A strong case can be made that Sony essentially forced Microsoft’s hand the weekend before E3 began. Taking the bull by the horns, PlayStation head Andrew House confirmed the existence of the company’s upgrade to PS4 Neo console ahead of the following week’s press conference and Microsoft’s then-still-rumored new Xbox, Scorpio.
The Monday of E3, Microsoft introduced a slimmer Xbox One S to kick off its press conference. To close it out, presenters played a short trailer to introduce Project Scorpio, which at least for the moment is the most powerful game console ever made at 7 teraflops. Announced for an end of year 2017 release, it was likely too early to really show off the console itself or what its performance might look like. Instead, the trailer was made up of talking heads discussing the power and potential for Microsoft’s hardware refresh.
Would they have shown anything if Sony hadn’t revealed Neo? It’s unclear. The trailer could have been put together in a weekend – though with the kind of red tape typically needed for approval, that’s perhaps not a likely scenario. Had introducing Scorpio during E3 always been the plan, Microsoft could have been trying to one-up its competition after so badly losing what was only apparently the first round of this console generation’s war. The question now for Sony is, how should they respond?
When House dropped the bombshell in his interview Financial Times, he made no mention of a timeline for Neo’s release. Specs on processing power were also kept under wraps. Previously, rumors of Neo’s hardware pegged it as commanding about 4.5 teraflops of power – with the number of independent sources, it seemed likely at the time those hardware numbers were probably getting close to being finalized.
Similarly, Neo had been previously speculated to launch as soon as this September, just in time to take advantage of the extra oomph needed for PSVR to theoretically really sing when it releases in October.
That said, House also expressed surprise in an interview with The Guardian during E3, apparently not expecting that Microsoft would have chosen to reveal Scorpio so far away from launch.
“I was surprised by the step of announcing something over a year ahead of time,” he said of Scorpio during the interview. The dynamics of the tech industry are such that there’s a much heavier emphasis on immediate gratification than there was.”
However, in the same interview, House said that the decision not to do anything official for Neo during E3 was mostly because it’s not ready.
“In terms of the right time to talk about Neo, just like every other hardware launch, VR being a good example, it’s when you’ve got a full range of experiences that you can showcase to say this is why this product’s great and that’s why we’re offering it,” he said. “And that time is not right now.”
A statement like that can be read into in any number of ways, but with PSVR looming on the horizon (and being a significant part of Sony’s own press conference), it wouldn’t be surprising to see Sony take a more prudent approach to countering Microsoft. In the wake of this semi-friendly corporate tit for tat, rumors persist that Neo could find its way to the marketplace by the end of 2016, but – already juggling the launch and upkeep of PSVR, that may not perhaps be in Sony’s best interests.
Virtual reality is hard enough to sell on its own as a concept to general consumers with 40-million PS4s already more or less PSVR-ready, piling on a confusing launch of a new PS4 (which despite being an upgraded isn’t expected to feature any games that won’t also run on original PS4 consoles) could get very messy quickly.
Do you need a Neo to play PSVR? No, but it will help with performance. Can you still play old games on a Neo? Yes, but they’re not guaranteed to get the same improved upgrades as games that alongside or after the Neo. And so on.
This would likely be a huge headache, and evidence of the company perhaps biting off more than it can chew. Unless Houses quotes are meant as red herrings, it doesn’t seem like Sony would throw that much caution to the wind before 2016 draws to a close.
That leaves the question of the Neos specs on their own. Are the rumored guts of the system accurate? Will Sony’s architects keep them the way they allegedly are, now that Microsoft has supposedly thrown down all its cards? Even if Scorpio is a huge hit – and there’s no guarantee of any mid-gen console gaining as much traction as its older counterpart yet – Sony has almost double the user base already on PS4. It arguably still has the upper hand.
Pushing Neo until sometime later in 2017, allowing the PSVR to take hold and gain its own install base before finalizing Neo and introducing Neo, would give the company time to retool the new PS4 to at least stand toe-to-toe with Scorpio. Despite the somewhat effacing stance on power not being the be-all-end-all, doing just that might be Sony’s smartest play, provided there’s still time to pivot. Flooding the market with PSVR and a new (optional) PS4 in one holiday season just feels like too much. We’ll see what – if anything – the company has to say at Gamescom in August.