While Sony dominated pretty much the media battle through a well oiled and orchestrated program for their conference, E3 2016 will nonetheless be marked by the new announcements of PlayStation and Xbox. Both console builders are already prepping consumers and publishers for future consoles which are technically not so new, initiating a new way to conduct technological developments in this sector. Are we heading towards a videogame generation? Or is this becoming an outdated principle?
The concept of different gaming generations has always been fueled by the competition throughout history, and more generally the losing side of console manufacturers. The Super Nintendo was announced in response to the launch of the PC Engine and Mega Drive. The Nintendo 64 in response to the announcement of the Saturn, but also to many other hasty competitors of the time like the Amiga CD32, Jaguar and 3DO. Later on throughout the 2000s, the generation was set from the feud between Microsoft and Sony, with their Xbox and PlayStation. Of course, every time, console manufacturers were prepared for the offensive, in a constant state of war where it is ready to unveil something to not be left too far ahead of competition while trying to capitalize on the current success of that same generation.
The seventh generation was however very special, making you forget this historical trend. That period ended with over 100 million Nintendo Wii consoles sold, and the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 reaching respectively 80 and 83 million units sold. In short, it’s as if everyone had just “won” for the first time (I tend to not like the console war terms, as you would have known from my previous feature called The Console War: Just Stop It Already), and it seems their interest was to make it last as long as possible of a generation. The result in the end? A record for the industry with the Sony PlayStation 3 lasting seven years before the arrival of the PlayStation 4, the Xbox 360 bluntly lasting for eight years, and now technically more with the backward compatibility of its games on the Xbox One.
But the situation is very different now. The PlayStation 4 is indisputably conquering the lands on all front, while the Xbox One, which clings to the US and the UK as its strongest markets, is slowly losing its reach in the rest of the world. If Nintendo is worse, promoting the upcoming release of the “Nintendo NX”, but this situation is to be put aside, as the historical Kyoto manufacturer is no longer seen as a direct competition with Sony and Microsoft. The latter anyway has always seen itself as a “toy” company, and taken this direction in both sales, promotion and internal game creation, as I’ve previously explained it in my feature call The Wii U-Turn.
While I expect the Nintendo NX reveal was precipitated by the Wii U console failure (12.6 million units sold in 4 years), but ever since E3 2016 (and technically before that with the couple of leaks that emerged) we know that there’s a new PlayStation and Xbox coming, with an even smaller difference than that between the two previous Nintendo machines. But the context is different. There is no question of a real new generation, but an improved versions, and with them the prospect of a renewed business model completely for consoles.
A few weeks before E3 2016, information on the PS4K, now officially called PlayStation 4 Neo emerged on the surface. The premise is roughly a boosted or “upgraded” PlayStation 4, probably shaped to better accommodate the virtual reality setup and their compatible games. There is much talk and rumors of a release at the end of this year, probably alongside the launch of the PlayStation VR, and while Sony has confirmed the “new” console, they dismissed any official launch date, and I assume they won’t talk more about it until Gamescom 2016.
But the surprise for me was to learn that Microsoft is going with a similar strategy with what the call “Project Scorpio”. The American manufacturer has also confirmed, during its E3 conference a new console, which they describe as “the most powerful console in history” and will be released in late 2017. For investors, industry analysts and even consumers, they were put in a very curious situation, since it’s at that same conference that Microsoft announced a new SKU for its Xbox One, the Xbox One Slim coming this year. Why announce a slimmer model of the current console when revealing that a new model will be due out in another year is beyond logic.
In any case, without debating too long on the weird Xbox reveal, the philosophy behind these new machines look like much to that of the New Nintendo 3DS (and its XL version), which added extra power for certain games to be visually pleasing, while remaining compatible with older 3DS games (as well as numerous upgrades to the 3D sensors, battery life and more). Only Xenoblade Chronicles 3D and a handful of other games were “exclusive” or only playable with this new console, an exception status, which is not surprising. In late March 2016, the New Nintendo 3DS (including XL model) represented less than 14% of the total stock of 3DS which was then closing in the 60 million mark.
