I’m a console gamer. Maybe it’s due to my familiarity with them because I’ve played on systems for most of my life, but I just prefer the whole console experience. Buy a box, plug it into my TV, pick up a controller, play my games, rinse and repeat in five to eight years. Not only is this what I’m used to, it’s the way things have been for the vast majority of gamers ever since home consoles first came to the market.
However, it seems that the days of traditional console cycles may be coming to an end. Both Sony and Microsoft are rumored to be working on upgrading their current-gen systems mid-cycle. I’m not talking about the next generation of systems from the respective brands either. These are supposedly upgraded versions of the current PlayStation 4 and Xbox One — systems that have been on the market for less than five years. If these rumors are true then this would signal a significant change for console cycles.
When I first heard about these upgraded systems, I wasn’t happy about it. I’ve owned a PlayStation 4 since launch day and recently bought an Xbox One over the holidays. The idea that the machines I just bought would be rendered obsolete within a year didn’t sit well with me. If I’m going to start buying a new console every two to three years, then why shouldn’t I become a full-blown PC gamer and just upgrade my graphics cards periodically, especially if I would be spending the same amount of money in the process?
After many heated debates and reading countless articles about the matter, not to mention a good deal of soul searching, my stance on iterative consoles has changed. Don’t get me wrong, if it was up to me console cycles would remain as they’ve always been, but I’m a realist and I can see where things are going. Iterative systems are coming. This is a fact that I have now (reluctantly) accepted and I’m here to tell you that you all should as well.
Technology is evolving at an accelerated rate each year. We live in a world where devices like smartphones and tablets receive updated versions on a yearly basis. Personal Computers get updated parts even faster than that, with new graphics cards coming out as frequently as every six months. Since this is the case, shouldn’t consoles get upgrades just as frequently? What makes video game systems so different from other consumer tech that they shouldn’t follow this same model? The answer? Absolutely nothing.
While the thought of spending $400 or more every year or two on a system may be off-putting initially, consider that we already do this with smartphones and tablets. Every time a new iPhone or Android device hits the market people line up and wait for hours in order to purchase it. And these gizmos aren’t cheap either, costing anywhere between $500 and $700. That’s a pretty penny, but folks are more than happy to fork over that type of cash annually.
If you believe that this model only works for those devices, I would remind you that it isn’t unheard of within the video game industry. Iterative video game machines aren’t new at all, in fact. Look at the Nintendo DS, for example. In the span of four years, Nintendo released four versions of the handheld device: the DS, DS Lite, DSi, and the DSi XL. With total lifetime sales of nearly 154 million units worldwide, it’s safe to say that the system did extremely well. People didn’t complain about the DS being released too frequently — they were too busy buying the damn thing.
Then of course there are slimmer versions of consoles which are usually released about two to three years after a console’s initial release. Granted that these consoles don’t offer graphical upgrades, but they are newer editions of systems regardless. Going back to the DS, let’s not forget about the Nintendo 3DS which not only received an XL model a year after release, but also had an upgraded version that was 33% more powerful available three years after the original launch. Again, iterative consoles are nothing new.
One of the biggest complaints about the current-gen is that the consoles are underpowered. I’ll admit that I didn’t buy into this notion at first. I mean, how could the consoles be underpowered if they were both more powerful than their previous incarnations? However, after seeing how most games struggle to run at both 1080p and 60 frames per second, and how graphically, games only look marginally better than they did during the PS3/Xbox 360 era, I now see how the consoles were indeed underpowered.
Not only will updated consoles give consumers machines with more horsepower, but having iterative consoles also insures that no one will ever have an underpowered system again. Granted that these machines will never ever be as powerful as dedicated gaming PCs (duh), but they wouldn’t be as far behind the curve as they are now. Iterative consoles will make underpowered systems a thing of the past.
While we may see new consoles released every year or two, it doesn’t mean that you HAVE to buy the latest one. Like with smartphones, each iteration will be only slightly better than the last. This could be seen as a negative thing, it also means that you can wait a few years before having to upgrade your system. This is exactly what I and millions of others do with their smartphones.
What about backwards compatibility? With consoles now running on the x86 architecture (and more than likely continuing to do so for some time) it means that there is now a set standard. No more Cell Processors or Emotion Engines that gave developers headaches and made it all but impossible for backwards compatibility to exist. Systems will now be both backwards and forwards compatible, meaning that you’ll be able to play every game you have ever bought for a console and not lock yourself out of them when upgrading. While this doesn’t solve the problem of being able to play games from previous generations, it does mean that, moving forward, you’ll be able to play games you’ve purchased without worrying if it will run on your latest console.
While these are some reasons why people should accept iterative gaming consoles, there is also legitimate cause for concern.
Backwards compatibility has been promised, but it isn’t exactly a guarantee. It’s entirely possible that newer games will not run on older systems. Conversely, older consoles may not be able to run the latest titles as effectively as an up-to-date system could. We already see this happening with mobiles games so it’s very possible that consoles will face something similar.
Then there is the price. While people do spend hundreds of dollars for new smartphones each year, they do so because they don’t have to pay it all in one lump sum. Paying $20 a month is an easier pill to swallow than paying $400+ upfront, after all. In theory, some sort of payment plan could be established by leading retailers (Best Buy, Amazon etc), but at the moment there is no model for this for consoles. God forbid if you have to sign a contract at a place like GameStop in order to get your next machine.
Console cycles as we know them are coming to an end. We can fight this as much as we want, but it would be as useless as fist fighting the wind. As gamers we aren’t used to surrendering, but this is a losing battle. Instead of objecting to the new paradigm, figure out the best way it can work for you. After all, you can upgrade whenever you want and will not be left behind if you decide to wait a year or two before upgrading. Again, we have to leave our old ways of thinking behind in order to move forward.
We’ll hopefully find out more about the future of gaming consoles when Sony and Microsoft have their E3 events in two weeks.
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