Entering the blue darkness of the Sony PlayStation theater, I took my seat for Sony’s event concerning the Sony PlayStation. A mashup of The Notorious B.I.G. and The Commodores repeated “Blowin’ up like you thought I would / just lettin’ it all hang out” like a mantra while everyone around me discussed the just-announced no-headphone-jack iPhone. Sony was going to have to announce something even dumber and more inconvenient in order to dominate the news cycle, and I’m betting they knew that going in.
What they opted for instead was a muted celebration of dynamic range, pixel density, and what it means to be a gamer. Andrew House, the President of Sony Interactive Entertainment, kicked it off by talking about how the PS4 was founded on creating “multidimensional and transformative” play, which was the closest the event got to referencing PlayStation VR and the PS Move until they showed up in a group photo at the very end of the presentation. House cut to the chase, however, and announced the new standard PS4—it’s is called the “PS4 Slim” now, and it’s a little cheaper and smaller than the old PS4.
The entire time I’ve owned it, the size of my PS4 has occurred to me twice: When I set it up at my old apartment and when I set it up at my current one. It’s possible, then, that I’m disqualified from the target audience of the day’s real star, which House described as “highly discriminating gamers.” The “PS4 Pro” will be out before Christmas and provides these aesthetes with the opportunity for their games to look fresher for an extra hundred bucks.
The previous sentence could have ended the entire presentation, but instead House handed it over to Mark Cerny—the PlayStation’s lead System Architect—whose dulcet clarity set the world record for most laid-back delivery of brainiac phrases like “new GPU” and “best-of-breed temporal and spatial rendering algorithms.” By this point people were checking their phones for news about the new phone (the businessman next to me used two at a time), so Cerny wisely cut to some new souped-up PS4 footage of Spider-Man looking pensive on Spring Street and people killing each other in For Honor, Deus Ex and Tomb Raider.
It seems like Cerny has been taking a lot of public speaking classes, and I bet it really bummed him out that he fumbled the delivery on his final “high dynamic range.” He shouldn’t sweat it; he did fine.
Courtesy of reps from EA and Activision, we watched a couple more HDR/4K demos of New Mass Effect and New Call Of Duty In Space. FIFA and Battlefield were invoked, but unseen. The former was the only game mentioned in the presentation that didn’t involve killing or being killed. House took us home with a big montage featuring everything we’d already already seen, plus brief flashes of what looked like an Elder Scrolls health bar and some people riding Chocobos down a highway. Are Bethesda and Square Enix onboard with this new HDR business? I don’t know, probably.
A curtain was lifted and the audience was given access to a mess of screens featuring playable PS4 Pro versions of most of the games we’d just heard about. I was initially hit with a wave of choice blindness, and it occurred to me that the upgrades the PS4 Pro provides are subtle enough to be the kind that benefit from side-to-side comparisons. How am I supposed to know how much clearer or better-lit the guy I’m doming in Call Of Duty looks when I’m busy doming? Pros will, presumably, be even busier.
I opted to bash myself over the head as hard as I could with the HDR/4K experience and wandered to the VR corner, where Farpoint was on deck. “Have you played this yet?” Asked the guy next to me while I wanted my turn. “It’s great.”
“Nope,” I replied as the player in front of us looked around and waved his plastic gun frantically while his avatar was swarmed by alien spiders. “Looks like it could cause a panic attack.”
“Yep,” the guy responded. As if trying to calm me down, he added “If you lift the gun to eye level you can look through the sight. Makes it way easier to aim.”
I eventually donned the VR mask and fired erratically at some spiders of my own. (My friend from the line’s tip about the sight was actually pretty useful.) The visuals were excellent, but it’s tough to imagine this kind of incrementalism giving console VR the shot in the arm that it needs to compete with the manifest destiny of PC video cards. Fun, though: At one point I fell off a cliff and had to actively suppress the urge to shout out loud. I quickly died a second time and left the Sony PlayStation event Sony had thrown at the Sony PlayStation Theater.
With the PS4 Pro, Sony is selling the chance to be a person who can pay more for a little more juice. I’m sure the Pro’s spatial rendering algorithms are, in fact, best-of-breed, but the presentation was careful to point out that both PS4s will exist under the same community-umbrella. Without any kind of exclusivity, the PS4 Pro will remain a prestige product, tailor-made to be something people get made fun of online for not owning. Being able to really appreciate the difference will be the mark of a true fan. The word “discerning” was used.
Supply chains and being first-to-market are more complicated and important than ever, and with the PS4 Pro, Sony has placed its bet. Television manufacturers (Sony included) have all-but-guaranteed that a new television purchase will involve newfound access to 4K, HDR, or both. People buying new TVs are going to want a thing that can use the stuff in their new TV. They got a PlayStation that does that now? Cool. You can save a hundred bucks and still play all the same games? Uh, sure. Maybe this is how consoles work now. As House put it as he concluded his presentation, “The choice ultimately remains with gamers.”
Joe Bernardi is a writer and web developer living in Brooklyn. His words have appeared in Dusted Magazine, the Boston Phoenix and Tiny Mix Tapes, among other places. You can find him on Twitter.