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Sony extending the lifespan of the PS4: is it the right call?
The Japanese may have the best of intentions, but... it's not that simple
It might be telling that most of us were, well, assuming this was already happening, but a fresh Bloomberg report - and subsequent confirmation - makes it official: Sony has changed its plans regarding PS4's availability during 2022 and is now determined to continue selling it throughout the year. The company did not confirm that its original intentions were to cease PS4 production in December 2021, but it did confirm that its home system will continue to be manufactured and sold throughout the current calendar year. The Japanese did not comment on whether this extension of the PS4/PS4 Pro lifespan is planned for this year only or if another extension into 2023 beyond March (when Sony's fiscal year ends) is likely.
In case there's any doubt in anyone's mind... it's all because of the PlayStation5, obviously. Sony, just like everyone else, is still having trouble getting enough PS5 chips during this global semiconductor shortage - which does not seem to be over anytime soon, by the way - so it decided to keep the PS4/PS4 Pro models available for purchase by consumers who are probably looking for a PS5 and are unable to find one. It's not an ideal solution by any means, of course, but it makes business sense for Sony to at least offer an alternative if it's not able to deliver as many PS5 systems as it would have to in order to meet demand.
It might also be a risky choice.
Extending the run of a video games system past its - natural? usual? intended? - lifespan is historically not a good idea. People who were there during the PS2-to-PS3 transition can attest to that: the too-successful, over-extended run of the PS2 led to a slowdown of the video games industry in general, as the system's hardware limits were holding games creators back and consumers were growing tired of playing the same kind of titles year after year. Software sales numbers might have been high - by the time PS3 launched the PS2 had surpassed the 130 million mark globally - but consumer fatigue was also palpable. It was a mess. Nobody wants the games market to go through that again, despite things back then being very different than they are today.
Then there's the PS4-to-PS5 transition to consider. The bigger the userbase of a game system gets, the harder it is to leave behind. The PS4 might not manage to get close to the record-setting 158 million system sales of the PS2, but it's already standing at 117 million (based on November 2021 figures). Bloomberg's sources indicate that Sony intends to release at least another million PS4/PS4 Pro systems during 2021 in addition to the inventory that's already out there. Getting to 120 million PS4 systems sold by March 2023 is not out of the question if the global semiconductor shortage issue is not resolved during the current calendar year - which, let us be honest here, it probably won't - giving Sony and all third party publishers a nice, round number to call on when they decide to go cross-gen instead of next-gen with their future titles.
It's fair to say that during these pandemic times very few things remained unchanged or followed the patterns of old in the tech and digital entertainment markets. It's far from certain, in other words, that prolonging the retail presence of the PS4 for another year and a half will have the same negative effect on the market that the over-extended presence of the PS2 had. From a business point of view, furthermore, it would be foolish of Sony to leave PS4 system sales on the table just because it's not possible to deliver enough PS5 systems to the same commercial channels - and having megahits such as Horizon: Forbidden West, Gran Turismo 7 and God of War Ragnarok released on the ever-expanding user base of the PS4 during 2022 will not exactly hurt Sony's financials either.
But the danger of the PS4 casting a long shadow on the PS5 is quite real and it might need addressing in the future. There are already many gamers who feel that a number of PS5 titles are not true "next-gen" productions because their PS4 versions are holding them back and it's not hard to see why (games cannot truly scale between hardware generations after all). Sony will have to let its older system go at some point regardless of circumstances or financials: it's not a matter of "if", only a matter of "when". Come 2023, then, the Japanese will have some decisions to make. Here's hope that they will choose daringly.