Why The Console Industry Needs To Move On (From Gen-8)

With talk that Microsoft is gearing up for an updated XBox One, I’ve suddenly realised that old-console parity is a nice idea in theory, but it may not be all that in practice…


 

So, at a time that the PlayStation Neo and the Nintendo NX have people intrigued, rumours are abound that Microsoft is about to incrementally update the XBox One hardware.

This shouldn’t get me thinking about platform parity – but it does, and the reason for this is Sony’s insistence that the PS Neo – also known as the PS4.5 or the PS4K – will not be a complete replacement for the PlayStation 4 of old. All games, it has stated, will be playable on older hardware – and should be. And this is a noble goal, there’s little question that with about 40 million unitary sales, Sony can’t really afford to be seen rejecting an already established audience. Nintendo proved that this doesn’t work last year with the release of the New Nintendo 3DS. A few “exclusive” games doesn’t cut the mustard.

But it also demonstrated another important example of the limitations of “parity”; Hyrule Warriors: Legends was released to much criticism recently, and not because Hyrule Warriors is inherently a bad game – I have it on the Wii U and it’s one of the systems most enjoyable games. The criticism came because the 3DS version ran perfectly fine on the New 3DS, as expected. But on older 3DS units, the reality was quite different – slow and sloppy frame rates coupled to painful loading times and poor input response are not a good thing in what is effectively an action brawler, a genre that needs smooth frame rates and responsive controls. Sure, it looks nice – but it plays terribly, and that’s the important distinction to make. In a generation where Nintendo effectively demonstrated the importance of solid gameplay over high-gloss resolution, it was sad to see Hyrule Warriors: Legends suffer in the way it has.

Of course, logically speaking Hyrule Warriors: Legends should have been a New 3DS Exclusive. But with smaller sales than anticipated, neither Bandai-Namco nor Nintendo could afford to jettison the older crowd, even if this meant releasing a game with more problems than Jay-Z. And so the parity issue was laid painfully bare for what it was; a limitation that perhaps isn’t as sustainable or as important as we had once thought.

Developers will naturally gravitate towards hardware that gives them the freedom to make the game they want to and the market to which they can expect the most profit. This generation, that has predominantly been the PlayStation 4. It’s easier to handle hardware and its larger install base made it the obvious winner compared to the Wii U, which was expecting third parties to reinvent the wheel with the Gamepad before Nintendo had any clue how to utilise it on its own accord, and the XBox One – whose power was being siphoned off at the start with expectations of the Kinect, which pulled valuable resources away from the hardware which could have been better directed towards powering games. Sony kept is simple, kept it direct and they reaped the rewards, with the PS Network raking in more than £500 million during the 2015-2016 Fiscal Year.

However, Sony needs to be careful.

The noble goal of trying to placate the already-large PS4 userbase is at direct odds with an industry hungry for more hardware power. The Nintendo NX isn’t a console that cares about its previous install base – in the nicest possible way. It’s an all-new machine, not an incremental hardware update, and this means that Nintendo could potentially cause quite a lot of upset by giving developers and publishers alike full access to ALL of the available power inside the NX Console – and perhaps even additional power from extraneous units. When developers feel there’s a requirement to ensure that your game runs on two different pieces of hardware and it MUST work on the lower-powered version ‘or else’, chances are they’ll tire of this limitation and look for a simpler, more straight-forward piece of hardware that doesn’t impose such a stringent constraint.

And with Microsoft also languishing in sales, it may – like Nintendo – be more open to turning the taps to full for developers and pushing its new hardware. Why linger on hardware that the market has already largely rejected when newer hardware has better odds of competing against Sony’s already-established market share?

If I were to be super-critical of Sony for a moment, it should enjoy this success whilst it can. The PSVR has the faint whiff of the Kinect about it; requiring system resources and taking away power which developers could be better using in making the best games they can. And the Neo, as I’ve established, doesn’t want to alienate the users Sony already has, meaning it could end up being hampered by trying to continue carrying hardware that will be rather outdated by this time next year – such as the New 3DS proved, when a month later Nintendo was already discussing the NX and new home and handheld consoles. Sony may be super-successful right now, but they’re not immune to their own ego and hubris; as Sony demonstrated during the painful transition between the PlayStation 2 and the PlayStation 3. The lessons are there and recent enough that Sony should have paid attention; that it seems they haven’t is as damning an indictment as is possible to proffer.

