On The (Second) Gen-8 Mid-Gen Refresh

 


As is my usual way, I’d like to start off with a quick myth debunking.

Mid-Gen Refreshes are not uncommon or even unheard of. Whilst many like to pretend Nintendo was the first to do it with the New Nintendo 3DS, it ignores that the original Nintendo DS had multiple refreshes during its lifespan – as did the original Game Boy, though the Game Boy managed to last an eye-watering 12 years before the Game Boy Advance came along. Sega did this even back in the 8-Bit era; the Master System was changed to a Master System II, which surprisingly had better hardware than the original Master System. Sega repeated this during the 16-Bit era with two distinctive Mega Drive consoles, two distinct Mega CD units (one for each Mega Drive variant) and the 32X.

Even Sony has done this before; the PS1 got a PSX, the PS2 became the PS2 Slim and the PS3 got a PS3 Slim, each time utilising changes in hardware and coming in with at least a little more power than the original variation. This was most obvious during the PS2 era, as later games became unplayable on earlier PS2 models because of changes in firmware in their newer models and upgraded optic lenses to read disc data. People with older models could actively hear their consoles struggling to work the overtime, which usually considerably shortened their operational lifespan – if they could even read the game at all, of course.

A mid-gen refresh is not unusual, or unheard of. Few companies used to really yell about the increased power in their newer variations, for sure, but that didn’t mean they weren’t better consoles on a purely technical level. The passage of time, more efficient production and manufacturing alongside better components all helped make these slimmer, smaller, prettier consoles better machines in the long run.

Gamers knew this too. I certainly did. When I say that people should wait until they absolutely, 100% know a console has a game they want – it’s not because it’s obviously the most logical thing to say, but because some games come a couple of years in and that occurs usually around the point that a company starts planning their mid-gen hardware refresh. In the same way more and more gamers are waiting for the inevitable “Game of the Year” or “Complete Edition” versions of software (to the detriment of actual software sales), so too is it not unreasonable to point out over the years the mass market tends to wait for these mid-gen variations to hit the shelves. They’re more powerful, more reliable and have better hardware in general and often even come in cheaper than the original launch price. Those who adopt early know what they’re getting into, for the most part – we’ve known for decades that if you buy a console on launch, a newer version will drop at some point in the next few years. It’s an inevitability.

Still, the Gen-8 Refresh is perhaps the weirdest one so far. We already HAD a refresh, if you will; the PS4 got a PS4 Slim, and the XBox One got an XBox One S. And undoubtedly, these are still better machines than their original incarnations.

So what does it say about a generation when a second mid-gen refresh is called for?

The PS4 “Pro” (hereby referred to as “Pro”) and the XBox One X (hereby referred to as XBOX, as cringey as that still is) are coming at a time when 4K might be starting to gain a little traction in terms of video games. And that’s of course not a problem in and of itself – 4K Gaming may indeed be the future, even if it is not the present it certainly shouldn’t be a sign that companies ignore it until the time is right. There’s a small but still vocal portion of the gaming scene that is quite eager to push forward with 4K Gaming, perhaps to get some distance from VR Headsets as the market gets too competitive and companies find themselves chasing after increasingly smaller user pools? Just throwing out a theory, little else.

Of course, the question then becomes; why, when the hardware in the “Pro” and the XBOX is so undoubtedly superior to their previous offerings that it is impossible to NOT talk about it, was this not an actual “new-gen”, a Gen-9, rather than 8-point-five-point-2? Or perhaps, why did Sony and Microsoft perhaps not wait an extra year or two and push them as a new generation of hardware?

Those questions don’t have easy answers either.

When it comes to Sony, one could theorise that they painted themselves into a corner back in 2013 when they spoke to their shareholders and promised 100 million PS4 sales – a figure that even as we speak is still a long way off, with 60 million shipped. Sony could simply want more time to meet those promises – unwilling to cave in on what even at the time seemed a quite unrealistic expectation. Sony could explain this away with difficult market conditions – few expected Gen-8 to be the headache it has proven to be, after all – but overall, Sony would like to get as close as it can to that figure, even if they can’t actually reach it. Company pride, perhaps, built them a cage that the PS4 may itself struggle to escape from, but it’s an explanation – albeit a pretty strange one.

Microsoft has less reason, however, to cling to the sinking ship of the XBox One. From its initial reveal, which Don Mattrick summarily cocked up big-time, the XBox One has been fighting an arguably fruitless battle to be relevant. With less than half the PS4’s install base, one could posit there’s little good reason why a machine with a drastically improved GPU, a stronger CPU and the addition of significantly more RAM to help push a native 4K resolution wouldn’t be the perfect recipe to break free from the shackles of the XBox One and chart a course for a new hardware generation, giving even Sony a poke in the eye in the process – perhaps even forcing Sony to rush a competitor to market and undermine the core principles of the “Pro”, and torpedo any attempt to reach that 100 million sales mark.

Still, Sony might be closer to the mark on the point of pride.

