In late 2016, the focus of Sony’s PlayStation division was on hardware. During a span of around 60 days, the company launched three new devices: a slimmer base PS4, the more powerful PS4 Pro, and the PlayStation VR headset. The surge appears to have been largely a success; the PSVR has topped 1 million units sold, while Sony says the PS4 is “close to” hitting the 60 million mark.
The question mark is the PS4 Pro. The company isn’t releasing specific sales data for the upgraded hardware, but it says that since the debut in November, one in five new PS4s sold has been the Pro model. (Sony says the actual number “runs into the millions.”) Nonetheless, Sony is committed to the Pro and the shift its added power represents.
“We see 4K as being the next HD,” says Shawn Layden, president and CEO of Sony Interactive Entertainment America, “and PlayStation 4 Pro is our answer to that opportunity.”
For many consumers, some confusion remains around the PS4 Pro. While the hardware features an enhanced GPU and the ability to play games and other media in 4K, it’s not always clear which games or developers are actually supporting the device, or what features are only available on the pricier console.
In comparison to Microsoft’s upcoming Project Scorpio — which the company says will offer 4K support and performance improvements for all Xbox One games — the advantages of upgrading to PS4 Pro aren’t as immediately clear.
According to Jim Ryan, president and CEO and Sony Interactive Entertainment Europe, the responsibility to support the hardware lies with game developers. That is to say, each developer must spend time and resources to tweak and patch their games to take advantage of the PS4’s added power.
“It’s one of those things where we very much leave it to the content creator to make what they will of the power of the machine,” he says. “I think the proof of the pudding is in the tasting; when you look at something like Horizon Zero Dawn, which is just gorgeous on PS4 Pro, you can see firsthand what the device delivers. Now there are other games where the benefits of Pro are less apparent, and frankly in some cases less necessary. So it’s down to the individual developer.”
Project Scorpio is expected to launch later this year, but at Microsoft’s E3 Keynote on June 11th the company will be revealing more details about the console. According to Ryan, the relative mystery around Scorpio, along with PS4 Pro’s one-year head start, has been advantageous for Sony. “We were able to get out and lay out our agenda before anybody else,” he says. “We don’t know yet when Microsoft will come with Scorpio, there’s much that’s yet to be known about that product. We don’t know the date, we don’t know the price, we don’t know the quantities. So we’re able to get out there and do our thing, and we’re very happy about that.”
The entire concept of mid-cycle upgrades like PS4 Pro and Project Scorpio — consoles that are more powerful than their predecessors, but not an entirely new generation of hardware — is still largely unproven territory, and recent studies suggest that a majority of consumers are unaware of the new devices and the advantages they offer.
Historically, raw power has had little impact on the success of a console; just look at the meteoric sales of the original Wii compared to the more powerful PS3 and Xbox 360. That said, Ryan believes updates like the PS4 Pro will help Sony appeal to early adopters and those consumers who don’t even know what a PS4 Pro is.
“For us, it’s about trying to strike a balance between having a platform have a certain lifespan that will allow developers to become familiar, and to exploit the platform, but at the same time, to allow those who wish to upgrade mid-cycle to have something that’s new and shiny and more powerful,” he says. “I think we’ve struck really an elegant balance between those two factors.”