’t simple, exactly, but it’s about as intuitive as the choices on PS4 Pro get.

Team Ninja/Koei Tecmo

Meanwhile, other titles make things much more complicated. Some games enforce specific visual modes depending on what kind of TV you have connected to the PS4 Pro — with a 4K TV connected to the PS4 Pro you may only be able to view the higher resolution modes the game supports, and not the improved visual modes at lower resolution. To get the better visuals at the lower resolution, you may in turn have to manually go to your PS4 Pro’s display settings, force 1080p output, and restart the game.

This is a very bad solution.

Other titles might instead just downsample the higher resolution output they’re capable of when connected to a 1080p display, which will result in better image quality than a natively rendered 1080p image. This is actually the method behind the most demanding forms of anti-aliasing in video games. Here, it’s just a nice — if confusing — side effect.

This is indicative of the PS4 Pro’s biggest problem right now. It took more than 500 words to — I hope — succinctly explain how games might look better on the system.

Games without explicit PS4 Pro support built in can in theory benefit from the console’s “Boost Mode,” which uses the new hardware’s faster CPU clock speed to benefit game performance in some titles, though this is generally only helpful in stabilizing performance, rather than explicitly improving a game’s experience.

Have we hit the PS4 Pro’s wall already?

The recent kerfuffle over Prey on the PS4 Pro is only the most recent, confusing example of difficulties with the new system. The retail packaging for Prey actually features a mark denoting that it’s enhanced on the more powerful hardware. But even respected, tech-oriented outlets including Digital Foundry could find no evidence whatsoever at launch that Prey actually offered an improved experience on Sony’s Pro platform. This has only recently been addressed via the game’s 1.04 patch, but even that “improvement” has granted more sophisticated visuals at the cost of wildly unpredictable performance drops throughout the game.

There’s some confusion regarding other titles as well, such as Firaxis Games’ XCOM 2. While the European PlayStation Blog included the game on its list of launch-day titles with improvements on the new hardware, material benefits other than a slightly more stable framerate have proven elusive.

prey

Thus far there have also been surprisingly few true 4K releases for the PS4 Pro, despite its considerably more powerful graphical hardware, and some players have complained that 4K games running at 60 frames per second are even more uncommon for this. There are various explanations for this, though one of the most likely is the system’s memory; the PS4 Pro offers an additional 512 MB of RAM, but this increase over the base system’s 5 GB of available system memory for games just may not be enough for many more visually sophisticated titles to reach a native 4K resolution.

Games on PS4 Pro are still looking better in general than the standard PS4, but Sony may see increasing pushback on efforts to brand the console as a 4K device.

The rest of the 4K ecosystem

The PS4 Pro’s omission of a UHD Blu-ray drive has limited owners’ options for UHD video, and thus far, the streaming end of the equation hasn’t managed to pick up the slack.

Netflix was one of the first 4K video options on the console, followed by Hulu and YouTube, but none has yet to add HDR support to the system. To reiterate, HDR isn’t supported on any PS4 Pro video app at this time — and HDR is arguably more of an apparent visual upgrade for high-definition video than the increased resolution of 4K is.

This is a major shortcoming of the PS4 Pro as a 4K device currently, though it’s also one of the most likely to be addressed at this year’s E3. But whatever Sony does choose to do at this year’s show, additional clarity and more consistent messaging about why gamers should choose the hardware should take center stage for the PS4 Pro.

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