In the decades since home gaming consoles rose to prominence over the arcade, consumers have grown accustomed to companies like Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft releasing a new gaming system with upgraded features and graphical capabilities every 5-7 years. For Sony, the PlayStation 1 became the PlayStation 2, then 3, then the current PS4. The natural progression would be the release of a PlayStation 5 sometime in the next decade, but it would appear that the traditional console wars may finally be reaching the end of the road, at least on Sony's end.
According to Sony Studios head honcho Shuhei Yoshida - as relayed publicly by Oddworld creator Lorne Lanning during a recent interview - the company is unsure whether there will ever be a PlayStation 5.
"I interviewed Shu on stage at DICE 2015 and I asked Shu a question – I didn’t have time to ask it on stage but I asked him this at dinner a few nights before. I said ‘what does the PlayStation 5 look like?’ and he said ‘you mean if?’. And I was like ‘whoa, are you going to say that on the stage?’ and he goes ‘yeah, it’s an if’.
"He didn’t give me a clear answer but he’s hinting at needing to be more agile. None of us know what the future will really look like so how do we adapt to it faster? To me that’s the way he was thinking about it, which I think is the right way to think about it. The idea you’re going to release a piece of technology that lasts seven years into the future I think is less and less viable. It seems like a conflict."
While Yoshida's reported statements are definitely too vague to infer anything with absolute certainty about the PlayStation brand's future, the fact that Sony is even considering not releasing a PS5 console represents a possibly huge sea change in how the company is looking at gaming going forward. With the PS4.5 (or PS4 Neo) all but officially announced as waiting in the wings for later this year, one wonders if Sony is preparing to move to an incremental upgrade model, similar to Apple products like the iPhone. While it might seem unrealistic to expect consumers to purchase a new version of the PlayStation every year, PS4.5 might already be setting the precedent for upgraded consoles arriving at least every three years, assuming its launch is successful.
One way this change might actually prove beneficial to gamers is in the area of backward compatibility, the lack of which in every PlayStation past the PS2 has irked purchasers to no end. It's an understandable complaint to be sure, requiring people with large game collections from each generation to keep multiple consoles hooked up to their TVs at any given time, which isn't always easy in an age where most HDTVs come with a limited number of video and audio inputs. Were Sony to continue incrementally upgrading the PS4 from now on, there's no reason to believe that each successive installment wouldn't be capable of playing games made for the previous one, simply by virtue of being designed for variations on the same underlying hardware.
Of course, this presumes that Sony would even stay in the console business at all. Industry forecasters have been predicting that streaming set-top boxes will eventually overtake the console market for awhile now, with a forward thinking Sony already having majorly invested in the development of that tech.
Gamers may eventually find themselves in a world without both dedicated console hardware and games being produced on physical media, with each year seeing the arrival of a slightly improved PlayStation-branded set-top device, and purchasing a game roughly equating to licensing the rights to stream it. Are today's gamers prepared for that hypothetical world? Only time - and Sony's sales figures - will ultimately tell.