Console Specs and Sales: War? What is it good for?

Sony PS4 Controller

Smoking Guns

We haven’t even had the official X-Box/Durango reveal yet and there’s a lot of console war topics doing the rounds.

Lots of the arguments focus on the processors and the GPU’s and other such technical nonsense, as well as the garnish such as the PlayStation 4’s “Share Mode” and the future of the Kinect. However, speaking as a long-time gamer, I have no real interest in the garnish, nor the tape measuring contest about which CPU delivers the most teraflops and which GPU comes replete with its own special effects and drivers. Most of this is, frankly, missing the point because ultimately it is little more than window dressing, a means to prettify and distract from what is going on behind the counter – or in a consoles case, under the hood. No, if we are going to talk about specs when it comes to games consoles then we should focus on specs that matter; things which can, in the end, improve upon our games rather than add something on top which looks nice but delivers little improvement on the base experience.

If you remember this, then sorry. You're in the minority! It failed harder than that guy jumping into a frozen pool...

If you remember this, then sorry. You’re in the minority! It failed harder than that guy jumping into a frozen pool…

In the PlayStation 4’s case, there are some specs that matter; the main ones being that the hardware architecture is primarily and functionally similar to a PC. You might roll your eyes at this, but trust me, this is a big step. If the X-Box 360 demonstrated anything in its lifespan it is that games which are easier to migrate from one platform to another tend to work out functionally better than you’d expect; you need only look at the PlayStation 3’s arcane mystery that is the Cell Processor to begin to grasp this. As a practical example, let’s take that bugbear of the market; The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. A game made and enhanced by the nature of the PC and its components, but when it came to console versions there were huge discrepancies between the 360 and the PS3. It’s a bit late to go into detail considering all the bad blood the PS3 version still has hanging around its neck, but it hasn’t been a secret that getting Skyrim to perform adequately on Sony’s beast – no matter how powerful it can be potentially – was a real struggle. One that delayed DLC packages and required extensive patching to get things running smoothly in the end.

Games consoles have always in the past been structurally different to the PC; the nature of a PC is modular, to replace parts as and when the need arises. A console, by comparison, needs to last five years at least on the market at the same specification level that it began as; there is no upgrading it little by little over the course of the consoles lifespan. They often remodel, partly to keep interest up and partly because as the technology gets cheaper and easier to condense onto smaller boards, it makes sense to cut back on the old bulkier models. But a game needs to run the same on an old first-wave console as it does on a third-wave super-slimmed version. This generation has lasted the best part of seven years so far; and it’s no secret that in that time the nature of technology has changed. Also, the games market has changed dramatically; with the likes of Steam and Origin out there, the PC itself is proving as popular a gaming machine as it has ever been, pushing the boundaries of gaming and graphics.

That doesn’t however mean that graphics matter. For as much as we can buy powerful cards for the price of a games console that will last a good five years or so, you need only glance at some of the most popularist games of the last few years to begin to understand that visual impact is no longer defined by polygon counts and ultra high definition effects. You have everything from Minecraft and Terraria, super-charged success stories that require very little from the hardware on offer and instead deliver on simple, addictive gameplay and/or a persistent and freely open world to build on and explore, to Angry Birds – effectively a polished off flash game, a simple affair that has spread to almost every corner of the gaming landscape. As much as the PS4 and the Durango will have good graphics technology built in, if it is ultimately only used for the likes of Minecraft then it is technology that is simply wasted money. You don’t buy a thousand-dollar PC to play Solitaire, after all. So why would you sell consoles on graphical grunt that the market isn’t entirely sure it wants – and has proven doesn’t really matter?

Still too early to tell how the Wii-U will end up; but considering how Nintendo games sell, my guess? It won't do too badly...

Still too early to tell how the Wii-U will end up; but considering how Nintendo games sell, my guess? It won’t do too badly…

Other games are coming to other systems – many of the Wii-U’s top sellers right now are indie games, which require not much from the complex muddle under the hood. It’s hard to pin down the Wii-U as much of the hardware is heavily modified, but titles such as Zombi-U do prove that the Wii-U can deliver on visual impact when applied correctly. Sometimes it just takes a little tinkering. Then you have the fantastic Lone Survivor coming to the PS Vita – a brilliant, tense and subtle two-dimensional horror game. But is it going to test the hardware? Of course it isn’t. Just as much as there are games people want that look super-slick, the market is hungry for alternatives nowadays. Meaning that arguing over the GPU’s is a bit like arguing which is better – chocolate muffins or strawberry cheesecake? At the end of the day, they’re both delicious so why choose? It’s hard to feel there will be much difference in the GPU’s of the PS4 and Durango. Subtle differences, sure. But you’re merely scoffing down the dessert so quickly that you don’t pay much attention.

The 8GB of GDDR5 that come with the PS4, however, will matter. In the past, we’ve been limited in terms of memory; such things used to be fairly pricey, but in recent years the nature of the market has changed. As storage changes and SD Cards become larger and more potent (I still believe SD Cards will have a bright future in the gaming world), memory has become cheaper and cheaper. This has helped the PC tremendously in upping the quality of visuals in games; with more space delegated from the GPU, it can focus on what it needs to focus on, which is the visuals. Using the memory allocation wisely allows for faster processing, slicker visuals and more swift loading times. It is often why PC games are better than their console counterparts; because the nature of how the PC does things has given it an added advantage.

