It was a subtle announcement, but rather like Nintendo’s words in 2015 they hold no less merit.
Microsoft has admitted that it has a “Next-Gen Console” in the works; meanwhile, Bethesda has openly admitted that The Elder Scrolls VI will be a next-generation game. And with many of Sony’s titles having no solid release date, there have been quiet but no less vocal mutterings that even Sony is preparing to finally breach the next-generation cycle, though whether any of these games are delayed enough to end up on a next-gen console is certainly up for rigorous debate. However, the message is clear and concise – Generation 8 is coming to a close, and companies like Microsoft and Bethesda are looking to the future.
I know many are excited by the prospect of a “new generation”; but I’d advise a touch of caution on setting unrealistic expectations.
It’s not unreasonable to suggest that “Gen-9” began last year, with the advent of the XBox One X and the PlayStation 4 Pro. We had already seen a mid-gen refresh; smaller, more efficient consoles pushed to market in the PS4 Slim and the XBox One Slim. The 4K Debut was a bizarre and frankly confusing muddle of words and promises that have done no-one any favours to this point; indeed, with requiring that games work on the 1080p base consoles as well, some developers have felt that their hands were tied and that they could not take advantage of the additional memory and/or graphical output of 4K Consoles.
Gen-9 will be a 4K Generation. Of that I have little doubt. But I don’t believe that the NextBox or the PlayStation 5 will be significantly more powerful than the current 4K machines on the market; they’re still inordinately expensive objects, after all. And no-one is going to pay $600+ for a video games console – even the $500 XBox One X has been for some a touch on the pricey side. The end result; the 4K Era arrived not with a bang, but a whimper – and the share of 4K consoles on the market in comparison to the base machines is absolutely tiny (estimates suggest less than 10%). But let’s not say that’s a bad thing; after all, CD-ROM was being pushed as a media format back in 1991 with the Phillips CD-i, long before Sony jumped in and made it the default option going forward. The share of CD-ROM based consoles was tiny until Sony popularised the format more.
In effect, I think Gen-9 will be more of a clarification; a line in the sand, and a proper attempt to push the 4K envelope without the lingering handcuffs of a large portion of 1080p consoles already on the market.
But with that come questions; I’ve argued before that there is no visible physical media format in the wings yet that would be a solid driver for 4K; Sony and Microsoft may be sitting on something already, and unwilling to come out of the gates until they have something more tangible to show, but it -is- going to be one of the biggest questions for Gen-9. 4K may be the future, but that will bump up file sizes quite dramatically for the first few years, and unless we’re getting 12TB Hard Drives as standard, most consoles will be full on data after just a handful of purchases. It’s a quality of life issue, but that still makes it a remarkably important issue.
And when will it arrive? Phil Spencer said Microsoft was “working on it”; so it could be as soon as 2019, though I’d pin more on 2020. Sony probably won’t be far behind (or ahead). And Nintendo… well, the Switch will probably get an update in 2022 but the Switch does posit another awkward issue for the industry; what if people prefer to stick to 1080p in the short term?
The Nintendo Wii was a firebrand on this front; sure, HD-Ready screens were about in 2006, as were some True HD screens. But a lot of people decided they didn’t -want- to upgrade their televisions yet. And as a result, the Nintendo Wii was pretty much your one-stop shop on this front, short of continuing to play the massive library of PlayStation 2 games out there. It ensured the Nintendo Wii built up a commanding lead; by the time people were buying new screens with HD-Ready or True-HD capability, and the XBox 360 and PlayStation 3 began to stage a comeback, Nintendo had already hit 100 million sales. It was, at that point, unbeatable.
Sony and Microsoft will be hoping that won’t be a repeat performance; they’re banking on a 4K Generation being what people want. But it’s a big gamble, particularly as the market share for 4K screens is still comparatively small. If people decide not to go for 4K, they’re left with the Nintendo Switch; it drives the market towards Nintendo again and the Switch builds up the kind of lead that gives companies massive headaches.
It’s interesting, however, that we’re talking about it now. For Microsoft, after a commanding E3 performance, it was almost turning the gun on themselves; here’s a lot of games and reasons to finally buy an XBox One X… oh we’re doing a new console and talking about backwards compatibility. Even my friend, who was sitting watching it with me, was commenting that it’d be smarter to wait for the new console; instant library to catch up on whilst the industry works on its first wave of dedicated 4K games!
Still, it’s fair to say that it’s time. Nintendo kicked this off back in 2012 with the Wii U – it counts, #dealwithit – and we’re now mid-2018. We’ve been in the throes of Gen-8 now for almost six years, and when you consider that from the Wii to the Wii U was just six years – this generation could be longer than the last by default. People have been desperate to get out of this generation for years; to put some distance between all the bad things that happened this generation and just wipe the slate clean again and start from scratch, without the baggage of the past being so readily available to be thrown around. I get it, and I’m game for a proper new generation.
… I just hope the gamble is worth it, because hardware is not inexpensive right now. If Microsoft and Sony commit to making a loss on consoles again and Nintendo kicks them in the nuts again, well, 4K will happen – but it will certainly raise more than a few questions in the industry again about whether you push bleeding-edge technology or go for what’s available, marketable and profitable in the long term.
Hopefully we won’t have to wait long for an answer.