Current chatter suggests that the PS Neo, the NX and this potential XBox 1.5 won’t be vastly different in terms of hardware power or potential; AMD is largely involved in all three units, and it seems variations on the same themes are at the core of this coming transitional break. This is a good thing; in effect, it levels the playing field for everyone. Third parties will not find too many issues in porting games around as a result, hopefully reducing costs (which can then be invested into making sure their games work – in an ideal world, of course…) and making each console more reliant on what additional extras the manufacturers bolt onto their machines. But no developer, faced with such an even playing field, is going to feel entirely comfortable with one manufacturer insisting that games on its system must be playable on hardware that is now outdated. Not when there’s a potential two other players who’ll be more than happy to twist the knife into Sony’s market dominance in such a manner. All’s fair in love and console wars, after all.

If this market is to get back to a healthier, more competitive state that we saw during the last full generation (Gen-7), then we may have to recognise that parity isn’t an essential component. People have demonstrated they’ll pay for modestly-priced HD Remakes, online subscription services and additional emulation. Such things can be business propositions in their own right, actual services that people can part with money for – and I’d pay a subscription to get access to Nintendo’s impressive back catalogue of SNES, N64 and Gamecube games – rather than limiting the reach of hardware. If this whatever-generation-they-call-it (we really need a proper moniker for this coming console fight) is to survive more than four or five years, then a company like Sony cannot continue to placate its older audience. To do so would give an advantage to its rivals, and damage the current successful model that has been driving PlayStation 4 sales so effectively.

I do still like the idea of maintaining your older audience. But at a time when it seems the console wars are about to finally get a bit more lively, no-one can afford to be complacent. And in the short-term, sure, consumers will be the ones hurt by virtue of newer, better hardware arriving a scant three years after already buying into their consoles. However, perhaps that is a necessary evil in this current situation; we all knew this generation would be short, I just don’t think many of us realised it would be THIS short.

Whatever happens, we’re going to be buying new hardware. Sony clearly wants us to upgrade to a Neo – otherwise, what is the point? – and Nintendo absolutely wants us to forget about the Wii U and focus on the NX. Chances are Microsoft feels the same about that whole XBox One reveal fiasco. The end result is a strange new brawl where Nintendo and Microsoft may be about to give Sony some stiffer competition than it has enjoyed the last two and a half years. And that’s great! I want a good fight between them all – we all should, because we ultimately end up the winners as all three work to make their machines as attractive as they could possibly be.

But can you imagine if Nintendo insisted all NX games had to work on the Wii U? It doesn’t work, does it? The same is true of this PS Neo and PS4 thing – the ideal is commendable, but when you put it in the context of a rival platform… it just doesn’t make sense, does it? The PS Neo is going to be a better machine than the PS4 – so why not embrace that new power and do something amazing with it? Sony has played a great game with the PlayStation 4. And no-one should want Sony to balls this up – competition is good (even if schadenfreude is cathartic). But it cannot do that if it aims down to keeping the Neo at being just “equal” to the PlayStation 4. It’s not. Let’s not pretend it is.

Whatever you want to call it, this IS a new hardware cycle; and rather than trying to sugar-coat that the last few years have been a total cluster-fruitcake, perhaps we need to just admit that what happened was a mistake, and move on. We’ll forgive and forget in time – after all, who remembers that this week five years ago the big PS Network hack was in full swing?

As long as these new consoles are playing to their very best abilities, I don’t think we’ll linger too much on “Gen-8”, or “Old Gen-8”. There’s the potential for bigger and better things to come, and Sweet Ebrietas In A Fetching Fedora, what we need during a period of excessively expensive season passes, disappointing releases and general mistrust is a light at the end of the tunnel to aim for.

Don’t blow it, Sony. Oh and same to you, Nintendo and Microsoft.

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