Why Iterative Consoles Make Sense Now

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Now reports have come in that Sony is at least playing with the idea of iterative game consoles. A lot of people seem to be afraid of the changes this might bring. I’ve already done a whole post on why I think this is ultimately where game consoles should go, but it was framed around what Microsoft’s Phil Spencer was saying which included a lot of things about Windows.

When you’re talking about Sony doing this though, the PC element isn’t there so you’re only talking about iterative game consoles. I should note here that based on the nature of the Sony reports and speculation on them from other tech sites, it looks like nothing is set in stone as of now. What seems to be happening is that Sony is merely exploring and researching the idea of taking the existing PS4 and beefing it up. Nothing may ever actually come of it, but something also might. We probably won’t have anything concrete until E3.

That said, I still want to go further into what this could or should mean for game consoles going forward. I think iterating on game console hardware is a pretty fundamental shift that could put the industry more in line with what other tech has always been doing. It could get rid of the entire idea of “console generations” as we know them.  I think some people are scared because the uniqueness of game consoles seems to be under threat.

The step that really initiated this change was the decision by Sony and Microsoft to build the PS4 and Xbox One respectively on x86 architecture, essentially using off-the-shelf computer parts as opposed to their own exotic architecture. That could be the final nail in the coffin for one of the main distinctions between game consoles and other kinds of computers.

Consoles and arcade boards made sense as a value proposition in the 80’s, 90’s, and early 2000’s because the manufacturers of those machines could customize unique chip architectures that attained a balance between price, performance, and power consumption that computers and other devices couldn’t reach. People could look at the games made for each of these chip sets and say with confidence that they weren’t possible anywhere else, not without major changes at least. The problem is that after the early 2000’s PCs and mobile hardware started to catch up, and developers got tired of having to learn to program for the unique snowflake of each system.

Because of increasingly standardized hardware and development environments, it now makes less and less sense to release a game for just one piece of hardware. There are almost no legitimate reasons for console exclusives to exist anymore. People are already looking at the current consoles as “weak PCs that are holding a handful of games hostage.”

More importantly, the old days of customized architectures justified the harsh divisions between console generations. A company’s new console couldn’t play games from the old console because it figured out this new architecture that’s completely different but also significantly better. Sony and Microsoft switched to x86 to make things easier on developers, and they probably aren’t going back for the foreseeable future. Keeping the same architecture means making the next console down the line essentially a beefed-up version of the previous console. At that point there’s very little reason not to have complete backwards compatibility. Combine that with the pace of today’s technology and the way computers, tablets, and phones have been iterating, and you can see the desire for Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo to not only think about iterative consoles, but also create operating systems and software libraries that continue for many hardware generations.

This is ultimately the reason I want to see console gaming reach an evolutionary model instead of a model where manufacturers start from scratch every few years. When there finally is a system Sony brands the “PlayStation 5,” there’s a really good chance that under the hood it’ll just be a PS4 with a much better CPU, GPU, and a lot more memory. In that case it’s a good bet it would run on an upgraded version of the same operating system, continuing where the PS4’s OS left off instead of trying to recover all the OS functions the PS3 accumulated over its lifespan. And it would likely run all PS4 games, possibly with better performance for many of them. It would just be like upgrading from one iPhone to a better iPhone, or from one PC to a better PC. Like I said in the post linked above, cross-generation games could just be one version that runs differently on both. When you think about it, cross-generation games are already a form of forwards compatibility.

A reason this is a good idea for console manufacturers is illustrated in the image at the top: it could help them retain their user bases. Possibly the most volatile thing about the console industry is how fundamentally the deck get’s reshuffled upon each new hardware generation. Consumers routinely switch from PlayStation to Xbox and back again. Brand loyalty means nothing to most of them. On the other hand, I keep buying iOS devices and Windows operating systems because I’ve invested a lot into software specifically for those platforms. The more I invest the harder it gets to switch to competing platforms. The only thing beyond brand names that carried over in this latest console transition are PlayStation Network and Xbox Live friend lists. Microsoft probably started pushing Xbox 360 backwards compatibility on the Xbox One to encourage 360 owners to finally upgrade. Next time around I imagine a lot of people would be at least a little more likely to stick with PlayStation or stick with Xbox if they knew their existing copy of Call of Duty was compatible with the next system.

The point in this whole idea that get’s sticky for some is determining the frequency of hardware iterations. Sony and Microsoft could very well do everything I just described but still do it on a five or six-year cycle. That would be fine with me as long as I know the console games I buy in 2016 are still playable on the iterations that come out 10 years later. However, with x86 there’s also less keeping manufacturers from iterating on two or three-year cycles. It could be to stay ahead of phone hardware and keep pace with PC hardware. The important aspect people need to understand is that developers wouldn’t dare leave behind the install base of a two-year-old console like the PS4 with an install base of 30 million users. It’s why we get cross-generation games when new consoles come out. Even on PC and mobile developers put the most effort into supporting the most popular hardware, not the most advanced hardware. Quicker iterations of hardware would simply give enthusiast users the option to run the same software more smoothly or with higher image quality.

I have to admit however that iterative consoles are at a disadvantage compared to phones or computers. One reason this system works well with phones is because smartphones don’t have direct high-end competition. They’re currently the most powerful and versatile devices you can carry in your pocket. Tablet shipments on the other hand are starting to flag. This might be because of the increasing competition and comparisons between tablets and laptops. Apple keeps trying to push iPad as the thing that will replace your laptop, but in the context of that kind of usage it seems like people would rather just go for the MacBook’s increased functionality. At the same time newer and larger smartphones can pretty much do what tablets do. There’s not much that only a tablet can do, thus it’s becoming a middle-ground device. Game consoles are now looking to be in a similar position, caught between the simplicity of smartphones and the increased functionality of PCs. With PCs that can now connect to TVs and game controllers there’s not much left that only a console can do. Microsoft is heading headfirst into this realization with the idea that it might bring its first party exclusives to Windows.

I still think however that the mass market will still mostly choose the relatively simple $400 box to the $800 or $1100 PC. As someone who uses a PC connected to a TV every day, I can still say there’s a tangible usability gap between living room entertainment on a PC versus operating a console. More technology will almost certainly emerge to close that gap — the Steam Controller is a major step in that endeavor, but for the average person I still think a console is worthwhile. A newer version coming out two years later won’t necessarily invalidate that console if it still get’s developer support.

BULLETS:

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