As we know, the PlayStation 4 features 8GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive, but in the early days of the system, things weren’t so clear. During today’s Develop Conference, Sony Computer Entertainment President Andrew House discussed the financial aspects of giving the PS4 a big hard drive, and how he had many sleepless nights because of it:
It’s such a large decision, because it’s a commitment not just to the initial launch but for the life cycle. That has massive implications for how it will shape the business model for a number of years. Yes, we debated. But it became extremely clear to me that financial issues aside we had to be struggling for a certain level of experience that would get people to embrace a brand new platform.
If we were going to fulfill our promises as a company, but if the industry as a whole was going to move on… we were starting to get a lot of nay-saying, ‘what’s the role of a console? Is there a role for a console?’ Those two things came together to point out what was needed for the transformative experience.
House continued by talking about weighing the PS4’s specs against having an affordable console:
We were balancing priorities and a lot of the philosophy that underpinned PlayStation 4 came from our experiences with PlayStation 3.
Sometimes these priorities were almost in conflict with each other. We absolutely wanted to build a platform with strong momentum out of the gate and that, from my point of view, necessitated a certain hardware price point and value proposition that could be more than just a niche market from the get-go.
We had to make a call and it was another sleepless one for me. I think we have a fantastic hardware procurement and design group that can achieve the economics of a platform over time.
I essentially put a bet that if we went out there with this and made a strong financial commitment upfront, there would be other ways to offset and mitigate that. First and foremost that was ease of development and great experiences, and we would manage the financial implications in some way.
PS4 Lead Architect Mark Cerny summed up their decision to add the 500GB HDD to the PS4, which ended up costing them $1 billion:
Hard drives are expensive, and it’s not like you can put half a hard drive in a console. The alternative is flash but you can’t put much flash memory in it. We went through all the pluses and minuses – many minuses – of not having a hard drive… the conclusion was we needed to include one and it cost a billion dollars.
As Cerny puts it, one of those minuses of not having a HDD would have been the impact to developers and games:
For the hard drive, we thought does every player need downloadable content? Not every player does. But does every player need to play Watch Dogs the way it was intended? And you know, if you want to save money, unfortunately the answer is yes. Watch Dogs is a title that needed 15GB cached [storage memory], very fast media on a hard drive or it wasn’t going to be able to be played at the level the creator’s wanted it to be. [Having a hard drive] was embedded in such a basic level of what developers were thinking of making.
The HDD wasn’t the only billion dollar decision on PS4, as the RAM was also going to cost them a lot. “In truth,” Cerny said, “in the early days, we were wondering: do we need 2GB or 4GB? Developers told us we needed 4GB. Part of going to 8GB was that we didn’t want developers to worry about shoving their games into 4GB. It was going to be very expensive.”
With so much money tied up in the HDD and RAM, something had to be taken out to reduce costs. As Cerny explains, that was the PlayStation Camera, which actually fit better as an optional purchase:
It’s pretty obvious if you do the math, it’s more than a billion for the hard drive, and more than a billion for the extra RAM, so it was pretty obvious to me that something was going to have to give. But at the same time the camera makes sense as an independent proposition. It does not need to be included with the hardware to be a success. If it offers something that is perceived to be of value, then it’s a great thing to add to your PlayStation 4 ecosystem.