A question I’ve been pondering for a few days – what, exactly, are we to make of these new consoles and what does that make them in terms of a console generation?
Sony making it clear that all PS Neo games have to also run on old PS4 hardware has muddied the waters for me.
You see, by definition, the Nintendo NX – today confirmed as coming during March 2017 – is a “Next-Gen Console”. We’re talking a significant jump in hardware from its previous console, the Wii U, and entirely new branding (not to mention dramatic business restructuring happening within Nintendo at this very moment). By default, in the most basic of terms, the NX is Nintendo’s “Gen-9” console; a jump forward for them in terms of approach and concept. No doubt Nintendo needs this too; the era of courting the more casual gaming crowd died out during the start of this decade, and the end result has been significantly lower hardware and software sales for all involved in the market now. The console market is harkening back to its traditional strong, dedicated niche following. The Noughties are long gone; the Millennial Teen Years are proving to be an awkward transitional period.
But the PS Neo, also known as the PlayStation 4K, isn’t a ‘new console’; in fact, Sony has already gone to great lengths and much pain to stress to owners of an older-model PS4 that the Neo model is only an alternative, and that no game will be “Neo Exclusive”; all games must run on both platforms, regardless of intent.
That’s a dangerous move – as hardware advances, however incrementally, developers and publishers alike will prefer to go all-in on such devices in order to make their games ‘better’, and yes I just used the bunny ears and a sarcastic tone for that. Sony must be aware if the NX is truly a hardware equal to the Neo, there’s a dangerous precedent that rather than fuss around with older hardware limitations, the newer NX platform will be a more steadfast option. Why struggle with making your game work on an Old PS4 as well, when such limitations aren’t applicable for the NX? Nintendo may be in the stronger position; it all depends on the hardware they finalise, and we’ll get a clearer picture of that later in the year.
Still, the PS Neo should – as an upgraded piece of hardware – be “Next-Gen”. But Sony doesn’t want it to be.
There are good reasons why Sony doesn’t want to paint the Neo as a next-gen platform – chiefly among which was a ludicrous goal of selling a hundred million PS4 units during its cycle. Sony knows that having stalled around the 38 million mark currently, there’s little chance that a dramatically smaller market than was enjoyed just a few short years ago would shift an additional sixty million PS4 units. So wicked ol’ Sony has come up with a clever ruse; the Neo is a New PS4, a slight upgrade for VR purposes but still fundamentally a PlayStation 4 with no exclusive titles that could mark it as a potential generational shift. This comes with the advantage that Sony can maintain sales figures from the older PS4 and build upon them; starting the life of the PS Neo with the claim that you already have almost forty million users out there is bending the truth a little, but only by a matter of degrees.
Of course, as a new-gen console by definition, the Nintendo NX would have to begin from zero.
Is that entirely fair? Or are we in a position where the names and titles we’ve given to generational transitions and elapsing periods of time are no longer applicable in the market? How can we be in a position where an enhanced console and a new console can be supposedly very similar in hardware and focus, yet be of two entirely different generational periods? Whilst Nintendo of course has the added advantage of knowing that the NX isn’t potentially going to split its market in two, it still has to contend with the reality that Sony will be banging on about PS4 sales including the Neo in that figure and just generally looking like it is doing a better job, by virtue of obfuscating the sales data.
So what is this generational quirk? Are we going to call the NX “Gen-9” and the Neo “Gen 8.5”?
In my view, this is bad news for the console industry. I’ve said before I believe a large part of this generations downfall was over-complication; too many day-one patches, too many editions of games, too much B.S. and jargon. The console market grew faster than the PC gaming scene for such a long time because of its simplicity – you bought a game, you put it in the console, you picked up a controller. Now the PC scene with GOG, Steam and (ugh) Origin do the patching automatically, the controllers are cheaper and modestly-priced hardware is easily superior to console hardware, whilst consoles download tons of patches – often throttling speeds at peak hours – and have clunky interfaces. People like simplicity, and that is why the casual market has fled towards the straight-forward smartphone market or dived into the PC Scene.
Having a situation where we struggle to define what this strange generational line is called isn’t making this any simpler – and it’s not making the console market any more attractive to the casual market (by that, I mean gamers who spend only little time on console games, not addicts of certain King games). As Sony and Nintendo are set to duke it out over technicalities and variable definitions, even people like me are scratching their heads and wondering how we’ve ended up in a situation like this, where the line is so blurred that we’re potentially about to see a proverbial media storm as fans and the industry argue over mere semantics.
If we can’t define this strange transition as a new-gen leap nor an incremental update, then what is it? What do we call this new wave of hardware? It’s important the industry starts being clear and open about more of this. With stalling hardware sales and lower software sales as a whole, there’s a serious argument to be made that trust in the console industry has hit a low point that could be comparable to the crash that saw off so many companies in the early-to-mid eighties. No-one wants to be in a position where they feel the market is about to bottom out, because it will destroy countless publishers and developers; only the likes of Microsoft and Nintendo have the finance to bulldoze through it, and even then they may be significantly weakened as a result. The market needs to know, and that means the industry coming to a consensus about what is going on and what to call it – be it Gen 8.5 or Gen 9, either way it needs to be stated and we need to feel like the industry is taking such distinctions seriously.
The end result of over-complicating things is an audience that will flee for the comparatively straight-forward PC, or the always-there smartphone. When so much of the market has already been lost to both of these, setting into motion a complex series of events and debates that are just confusing isn’t likely to help and worse, might drive many more loyal customers out. In a period of struggle and transition, the console industry has lost sight of much of what made it so popular; and more importantly, it’s become far too self-absorbed. Some may remember the hubris of Sony at the end of the PlayStation 2’s incredibly successful life – it felt that customers would do anything for their hardware. We’re seeing that with season passes now costing more than the retail cost of the game itself; “Gamers Will Pay”, seems to be the mantra.
But will we? Why would someone buy a console if they can’t tell if it is an old generation or a new generation? Ask Nintendo how that went with the Wii U; at least I guess Nintendo has the advantage of knowing it has to call the NX a next-gen machine, but what of the PS Neo? A console that is already being touted at £399.99, which is more than the PS4 cost at launch. And the older PS4 hardware will no doubt drop in price, bolstered by the knowledge that its superior offspring is being held back by trying to keep the old hardware afloat. It seems a little convoluted.
My point being, the industry needs to start clearing this sort of thing up. Decide on a generational moniker, decide on a direction and go for it. This faffing about with older hardware and exclusives and 4K and VR is nice and all, but it’s additional weight on a market that has been significantly weakened in the last couple of years. If the industry doesn’t want a full-bore collapse, perhaps it is time that CEO’s and Presidents sat down and hashed out a few details to make it a lot clearer to us.
Less PR psycho-babble, and more direct and clear information. You want consoles to survive into the 2020’s? It’s time to take a deep, bracing breath of reality and start explaining what the hell is going on.