by Dave Thier via Forbes

The big rumor out of last week, aside from everything out of the Game Developer’s Conference, is the Kotaku report that Sony might be working on something like a PS4.5 — a mid-generation hardware update that would increase the PS4′s graphical horsepower, assumedly to allow the console to handle 4K gaming. It’s a puzzle, from a hardware perspective: I don’t know quite how Sony would pull something like this off, or what it would look like, but those aren’t the only problems here.

It echoes something we heard from Phil Spencer recently, who suggested that the Xbox One would also be seeing incremental updates. The implication is extreme: essentially, these plans are an attempt to totally upend the concept of a console generation and further break down the barrier between machines like the PS4 and the rest of the panoply of personal computing options available to us.

There is something about it that makes sense, and lord knows that both the PS4 and Xbox One will start to look a little dated if they can’t manage 4K. But consoles begin to lose a lot of what makes them special if the hardware stops being static. On the consumer side, the magic is gone: a console plays any game designed for it, it plays it well, and it does so with no tweaking. A sliding hardware scale could work much like PCs do now, but you lose that uniformity that defines consoles now. On the developer side, you’ve all of a sudden got way more concerns than you had before, and you lose the optimization that static hardware can offer. Notice how much better games look late in a console generation than they did at the beginning? You get a lot of mileage out of a good team of developers learning a specific machine from the inside out.

The obvious concern is that you could split the market: that’s the last thing these companies want, but they’re going to have to be very careful to avoid it. Would a developer be allowed to press a console for all its worth, and make something that wouldn’t run on an older version? Could a company like Naughty Dog still make the graphical showcase it’s known for if it has to work on two different systems?

The counter-example that’s always giving is the iPhone, and there’s a lot of truth to that comparison. The iPhone manages consistency with constant iteration, and that seems to be what Sony and Microsoft MSFT -2.21% have in mind. But it’s also important to remember that older iPhones don’t run new games, and people don’t expect to have a smartphone as long as they expect to have a console. It introduces a whole range of questions that don’t have to be asked today.

This might be a necessary move: the death of consoles might have been vastly overstated, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t several existential threats to the way we game in the living room today. The PS4 and Xbox One may well need to adapt in order to remain relevant, especially if Sony wants to keep working on total living room domination. But it might be a rough transition.

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