Modular systems

So rumors are milling about Sony coming out with a new slimline PS5 unit with a Blu-ray drive peripheral and the gaming press at least seems to be on board with the idea. I’m right there with them.

Modularity in tech is a good thing. I know Sega got a ton of flak for the Sega/Mega CD and 32X, but both of them truly extended the capabilities of the Genesis/Mega Drive. The "problems" with them lie squarely in marketing and software issues, not hardware ideas. As a brief history lesson, Sega of Japan did Sega of America dirty by not communicating with them when it came to the US-side 32X being pitted against the JP-side Sega Saturn. That ended up running them into default on support, but actually what support there was was surprisingly good and none of it actually topped out the capabilities. Likewise, the focus on FMV games for the CD underutilized its capabilities for simply having larger games. None of this is a hardware issue. The only hardware "issue" was the massive array of plugs needed to power them all and the physical space taken up by the combination, but all of that was intentional. There’s no reason the plugs actually needed to be that big or for there to be so many of them. You can buy a cable to power all three these days. No, chunky plugs and sprawling systems simply force you to choose what gets the space on your power strip and shelf. Taking up space is the oldest form of dominance. You know how they say to make yourself big when confronted by most wild animals? That’s why. Taking up space makes someone reconsider challenging you. ALL the game console plugs were big enough to use as a weapon back then because the makers only wanted one plugged in at a time. The Sega Tower of Power made you use 2 power strips and it was engineered to take up every slot of them except for your TV and VCR because that prevented you from plugging in a Nintendo system.

The same goes for the modular phone. When one was announced, everyone went ape, but it was quickly killed just as fast as the early electric car? Why? By its own industry for the sake of profit. The modular phone will ALWAYS be a good idea, which is why we’ll never get it, because Samsung and their ilk don’t want everyone to be able to Ship of Theseus their phones into a perpetual future; they want to sell you more phones at a higher price.

Modularity rocks, is what I’m saying here.

So what about this new Sony variation? It’s a good idea, just like everyone in the gaming press is saying. And it’s not a bad idea for Sony, either, because technology has advanced in a way that things can be forwards compatible. Sony probably won’t require a second plug for it because USB-C can carry enough power on one cable, but with what’s probably going to be a smaller system, they will have something else to sprawl it out again, because no, we are not beyond competing for shelf space. Plug space, sure, but other systems getting Mufasa’d off your shelf is never going to not be a thing. Better yet, making a univeral connection means they won’t need to worry about adding one at all to the PS6 in 2028 when it’s rumored to be due. Maybe they’ll shove it in a new shell, but it’s a drive; there’s not going to be any major advancements where new hardware would be warranted. Sony is not making a "PS5 Drive" here; they’re making an external drive no different in practice from the millions already on the market, many of which are already theirs. They’re just going to make it look pretty next to their primary system. That effectively also offloads the DRM capabilities required for Blu-ray wherever it’s cheapest for them. Blu-ray comes with a licensing database to play newer media. The PS3 being Internet-enabled meant it could update that database indefinitely where many other units of the time have already stopped working for new media. But the PS3 already got Mufasa’d in most households. If Sony wants to push that database onto the drive itself and let the parent OS handle the updates, there’s no reason they can’t, and then they don’t need to have it taking a bite out of their already negative console profit margins. Ultimately that means they can make consoles more cheaply, which means they can sell them more cheaply if they have to or not bleed quite as much red ink if they’re not facing pricing competition. This whole endeavor is easily done with existing parts Sony already has on hand and maybe it’s going to benefit their marketing after some muddied waters between their pricing being split between having physical media or not while Microsoft split theirs on the overall power of the system. It’s a good sell to say the competition is selling two systems with different capabilities and you’re selling one that will always do everything, but it’s easier to show that when you’re only actually selling one.

And I think that we’ve all come to be so comfortable with the idea of peripherals and add-ons that we’ve stopped counting them. A fully kitted out PS4 has a system, a camera on top of your TV, a VR headset with its own add-on box, and several loose controllers. That’s before you even factor in the Vita and second screen functionality. There was a whole ecosystem of devices that allowed you to potentially play in several different ways and while it was never fully tapped, there was so much potential in that. Did many of these get lumped together? Well, yes, but Move was its own standalone system that allowed for motion controls outside of VR and wasn’t required for VR, either. The PS4 Camera is easily my favorite thing about the PS4 with everything it brought to the system. Facial login is convenient and fast; voice commands are great; streaming with your face visible is definitely a thing for people who aren’t me. If it hadn’t been removed from the base package to price out Microsoft literally behind a presentation stage, maybe more games would have used the light bar on the DualShock 4 for useful stuff outside of VR.

At what point does bringing any of that forward sound like a bad idea? Because honestly, the PSVR was one of the most accessible VR options for years and was good enough without being too expensive, patching together existing tech that could very well have been brought forward in a more meaningful way. In comparison, the PS5 HD Camera is a useless piece of junk unless you’re streaming and frankly I have a whole review on why the PS4 is superior to the PS5 if you’re interested. Add-ons are only as good as their functionality and that’s a big reason that I’m taking a "wait and see" approach on PSVR2, because I honestly just don’t trust it to be as good as the PSVR despite having more technology. Technology alone is not worth having; it has to have a worthwhile implementation.

But a Blu-ray drive on its own is never not going to be useful, at least until we dive into other forms of optical storage like holographic cubes or quartz coins. And at that point, there’s really no reason you couldn’t just plug in a reader for those instead. The idea that you need to have your media reader in the same box as your processing core is one of convenience at this point left over from the days of proprietary media, but consoles aren’t portable devices (I mean any device is a portable device if you try hard and believe in yourself, but most people prefer them on the couch, and the Switch is a portable device you plug into a TV, which is not a new concept). Unless you’ll be throwing the PS6 into your pocket, there’s no reason it won’t benefit from using a drive you already have and then maybe we won’t have to deal with the split pricing model anymore.

Anyway, modularity is a form of future-proofing and it’s something that dates back decades. The idea has never been bad; only justifications have ever made it shaky ground. We could well have ended up living in a world where the 32X had been a market leader as a low-cost option for the 32-bit era. We could well end up living in a world where consoles can be made more cheaply because they leverage tech you already have for the less exciting bits of it. Heck, we could end up living in a world where the next generation of consoles simply network together to distribute various bits of processing like I’ve been saying for years. Maybe the PS6 won’t even have an HDMI port; you could set it behind a potted plant and it would coordinate all the tasks between the various other network enabled consoles in your home, letting the PS3 crunch math at blistering speeds like it’s good for, the PS4 handle LOD geometry, the PS5 handle ray-tracing and streamed textures, the Vita as a controller and second screen, and taking on high-detail geometry and rendering all for itself. If you have a PS2 with the hard drive expansion or slimline, you could even offload party A.I.! I kid, but also it certainly feels like that hasn’t advanced since then. At any rate, the more pieces of a system that don’t have to be wired directly into it, the better. And with network speeds the way they are as technology advances, you really never know what systems might be able to do if they can talk to each other directly. No joke, they’re all plenty capable of hitting each other’s networking features; that’s literally how Bluetooth works. Bluetooth itself is only used to negotiate the much more capable Wi-Fi connection in anything past the original spec; there’s zero reason these broadcaster/receiver units couldn’t straight up act as routers if anyone cared to allow it.

We are living in the future; most people just don’t realize it. The things that make that happen aren’t simple media readers anymore. If it makes a console cheap to buy and cheap to upgrade, or even just lets you use a perfectly good part for whatever you need it for until it breaks, that’s all good in my book.