Similarly, we must also focus on the controllers. It is hard to imagine that Microsoft will deviate from the now-standard X-Box 360 controller, not least because most people agree that it comes from the Sidewinder stable of great ergonomic design principles. It’s got the right weight, the right feel and the right layout. It would be silly to attempt to improve on what is currently the nicest controller in the market; the PlayStation controller, on the other hand, fared slightly less well. No doubt the controller was small and light but that is kind of the problem; the triggers weren’t well-designed, the controller was too light and flimsy at times. Not to mention the whole six-axis debacle. Nintendo obviously trounced its rivals with the Wii Remote and other accessories; I defend the Wii Remote for some games, because I can’t ever imagine playing Resident Evil 4 any other way now. But mostly as lovely as Nintendo’s far-out concepts were, they were all relatively niche in their appeal. I like the U-Pad; it’s a great controller and is the right weight, the right size and the right design. Hopefully it will be better utilised in the future, because it’s certainly a concept that deserves exploration more than derision.

But the things that matter are the things we often take for granted; the controllers, the memory, the overall ease for developers to use. The new Sony Network looks slick as anything; really polished, refined and clever. But it’s a tertiary concern; it’s not a primary issue. Getting down to the nuts and bolts of what sells consoles, it’s telling that in the last thirty years or so, the most powerful games console has never, ever been on top. The NES beat the Master System. The Neo Geo was frankly annihilated by its competition, as was the Sega Saturn (and, although it did well, also the N64). The PlayStation 2 creamed the X-Box and the Gamecube, and this generation the Wii has crushed its more powerful opposition. Even in the handheld space, the same rule has applied; Nintendo is never the most powerful console maker in the market space, but it dominates all the same. Nintendo has seen off the Sega Game Gear, the Wonderswan and Neo Geo Pocket, the N-Gage, the Atari Lynx, the PSP and the PS Vita. For all the focus on power and performance, you do have to wonder if the games industry has paid any attention to the basic facts and figures over the years. Of course, this year one more console enters the arena: the Ouya, an even cheaper and less powerful console with more emphasis on the arena which has seen more profit than the general industry, as well as an eye on streaming in the present and future. Considering the past, I wouldn’t write off the Ouya yet. If anything, I’d suggest it’s something to keep your eye on very carefully…

In a market where the cheaper, less expensive machines tend to dominate - isn't this the one we should be watching this coming generation?

In a market where the cheaper, less powerful machines tend to dominate – isn’t this the one we should be watching this coming generation?

It’s also telling that some of the biggest-selling franchises are first-party. Nintendo obviously rule the roost with this; Mario Kart sells millions without trying, as does Super Smash Bros., Zelda, Metroid and then you have the main Mario titles of the era which frankly come to define the hardware. There are obviously very successful third-party franchises out there; Dark Souls, for example. But Sony has its LittleBigPlanet and Uncharted, whilst Microsoft comes replete with a cannon loaded with Halo to fire into the market. A cautionary glance at sales figures for most first-party titles often humiliates those of cross-platform third party titles. Being a third-party publisher/developer is not an easy thing, and it’s fair to say that it must hurt them quite deeply when they see their efforts perform less well across multiple formats when some of the format-locked exclusives sell by the truck load. We can admire third party games; they are necessary, even. But they don’t ultimately govern the success and/or failure of a games console. They are often a pleasant distraction, not a machine-defining experience. It’s perhaps no surprise that the lies of Square-Enix, EA and UbiSoft are trying their hands now at taking the Valve approach to the market by selling games via the Internet; they need to diversify, although to drive the point home, they’re taking on a giant that has conquered the mountain long before they realised how valuable this was. It might pay to look at other ways of diversification, rather than piggyback on Valve’s success (because it’s still dominant, and dominant for many good reasons). DLC and expansions are tried and true methods, although the jury is still out on whether DLC is a help or a hindrance moving onwards.

We often like to be quite black and white about things. Whether things are good, or bad, alive or dead. We look around and we want to know where to go, but in a market and an industry which isn’t sure on which way to go, the accusation of the blind leading the blind isn’t far off the mark. As much as it is time that consoles got to be easier to develop for and less archaic and mystical in their performance, they’ve come to this conclusion quite late. Much of what the next-generation of games console will attempt has already been done. Streaming, social networking, sharing videos and commentary, multiplayer clan sections, forums and the like; none of this is new. We now take it for granted, and it ultimately only makes up a surface layer of gloss that we can see. The dirty underbelly of the hardware, and the scary wilderness that is the market and the oft-dank hallways that make up the industry as a whole are often none of our concern. But they make up a far larger piece of the puzzle, so we must never ignore them.

And we can argue about the place the Wii-U will end up (My guess right now will be; it will surprise the market sooner or later. It’s always when you think something is dead that it comes back bigger and nastier than ever before…), or if the PlayStation 4 and the Durango will be similar or different. But we’re fighting superficial and pointless battles. If the games industry is a war, then what gamers are involved with right now is a home front, smack-talking the competition often without any first-hand experience of combat. They are the ones that keep the wheels turning; but they are not the soldiers, just the guys preparing for an invasion. When it comes to the real¬†front lines, there are many¬†war-fronts. All with their own problems, needs and solutions. And the likes of Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo are the Generals strategically moving pieces around a board, hoping their forces will ultimately win.

It’s all really too early to tell. But it’s more complicated than who has the shiniest graphics and who appeals to the third-parties more. None of this matters. There are no winners. This is a cyclical war; one reignited every few years with the delivery of new hardware, when everything happens all over again as if we haven’t learned anything at all from the past.

We make good smack talk. We make a lot of noise. But it’s energy wasted, and probably better spent trying to change our spending habits and gaming tastes.

It’s where your money goes that matters. And at the end of the day, all these companies want is your money.

We don’t really, as consumers, need to defend their honour. We need to defend our own. Or be shackled to a corporate machine for all eternity.

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