Kazunori Yamauchi, the creator and mastermind behind the video game series Gran Turismo, is on-stage. To his right, his translator. The one from all those internet memes. The man with the pad. They’re talking about PlayStation 4 Pro.
First Kazunori. In Japanese. Scribble scribble scribble.
Then his translator. In English.
It’s a tough watch. Translated presentations are always a struggle. Communication at half-speed. The real-life equivalent of those sloths from Zootopia.
Gran Turismo… Sport… will look… better…
PlayStation 4… Pro…
With all due respect to Kazunori, one of the most respected developers in the world, he’s losing the crowd here.
The subject matter is dry; that doesn’t help matters. Kazunori has been tasked with making a very technical presentation.
The subject: HDR. ‘High Dynamic Range’.
High Dynamic Range. The latest televisual gimmick. HD was great. 3D, not so great. 4K? Gathering steam, but Sony is in the midst of an education piece here. HDR is the next big thing. The Sony representative that introduced Kazunori Yamauchi claimed that, when combined with increased resolutions, HDR represented the biggest leap for TV technology since the jump from black and white to colour.
A statement that feels like pure hyperbole.
And no graph in the world can convince me otherwise. Unfortunately, that’s what Kazunori is working with here: Graphs, bullet points. He’s listing numbers. Resolutions. Frames-per-second. He’s 10 minutes deep into his presentation and I’m already on my phone, scrolling through Twitter, battling a weak Wi-Fi reception. I just can’t get interested in this.
But then it happens.
Kazunori loses the slideshow for a second, dispenses with the graphs and bullet points.
“Here is Gran Turismo Sport in SDR,” he says (that’s Standar Dynamic Range for those of you playing at home).
“And here is Gran Turismo Sport in HDR.”
In the back, someone flicks some sort of switch.
Ah. I see.
Why didn’t you just show me that in the first place?
It’s a magic trick Sony uses constantly.
We’re at Sony’s ‘Future of Play’ event in London. Almost every demo makes full use of it: The ‘HDR reveal’.
This is what [insert game here] looks like without HDR. Wait till you see what it looks like with… HDR!
It’s a simple yet powerful manoeuvre. Hard to deny the impact of an old fashioned before-and-after.
Before HDR, Days Gone looks like the gorgeous PlayStation 4 game it always was. After HDR, flames that were once a smush of yellows and reds now dance with additional detail and light. The increased resolution helps with that. That’s the point Sony seems to be making: HDR and a significant bump in resolution are a meaty one-two visual combination.
Horizon: Zero Dawn, I suspect, will benefit most from the PlayStation 4 Pro’s increased gumph. It’s also a far prettier game with the HDR switch ON – being that it’s constantly alive with sunsets and breezing foliage and giant sparkly robot dinosaurs.
It’s a gorgeous game regardless. During a demo specific for the PlayStation 4 Pro, Angie Smets (Executive Producer at Guerrilla Games) flipped the HDR switch. What was once a gorgeous sunset, resting above a moderately detailed forest landscape, was now an even prettier sunset hovering above a slightly more detailed forest landscape.
It’s a difficult shift to describe using words, but it’s significant. Imagine an Instagram filter that makes everything better. A filter that allows you to just sort of see more stuff. Definitely noticeable. Definitely something worth caring about if you’re the type to pore over television specs and contrast ratios.
But worthy of note: The shift requires a before and after. As I wandered through Sony’s suite of PlayStation 4 Pro enabled games, I often found myself wondering: Is the HDR on or off?
No-one really wants to talk about resolution. It’s understandable.
It’s understandable because today – in 2016 – resolution is a little bit boring. At least for the mainstream consumer. We already did the HD thing, now there’s a need to sell audio visual wares differently.
And there’s definitely confusion. Confusion regarding the PlayStation 4 Pro and what it’s actually doing to existing console games. Are they upscaled? Are they rendered at native 4k? Developers at this event kept referring to ‘checkerboarding’ – what does that mean exactly? What’s going on there? It’s a difficult, complicated sell. If you’re Sony perhaps it’s just best to sidestep the whole discussion and say, “Hey, this is the best possible PlayStation experience and it’s designed for that fancy new TV you just bought.”
Sony is referring to the PlayStation 4 Pro as “The Super Charged PS4”.
“Super Charged”. A strange choice of words. A phrase you might associate with a Buzz Lightyear toy, not a home console targeted at households with enough disposable income to buy 4K televisions.
But who am I to argue? Sony has a solid track record of emblazoning their catchphrases onto the synapses of my brain. They’ve never really left. I can rattle them off with little effort. The PlayStation 3 “only did everything“. The PlayStation 4 was “for the players”. The PlayStation 4 Pro will undoubtedly be “super charged” on the side of every bus from here to Tasmania.
Michael Denny, SVP of Sony Worldwide Studios Europe, uses the phrase more than once during our conversation.
He also says the PlayStation 4 Pro represents choice for the consumer, when I raise the point that two versions of the same console might confuse those used to traditional tech life-cycles.
He believes we live in a different world, a world where Apple launches two different versions of the same phone on the same day. Where we upgrade technology more rapidly. We’re ready, Michael believes, for something a little more adventurous when it comes to our video game consoles.
He might have a point. Traditionally mid-cycle upgrades have had trouble gaining traction, but there’s a chicken/egg situation at play. Technologies outside consoles are driving change. Phil Spencer said it best: He doesn’t want to sell you a new console, but when 4K uptake is increasing, and a looming Netflix is making 4K video streaming a very real ‘thing’, it’s hard to ignore the sea-change. If you want your console to be a competitive multi-media box you have to react quickly, and that’s precisely what Sony is doing with the PlayStation 4 Pro.
It’s a delicate experiment, and one that could fail. The PlayStation 4 is Sony’s fastest selling console to date, and there’s a risk of upsetting the cart with a “supercharged” version of an already successful unit.
Sony has bet big and it’s bet early. Microsoft is in the process of prepping the precise same experiment, but it launches a year later. Will that matter? Has Sony made the leap too early or will this leaner, agile approach subvert Microsoft’s console before it leaves the launch pad?
It’s impossible to tell. But Sony’s price point is tempting. $559.95 is very reasonable for a brand new console, particularly when it brings a whole new dimension to that 4K TV you just bought. In a lot of ways you’d be crazy to buy the original PlayStation 4 when the Pro exists.
Is it a significant enough leap for those who already have a PlayStation 4? That’s a very different question.
But maybe it’s an irrelevant one. Maybe in the year 2016 these options can exist in tandem?
Maybe that’s an idea we’ll all have to start getting used to.
Disclosure: Kotaku Australia travelled to the Future of Play event as a guest of Sony.