PS4 Neo and Xbox One.5 – Maybe not.

Feature article

With all the talk about the rumoured PS4 “Neo” and the Xbox One(.5) I thought this would be a great time to get into what it is to have a mid-generation SKU update or change and what that means for the gaming community and the manufacturers (OEMs) selling the systems in question.

But first a definition of terms.
For the initiated an SKU or Stock Keeping Unit refers to a unique product, if there is something majorly different between two versions of a product, say storage size, they are two different SKUs. It was a term popularised by Microsoft and subsequently Sony at the start of the last console generation.

Now we have that squared away, we can go into detail of how SKUs have appeared in the past. The most notable examples are from Microsoft & Nintendo. the Xbox 360 Arcade, the Xbox 360 Core and the Xbox 360 Pro all launched together yet were not the same SKUs; most notably the Arcade and Core did not include HDDs. Microsoft is running similar multiple SKUs with their Kinect and Non-Kinect versions this generation. Nintendo are the most infamous here for having multiple SKUs mid generation, with the Nintendo DS, DSLite & Dsi, and then the 3DS, 3DSXL, 2DS and New3DS/XL.

But now we have 2 new systems that are 3DSs but also have much more memory, new buttons, new interfaces and more processing power.

Now when it comes to things like storage, this isn’t such a big deal. But when you start introducing multiple SKUs with more memory or processing power, these issues become much more severe. Nintendo introduced the New 3DS and 3DS XL late 2014 as new SKUs, while the 3DS already had multiple SKUs, none of these actually change what hardware users had, outside the omission of 3D in the 2DS. But now we have 2 new systems that are 3DSs but also have much more memory, new buttons, new interfaces and more processing power. Devs now have the opportunity to deliver better looking, more intensive games on the 3DS, but really only the new ones. Nintendo has now split their user base; you have a massive amount of “Old” 3DS already in people’s hands and a much smaller amount of New 3DS in some hands. Developers now have to choose, they can target the old 3DS, so their games will play perfectly everywhere; target the New 3DS rendering their games unplayable on the old 3DS and thus removing a huge section of their potential audience or they can try to target both, optimising 2 versions of the game depending on the system it’s being played on. While this 3rd option may seem like the way to go, this would be at a massive cost to the studio and it is rarely considered a rational alternative.

The bonus of Microsoft and Sony’s method (Sony had different SKUs for the PS3 in terms of storage size and backwards compatibility) for consumers is that the barrier of entry is lowered. If they didn’t feel they needed a HDD and were fine with a memory card, then they had that choice. The OEM now has more potential customers with a lower barrier of entry and everything is hunky-dory. Only it isn’t. Now that the Xbox 360 is not guaranteed an internal HDD developers cannot rely on it being there when a consumer buys their game. They are now stuck in a position where, in order to reach the largest potential audience they have to program their game with the presumption that no internal storage exists. This is the type of issue that arises with multiple SKUs; it’s not a consumer facing issue, but an issue that will affect them anyway.

Developers cannot be guaranteed that the user will have LZ and RZ buttons, they can’t be guaranteed that the user will have NFC or the analogue nipple thing. And so those new features will simply go under-utilised as for a developer, you’re best targeting as many users as possible. The effects of Nintendo introducing the SKU change is already being felt, people all over the internet have reported issues with games that are built for the New 3DS, but play on the old 3DS too.

It just leaves original owners with a horrible experience and the feeling that they’re being forced to upgrade. This is the dilemma that Microsoft and Sony are putting themselves in if they introduce new, more powerful SKUs mid-generation. If a dev is building a game, they most probably don’t have the time or money to optimise the title for both pieces of hardware.

A single SKU is the sole reason consoles can push superior graphics compared to a PC of the same hardware. The games are built for that exact hardware.

A single SKU is the sole reason consoles can push superior graphics compared to a PC of the same hardware

Put yourself in the shoes of a developer; your building a game for the PS4/Neo, which is a massive cost undertaking. You now get to choose whether you’re going to target the PS4 and make your game available for ALL PS4/Neo users or if you’re going to target the Neo, whilst delivering a graphically superior game, your audience is only going to be a fraction of what it could have been. People don’t want to update their consoles all the time, our last console generation was 8 years old when the new gen came. 8 year old hardware was able to play any new release that was thrown at it.

While incremental seem like they’ll allow for better looking games, we’re just going to be left with people who bought the new systems, not getting the full benefit or people who bought the old ones, either being left out; or delivered horrible experiences.

If you’re the type of person who needs the latest hardware and the best graphics, that’s where PCs shine. But consoles are about getting everyone playing, keeping all the hardware together and the experience tight is exactly what they’re all about.