September 30, 2020

Spoiler Alert: Companies Conduct R&D!

 


So, along with the talk of the “PlayStation 5”, Nintendo’s Shinya Takahashi mentioned after winning three BAFTA Game Awards (and I’d go on a rant but does anyone care about the BAFTA Game Awards? I mean, really?) that Nintendo is already working on, and I quote from the BBC here, “researching new console hardware”.

Immediately, people began talking about how the Switch was ‘already dead’ and Nintendo was ‘playing catch-up’; both of which are nonsense. Spoiler Alert for most of you; Research and Development, or R&D for short, takes years. As soon as one platform is launched, they begin looking into what they can do for the next console down the line; the moment the PlayStation 4 was released, Sony was probably already knee-deep in plans for the PlayStation 5 (I think the PS4 “Pro” was a side-project and not the bulk of where the R&D Budget went – I said as much when it launched). Microsoft has spent a lot on the XBox One X, to be sure, but it’s a stop-gap; we know this, the attention is now tunnelling towards what we might call “Generation 9 Hardware”.

This isn’t exactly news. So why has this been seized on?

For Nintendo, I think it’s the insistence on finding something to bash the Japanese Giant with. People had doubts about whether Nintendo could ever recover from the unquestionably catastrophic sales figures of the Wii U; sales figures which the Switch managed to outsell by the end of the year, not just the end of the fiscal year. People can’t believe that Nintendo would already be working with companies on hardware for the Switch Mark-2, or whatever they decide to call it; but hardware takes time to develop, as much as games take time to develop. It’s even more critical in the case of Nintendo that they begin research and indeed investment in hardware considering the wholesale manoeuvre into mobile technology; there are lots of things Nintendo needs to fall into place before they push a genuinely souped-up sequel to the Switch; they need an even more detailed screen, better hardware is a given, to research how to put in more mobile RAM and internal storage as well as battery life and other elements which do exist right now – of course they do, but they’re not what we’d call ‘consumer grade’. Nintendo, like Apple and Samsung and lots of other companies, has to invest into as well as research and develop new hardware and better hardware.

Galaxy Note Image
And even that doesn’t always end well…

This does not happen in a vacuum. This can take years – Nintendo already stated previously they think the Switch has a six to seven year lifespan, which is actually perfectly reasonable on the whole but what they actually mean is that it could take that long before the technology they are already tinkering with at a purely conceptual stage becomes viable for mass-production at a cost that most consumers can afford.

The Switch was rushed out; I’ll concede that whilst also suggesting it was a damn fine move. The Switch isn’t perfect. But Nintendo expedited things and it was a high-risk gamble which has so far paid off handsomely.

The PlayStation 5, alongside the Next-Box as it has no actual name right now to speak of, have a similar R&D problem which I’ve spoken about at considerable length.

Yes, the hardware is there to push 4K Gaming. 4K Televisions are now affordable. The hardware is available and somewhat affordable if you don’t mind spending $500 on it (and most new consoles will always cost more anyway, those costs will invariably drop). Games can scale up to 4K; they can even checkerboard, as the PS4 “Pro” has demonstrated. All the signs right now suggest that we should, in theory, be on the cusp of a brand new hardware cycle; the televisions are cheap enough, the hardware itself is cheap enough and it would be a significant leap from the previous generation to be quantifiably seen as a Next-Gen Cycle.

But where’s the Physical Media format for it? Quantum Break… okay, it’s not -quite- 220GB of data as that also covers the 1080p assets and video, but take that away and you’re still staring down the barrel of around 180GB of data, and the only format commercially available that might handle 4K data is BDXL; which to be fair, isn’t really used for anything but data backups these days, and even then it’s also notoriously unreliable and requires a specialist reader/writer to protect the disc in question. Again, more money. It needs more investment, perhaps a few variations… and that may not even be worth it if gamers no longer fancy the idea of switching discs.

Streaming might be the answer – but much of that has grown quiet since PS Now! had a terrible launch. Digital Downloads? Sure, but we need better – and cheaper – hard drives, and to push 4K Content some argue we need a significant leap in Solid State technology, which again, hasn’t happened for a while.

Right now, there are a lot of options but nothing that quantifies as an answer, so companies need to decide what they want to Research and Develop, and where their individual company funding goes.

Spongebob Panic animation
Pictured: How I see R&D teams right now.

And please don’t misunderstand – I happen to believe they’re ALL in R&D to their elbows right now; Sony and Microsoft are both painfully close to a proper next-gen leap but despite everything they just don’t have the wheels to get the thing moving from their back yard yet. But that’s precisely why I’ve rolled my eye at this; they’re all working on finding answers to these questions. That’s what Research and Development is for; identify what is holding you back from a next-generation and find solutions.

Nintendo is just being brutally honest there: yes, the Switch is a hit. But Nintendo can’t rest on their laurels because they have admitted that the Switch has a predicted lifespan, and that gives the company something resembling a deadline to meet. And whilst six years sounds like a lot to you or me, for a company like Nintendo – it’s nothing, because technology moves so quickly that the company needs to be on top of it. To have its own patents and protections in place, to make deals and arrangements for hardware manufacture and production of parts, to even plan out marketing and try predicting where the market will be in a few years time.

And for all the talk of the PlayStation 5, unless Sony is secretly sitting on a revelatory new media format – it’s still a couple years out as they seek answers. And I don’t believe Sony wants to invest tons of money into a physical media format, not after Blu-Ray and not with retailers collapsing of late. If they use a physical media format, it would be of someone else’s manufacture for the moment and I’ve not seen any genuine answers to the question of “4K Physical Media”. Well, maybe SD Cards. But that means investing in 256GB cards, and they’re still around the $100 mark, when even BDXL is about $10-$15 a disc. The discs would be cheaper… but it’s still not commercially viable.

So no. Don’t be alarmed that companies talk about their R&D projects; they’re all fumbling around for answers to thorny problems right now. And this will take time, effort and millions and millions of dollars before anyone comes up with anything resembling a solution. I’d be more worried if Nintendo wasn’t looking into future hardware, or if Sony wasn’t trying to figure out how they get around the proposed 4K push without, for once, a solid media format already in place to drive it.

 

These are interesting times and companies are going to have more than a few headaches in the coming years trying to find solutions, or perhaps just meaningful compromises, to many awkward questions.

Leave them to the difficult stuff and enjoy the games.

Kami

I'm the big cheese here. Comment, subscribe, direct waves of hate at me - all the same. Just hope you've had some partial enjoyment here!

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