And suddenly, my enthusiasm for the next console cycle disappeared, never to be seen again…
One of the most interesting developments of the next console cycle happens to have nothing to do with the consoles themselves.
It must be frustrating for all concerned too – Nintendo wants to push Zelda: Breath of the Wild to show it’s back on its gaming A-Game (though admittedly it’s rarely ever dropped that ball), Sony wants to effectively copy-paste the crap out of The Last of Us and Microsoft… well, Microsoft isn’t so much hedging its bets with PC/XBO cross-releases as sitting on a fence that just happened that morning to have been painted with superglue. Instead, no, the really interesting stuff has nothing to do with the games, and everything to do with what is going to be a brutal, aggressive and ultimately bloody battle between two different forms of display.
Make no mistake about this; the fight between VR and 4K is going, in my view, to bring the gaming landscape to its knees. How? Well…
To begin to understand how utterly destructive this “format war” is going to be, one needs to take a moment to see the current state of video game development. This is a games industry that cut off the Wii U entirely, complains about piracy (despite consistently record low figures), complains about low sales and yet still increases game budgets to preposterously huge sizes – despite the fact that in many cases, they know they’ll never make that money back.
Couple this to another problem that has become actually quite prominent with the fight between XBO and PS4; some developers still cannot optimise code despite the huge budgets they currently have. With such dramatic and drastic shifts in hardware between the two consoles and more of that incoming with their new hardware, the trend of at least one very poorly optimised game being pushed out isn’t likely to go away any time soon. It cannot be good for the overall quality of big-franchise games which undoubtedly will want to broach the format divide and hedge their bets just long enough to work out which will be the more consumer-driven success.
Now, yes. I have read that some developers are quite excited for this coming battle – but I can’t help but feel this is a case of turkeys voting for Christmas. Are they aware of the workload they’re about to be subjected to? And are consumers sufficiently aware how confusing this will start becoming in the next few years?
Let me break this down a little. Right now, there are three main console market players.
- PlayStation 4, 1080p
- XBox One, 900p
- Wii U, 720p
That’s fine, but since the industry has largely jettisoned the Wii U, you can also argue that developers are only playing with two main consoles in the market whilst Nintendo has been allowed to just do its own thing. Let’s now slide in the current prospective landscape for the next few years that consumers can come to expect and.. ahem… ‘enjoy’…
- PlayStation 4, 1080p
- PlayStation 4, VR
- PlayStation Neo, 4K
- PlayStation Neo, VR
- XBox One 900p
- XBox One S, possibly more 1080p
- XBox One Scorpio, 4K
- XBox One Scorpio, VR
- Nintendo NX, 4K
- Nintendo NX, VR (Unconfirmed)
That’s potentially ten different combinations to start worrying about; with Sony and Microsoft still at this point refusing to drop the older consoles (PS4 and XBox One), insisting games will continue to have old-console ports, you have four combinations for both Sony and Microsoft to be worrying about and for developers to be worrying about. And this is before you get to the Nintendo NX, which Nintendo may or may not be pushing VR for (reports are conflicting, Shigeru Miyamoto has confirmed he is researching VR functionality but whether it will be a launch option for the NX is anyone’s guess…).
That’s a heck of a workload for even the most well-funded of development studios, who would usually want their big brand releases to have as much consumer reach as possible on as many different formats. I can’t imagine this will be a healthy developmental environment in the long run – there’s a point where you can have too many options, and you start wishing for some of them to just be taken away.
If this isn’t good for developers, it’ll be worse for consumers.
Not simply the hardware combination confusion – knowing which copy of a game to buy for what and whether you have the correct setup for it – but we’re talking about a games industry that in recent years has become notorious for its large, confusing pool of Limited and Collector’s Editions, each with their own additional perks, costumes and content. Even if the likes of, say, UbiSoft stuck with making let’s say a PlayStation exclusive game – with the PS4, PS4 VR, PS Neo 4K and PS Neo VR, each with three or four “editions” for each, and you’ve got the recipe for arguably the most ludicrously long-winded and hopelessly confusing consumer mess in years…
Why do I think they’ll be different? Largely because they will be very different pieces of software overall – old PS4 VR won’t be the same as PS Neo VR, just as PS4 and PS Neo 4K aren’t the same thing either. Being such ultimately different pieces of software will likely come with individual releases for each individual platform, and that’s when things start getting murky…
It is a situation is not going to be sustainable in the long term – I mean, it would be very impressive if the industry did somehow pull itself together to cater to all these devices and displays, but like a chainsaw juggler – there’s a point of probable disaster. Juggling three chainsaws is quite the feat, to be sure – but now we’re throwing in a potential seven other chainsaws for the poor juggler to keep in the air, and the probability that something is going to go wrong and chainsaws will be lopping off certain body parts is… well… more likely the more you start adding to what is already in the air.
So effectively, the market is going to have to choose for the industry. The industry seems incapable of deciding for itself what it wants, after all…
And I can’t blame the industry. Entirely, at least. I think, as has been the issue for years, the console industry has lost all sense of timing and it’s becoming increasingly encumbered and entrenched in these spurious technological battles which should be resolved before consoles get made really. VR and 4K are going to compete for the same market share. And that’s kind of… sad, actually.
And this is where it will get pretty dirty; no company wants to be left in the dust, not after so much money and time has gone into both 4K and VR and the research and development for hardware capable of handling both forms of display. The industry does tend to be a love-in, of course. Phil Spencer likes the new Zelda, for example. But they’ll gleefully stick the knife in and twist when there is a need for it, as Sony demonstrated back when it was kicking the XBox One in the nads over its game sharing policies. You’ll see far more of that; and perhaps not nearly as comical or half as subtle.
Yet, even if one console pulls ahead (let’s not forget we’re also likely facing a physical media war, with the NX rumoured to use card-based media), consumers will still ultimately have to choose between 4K and VR. This coming generation is founded on a precarious Jenga tower of hope and optimism, but something has to lose. Something will have to be phased out in order for us to move onward and upward, and I’d like to believe that will be 4K but hey, I have one functional eye. Excuse me if my physical bias plays into that preference.
Perhaps that’s on us – we gamers have been wanting Gen-8 to go the hell away for… well, a good two years now. And we have our lurch forward; Merry Christmas and welcome to Hell, ladies and gentlemen. We’ve pushed for a new hardware cycle just at the cusp of a muddle of visual formats begin to do battle. Rather than wait to see what ultimately wins out before moving forward with new hardware, we’re jumping into the middle of the fray and we’re going to inevitably have to take sides. Thought the console wars were silly, or that the gaming landscape was toxic before? Oh boy, you’ve seen nothing yet. What we’ve seen will look like a Famous Five picnic compared to what is about to land in our collective laps.
I was excited to get the hell out of Generation 8 and into a new console landscape. But it’s out of the frying pan and into the fire, and I don’t see this console battle ending well either. I kinda wish I had positive stuff to say to round this off… but I don’t.
I’m starting to bitterly regret my desire to want a new console cycle. And it hasn’t even begun yet…