At the time of the announcement of the Xbox One, Microsoft was keen to emphasize that all Xbox One developed titles will be compatible on all models. “Great thing is with Project Scorpio as part of #XboxOne family all your games will work, no Scorpio exclusives, so no one gets left behind,” said head of Xbox Games marketing Aaron Greenberg on Twitter. The Xbox team is boasting that Project Scorpio is going to have six teraflops of GPU power, eight CPU cores, and over 320GB/s of memory bandwidth, as well as support 4K gaming and VR. What’s the point of all this extra power if there’s no exclusivity? And VR support when no peripherals have been announced at this time is also strange.
Phil Spencer even stated that in the media briefing after the reveal that “We [the Xbox team] believe in hardware innovation without sacrificing compatibility. The first step on that journey of innovation was today’s announcement of the Xbox One S, the newest addition to the Xbox One family. We shared that our existing Xbox One games and accessories will continue to work with it.”
If Sony haven’t expressed much on the subject of their own PlayStation Neo, it is likely that the ideology will be the same as with Project Scorpio. Thus, the new consoles will arrive quicker to the market, but with minor changes, proposing a simple hardware upgrade to keep them up-to-date with the graphical trends and needs of the consumers but also the developers. This implies that the Scorpio and the Neo is just the first of many, and that the real generation change as it the industry knows it is doomed to disappear. If anything, the 8th and current generation could be the last, and fiddled with constant changes and upgrades.
For publishers, this works greatly in their benefits. All of them can take advantage of the technological upgrade for their games without risking building on a medium or platform that is not convinced yet to the public. It is ultimately the result of an industry that has lately made a habit of releasing game versions for different generations during the transition phases, to avoid the risk of limiting its audience to an older or newer console. Most publishers dream of a future without consoles, where the success of their games no longer depends on the success of the latter. This new approach offers them at least the opportunity of not having their business jostled by the transition phases between each cycle.
But how does that benefits the consumers and players? No doubt the opportunity to have a machines that can constantly be upgraded which is close to the situation of the PC gaming industry, without its advantages (like the ability to simply buy particular components rather than the entire set). There is especially a form of the console contract that is not fulfilled anymore with the public: the constant insurance to buy a console that lasts and is not outdated. This trend will force console players to lose that promise of a lasting machine like it did in the past 10 years with the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, especially when the industry is saying games are less beautiful to look at than on the new model. And at a time when one of the keys to victory for the PlayStation 4 on the Xbox One is the prospect of a better resolution, whether the difference is visible or not this new way of selling consoles is important. If the consumer wishes to access a simple way of playing, ignoring the PC advantages in favor of consoles, it also wants to be have the console that displays the best graphics quality on its annual Call of Duty or even FIFA.
I imagine that the PlayStation VR is also the reason Sony decided to maneuver in these new waters. As we know, VR games are resource-hungry and require something powering more than 60FPS which is far from common. If the Oculus and HTC Vive are a test for the industry, everyone understand their need for a strong and heavy updated PC to enjoy these VR sets and games. To do the job with PlayStation VR, developers would’ve have to sacrifice graphics quality of their games to provide an efficient framerate. And thus this new version of the PlayStation (NEO) provides the ideal perspective to remedy this disadvantage and offer support more in line with the promises of its VR helmet.
But Microsoft’s reaction goes further. Slightly defeated by the power of its hardware, the manufacturer therefore will wait for the end of 2017 and Scorpio is obviously a console that will be more powerful than even the PlayStation Neo. No doubt Microsoft Xbox team hopes to reverse the current trend in sales and get to the level of his Japanese rival and with this second confrontation of the eighth generation, the name of the game definitely seems to be the RV. “When it ships next year, Project Scorpio will be our most powerful console ever built, specifically to lead the industry into a future in which true 4K gaming and high-fidelity VR are the standard, not an exception.” as stated by Phil Spencer. Maybe a partnership with Oculus to counter the PlayStation VR, who knows for now.
In short, the gaming industry is going towards a future similar to that of the smartphones and tablet industry. The excitement of the launch of a new console with the wonder of their new games offering new opportunities will definitely seem ancient history for us pre-2000 gamers, but this was already the case for some time. After all, the only creative revolution caused by technological advances of a new console are scarce in the past 20 years, ever since the transition to 3D graphics, and this paradigm shift is the only logical evolution for the industry.