PS4 NEO and the shift to iterative console upgrades

Giant Bomb confirmed an upgraded PS4, codenamed NEO, is real and coming soon. There’s still a lot we don’t know, but based on the leaked developer guidelines, I’m cautiously optimistic about this news. However, a shift to a more iterative console isn’t won through hardware or development studio relations. It’s with marketing to gamers and the larger public. And it’s on that angle Sony can turn this into a mess.

Sony passes the hardware test

NEO’s hardware should thread the needle between forward progress and backwards compatibility. The console provides a likely bump for marketable frame rate and graphics. Yet there are no obvious red flags that will bifurcate the PlayStation user base. The hardware is similar, and Sony set up strict developer guidelines: no NEO exclusive games, features, or gameplay. Given Sony’s traditional strength in hardware design, this isn’t a big surprise.

Developers may have grumblings given the need to split engineering resources between two devices. But given the familiar X86 architecture and strong lead in the console market, Sony should be able to overcome this hurdle.

With new hardware, Sony can further distance its sales lead over Microsoft and Nintendo. Sony mounts an “improved and faster” PR campaign to drown out upcoming NX hype. The NEO battles the Nintendo NX head to head, likely matching or surpassing it on specs. A strong back catalog and sales momentum doesn’t hurt either. And if Microsoft updates the Xbox One in the immediate future, the NEO likely beats it to market. Sony doubles down on one of its biggest advantages this generation – raw horsepower – to stay ahead.

Iterative cycles for survival

Admittedly, the NEO news has generated a lot of anger from PS4 gamers. Consoles, the argument goes, thrive by not being part of a fast iterative cycle. Over an single hardware platform that lasts largely untouched for many years, consumers only buy a single device. That stability provides developers a single platform to target and perfect.

But that’s not how technology works today. Almost all modern tech devices – smartphones, tablets, PCs, even TVs – update regularly, usually at least once every other year. Switching to a faster update cycle will give consoles a better chance at survival in the long run.

Consider mobile and PC gaming, the main threats to a console’s existence. For core gamers, PC gaming’s traditional trump card is its raw performance. For mobile devices, it’s innovation and new features. Just compare the iPhone 3GS on speed, hardware, size, and UI versus a modern iPhone 6S. That’s eight years of progress. Eight years where another device – the Xbox 360 – left its hardware and features largely unchanged.

If Sony’s NEO doubles the console iteration speed (from eight years to four), it buys a lot of maneuverability to innovate and change. And as long as consoles don’t blow the marketing or hardware, it’s with a simplicity that can set it apart from the mobile and PC gaming markets.

Selling the message

Advantages aside, I sympathize with PS4 owners, especially those who jumped in within a few months of this news. Faster iterations may be a shrewd, even inevitable, move. But there’s no way buyers could have foreseen this; the last two console generations lasted seven years or more, and we’re getting this news in less than half that time.

The burden is on Sony to make good with both existing and future PlayStation buyers. It starts with transparency. Sony should clarify if the NEO is a one time stop gap or a sign of things to come. News on planned backwards compatibility would also be welcome.

Granted, gaming is a competitive industry. Nobody should expect detailed specs for the NEO’s successor. But Sony is introducing a potentially radical shift in how consoles are sold. A road map now can go a long way to reassuring buyers Sony is doing this for the right reasons.

Yet information doesn’t help those that purchased a PS4 recently. Ironically, the marketing that helps sell the NEO will likely anger this audience. Sony should make concessions to these users. 

Many have floated a trade in upgrade plan, but that’s logistically hard to pull off. I’d keep it simple: $50 in PSN credit for anyone who purchased a PS4 in the past year. Or a big discount ($100?) on the NEO for existing PS4 customers. 

However, I’m concerned that Sony will not announce a transition plan for existing owners, nor a longer term road map. History is a factor. The last time Sony was riding this comfortably ahead in console sales was in the the mid 2000s. Their next hardware launch was the shockingly expensive $599 PS3. A tone deaf and arrogant Sony lost its swagger, falling behind the competition for years. Hopefully the company has learned from its mistakes. We’ll find out more in June.