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Sony’s PlayStation 5 is the most exciting yet boring next-gen console so far

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Sony’s console strategy tends to be simple: Make ’em affordable and faster

A photo of the original PlayStation logo Polygon

Nintendo’s latest system is a console/portable hybrid, and Google’s first serious entry into the world of video games is a streaming service. Microsoft has recently called Google’s streaming news a “validation” of Microsoft’s own strategy, and the company described Xbox as a platform that could work across multiple devices, including your cell phone, at last year’s E3.

While we still have plenty of questions about each strategy — except for the Switch, which is a relatively known quantity these days — it’s worth looking at the details that each company first chooses to share about their next-generation plans. Nintendo wanted you to play the Switch everywhere, Google doesn’t care about selling you hardware, and Microsoft is betting on a subscription model that can be used across multiple devices. Each of these approaches is a drastic shift from what came before.

Now we have Sony sharing details of the “PlayStation 5,” the as-yet-unnamed sequel to the PlayStation 4. And based on what the company has chosen as the first details to share, it sounds like the PlayStation 5 is going to be ... a pretty traditional console with some speed and power upgrades.

This is a very smart strategy for a next-generation console.

The power of the known

Nintendo hasn’t competed directly against Microsoft and Sony for years, although you could argue that each company’s consoles and games are fighting for your limited video gaming dollar. But Microsoft and Sony have long been in direct competition, both offering roughly analogous hardware that sits near your television and plays games.

So how did that play out during this current generation of consoles? Microsoft tried to sell a console that would let you wave your arms around and yell at it until you were watching cable TV — a console with an aggressive digital strategy that would have all but eliminated the market for used games. It was an ambitious, and expensive, mess.

The digital strategy was eliminated before the system launched. The Kinect hardware lasted a bit longer, but there is no longer any version of the Xbox One that includes the Kinect. The motion-sensing accessory is dead.

Sony dominated this generation by ignoring Microsoft’s strategy in order to create a traditional gaming console that played used games, allowed you to lend games to friends, and cost $100 less than the Xbox One. There were very few gimmicks: just a lower price, powerful hardware, and a great selection of exclusive games. It was a back-to-basics approach that players appreciated after trying to wrap their heads around all the new ideas that Microsoft tried to sell.

The Xbox One never recovered. This generation of consoles belongs to Sony, at least in terms of raw units sold.

Sony may be hoping that a similar thing happens during the next generation, as Microsoft once again sounds like it wants to shake up how we buy and play games.

“Our focus is on bringing console quality games that you see on TV or PC to any device,” Microsoft’s Phil Spencer told the Guardian last year. “I want to see the creators that I have relationships with reach all two billion people who play games, and not have to turn their studio into something that makes match-3 games rather than story-driven single-player games. Because that’s the only way to reach a bigger platform. That is our goal: to bring high-quality games to every device possible on the planet.”

Compare all this rhetoric to how Sony introduced the ideas behind its upcoming system on Tuesday: Sony said that it’s powerful — the system is capable of 8K graphics and ray tracing — and it will use a specifically engineered solid-state drive to keep data flowing between the hard drive and the rest of the system as quickly as possible. The console will include a drive for physical discs, and it will support current PlayStation VR hardware. Backward compatibility for PS4 games will also be included, a welcome addition for fans who like returning to the their favorite games — and something of an about-face from Sony on the topic.

These details make the PlayStation 5, or whatever it will ultimately be called, sound like a strong but expected update to the PlayStation 4. Sony may be holding back details of a possible cloud gaming service or other, bigger updates to the PlayStation formula, but so far there is nothing here that’s very surprising.

I’m not criticizing Sony, just to be clear. Making a console with new architecture that gets the most out of an SSD and a new CPU and GPU isn’t easy, especially when you know you’re going to have to sell it at a mass-market price. But Sony is playing it pretty safe with the news it’s releasing so far, and that sounds like a smarter plan than what Microsoft has been hinting at.

Is there any evidence that players want to stream their console-style games on multiple devices? Are players begging for subscription services that replace the per-purchase cost of games? Does anyone want the basic console formula to change? Is the mass market ready for a console that can also be used as a portable device?

I’d argue that you can only definitively answer “yes” to one of those questions, and Nintendo already owns that market with the Nintendo Switch.

Based on what we know today, Sony is playing it very safe with its latest console, but that strategy has done wonders for Sony’s hardware. Sony is used to giving players what they want rather than selling them on something completely new, and we don’t have a lot of evidence that suggests players want to rethink the basic ideas behind game consoles.

So while the competition may have a hard time convincing players that device-agnostic streaming options or first-party subscriptions for major games is the way to go, Sony just has to remind them that they’ve always liked fast, capable boxes that plug into a television to play $60 video games.

In a world where everything is changing, maybe the best approach is to offer players what they already know they like. Sony, so far, doesn’t have to sell you on anything new or hard to explain: The next system in the PlayStation line will take discs, will make games look better, and will allow those games to load much faster. It will sit close to your TV and play video games.

And, at least for now, that might be all players want out of their next console purchase.