It’s not exactly uncommon knowledge that over the last few years, hardware and software sales have been tumbling. One need only look at the latest graph from Statista for evidence of this on a hardware angle; 2016 was a particularly sharp drop even after several years of falling sales. The market has been shrinking, year on year, for more than a decade now; perhaps this is because of smartphones and mobile hardware – this is why the Switch exists, after all, Nintendo pushing a new handheld six years after the original 3DS (not bad timing to be fair). Perhaps Sony and Microsoft think that they’ve got something that will reverse these trends, and salvage something from the wreckage of a generation that has been nothing short of a sales catastrophe overall. Or perhaps both companies are waiting for the right time.

You’d think, of course, the advent of realistic 4K Gaming would prove an ideal point to jump from; in the same way Gen-7 helped push HDMI and HD Gaming, Gen-9 could prove the same for 4K UHD.

The fly in the proverbial ointment, however, is and always will come back to the Nintendo Wii. Whilst Gen-7 was undoubtedly the dawn of HD Gaming, Sony and Microsoft were blindsided by the Wii – which was not HD-Ready at all. It consistently proved to outsell both its HD rivals, and it took many years before HD consoles began to gain more traction in the mainstream – again, new console refreshes helped with that, whereas the Wii didn’t get one until very near the end of its lifespan (and even then, only for select markets). Some have argued that had Nintendo pushed a mid-gen Wii refresh much earlier than it did, its sales would have been significantly higher but that’s of course entirely speculation. One thing is clear; Nintendo saw that HD was going to take time, so simply stuck with what the market knew and liked. And it worked.

The Switch is the new kid on the block and yes, it’s hybrid nature is quirky enough to be Nintendo. But it posits a particularly egregious problem for Sony and Microsoft; the Switch is selling gangbusters, and hype levels are akin to the Wii. It’s traditional enough – one screen, basic control layouts and all. But it’s at the same point different and quirky and interesting enough that it looks fresh (helped somewhat by nVidia’s presence on hardware support and solid middleware support this time around that seems to have most developers impressed). If Sony and Microsoft were to drop 4K Consoles as a “new-gen”, then the Switch itself might be considered new-gen as well, and if that starts to pull ahead of its significantly more expensive rivals… you end up with a repeat performance of Gen-7, good for Nintendo but an absolute nightmare if you have any vested financial interests in either of its rival companies.

So maybe Sony and Microsoft are playing a different kind of game; don’t push a new generation, at least not yet. The Switch looks like a weird mid-gen home console refresh/new-gen handheld, and the sales of those 4K consoles can be neatly wrapped into the lifetime sales of the general brand of the PS4 and XBox One. You can then pretend in two or three years that 4K already has an established base and push new consoles that are entirely focused and dedicated to 4K Gaming and nothing but.

That might seen cynical, but it isn’t unreasonable to suggest that neither Sony nor Microsoft want to end up with a repeat of Gen-7, even though their consoles in this period vastly outsold their current offerings. They don’t want to be seen as running behind Nintendo in terms of unit sales. It wouldn’t be a good look, and particularly for Microsoft – talk has been abound for years of shareholder resentment at propping up the XBox division. They’d much rather this new hardware battle took place within the boundaries of Gen-8, hoping that it will prove to be a much-needed sales injection that helps all parties at least come tangentially close to the sales figures of the previous generation. They’d much rather this than the alternative; binning Gen-8 now would absolutely suggest Gen-8 was a disaster, and that would perhaps have a knock-on effect for any sales of new hardware they might want to push in the future.

In any case, the most likely point is that all three parties would much rather see if they can salvage something from the moniker of Gen-8 than start an entirely fresh new console run. Try and get somewhat close to the previous generation and then move on, perhaps in 2019 or 2020 perhaps. For Microsoft and Sony, that means trying to cement some interest for 4K Gaming. For Nintendo, it’s pushing a fresh new hardware angle with mobile components and its hybrid ethos – building on the concept of the Wii U, again perhaps to prove the point that the Wii U wasn’t a completely unmitigated failure.

When Gen-9 does inevitably roll around, there will be an unquestionable sigh of relief from all parties involved. And gamers themselves will also likely heave a sigh of relief too. As it stands, however, it seems almost certain that all three console players are content to continue the premise of their fight within the confines of Gen-8 for the next year or two at least. To establish their new hardware quirks, to generate sales figures that look appealing to shareholders and to effectively do their damnedest to ensure that in the future, we can at least look back on this current console generation as the incubator for better things, rather than the shakey sales figures that it has enjoyed the past four to five years.

It still means that this generation will have seen more than its fair share of “refresh” machines; the alternative, however, is to concede that Gen-8 was a total failure. And whilst Nintendo may concede that (possibly), Sony and Microsoft will likely refute such an accusation with some vigour. They’re still in the thick of it; still trying to work around – or through – a generation whose sales figures will unquestionably be looked back upon as less than thrilling.

Do I think it will work? Eh, probably not. But again… pride. No-one wants to be the first to admit that it’s all been for naught the last few years. So they’ll throw more money and hardware at the problem hoping that somehow, in some way, in some wild fantastical hope that these new consoles will spike a sales trend that bucks the continuing drop of annual hardware sales. They might get their wish… but it’s a lot of money, and expense, to salvage a little pride.

Then, I’m sure all three main console makers will insist that it’s worth every cent.

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