We fossils that grew up in the 80s and 90s likely remember the start of the console wars, the idea that it was SEGA Genesis or Nintendo, and you had to pick a side. There were battle lines drawn, arguments made, and so many insults lobbed back and forth at one another. Full disclosure… I was a Nintendo kid through and through. I had an NES and an SNES, I watched Captain N the Game Master faithfully every Saturday morning (and I’m terrified to go back and watch it now), and I poured over my Nintendo Power when it showed up every month.
You know what’s kind of weird, especially in light of me recently writing about toxicity in communities? I remember those arguments and insults being intense at time, but they weren’t what the internet has since made possible. My best friend owned a Genesis, and we gave each other bantha poodoo all the time over the systems, but still frequently played the consoles at each other’s house. He owned Mortal Kombat, with its blood animations, and I owned Mortal Kombat, without them… and we had fun playing both versions.
I’ve mentioned the book before, but Blake J. Harris’ The Console Wars does a fantastic job of laying out how this played out on the business side, the back-and-forth between Nintendo and SEGA (and how SEGA ultimately imploded and Nintendo kept going). It talks about how EA and Activision were always kind of evil, Nintendo hasn’t really changed their business model in the decades since, and SEGA really hated the branch in America that made them what they were. More than any of that, though, it also points out how superficial a lot of the war was, and is… drummed up by marketing and pushing that initial Fear of Missing Out to lay seeds that have recently choked out everything else.
Communities have become more toxic over time. Gatekeepers crop up all the time to exclude people and belittle them for enjoying something wrong. Again and again, other factors come in and poison things; racism, classism, and misogyny frequently pop up in places we probably don’t expect, and privilege is just rampant among fan communities all over the place. I mean, just having this conversation, and discussing consoles that are going to cost hundreds of dollars, and gafmes that cost a couple of days of work at minimum wage (assuming you’re going to give up things like eating, having a roof, etc), and just ignoring that reality, is a privilege, especially given the state of the world and the economy right now.
Diminishing Returns and Console Power
The AAA industry and console manufactures have always banged the drum of the constant need for the latest and greatest, that the old is junk and the new is great. Really, technology as a whole has been going like that for a long time, with planned obsolescence seen as a valid business strategy. Unfortunately for gaming in general, they’re running into the reality that the roads they decided to go down can only take them so far.
I’m an Apple user, with my phone, my tablet, and my primary productivity computer (I have a gaming desktop that runs Windows, because it’s still really the only viable platform for doing the most). They are absolutely notorious for this, with the latest tech being the best tech, and pushing the constant need to upgrade. They’ve been smacked down on breaking things, leading to lawsuits and settlements that are great for lawyers but don’t really do anything for consumers, but they still introduce new things in the tech to make the old ones look unattractive.
Here’s a secret, though… older devices work just fine for a lot longer than they want you to believe. Sometimes, there will be valid reasons to update, say for a specific feature or the old device is failing, but most of the time, we’d be better served hanging on to our devices for longer than we do.
Consoles, in particular, are a weird technology. They effectively launch already being out-of-date to the best technology at the time (since their stack is locked in months before hand), and need to push on as long as possible with the same basic hardware to be viable. Your average console generation tends to go 6-8 years (the Xbox One and the PS4 first launched back in 2013), and the 360 was around for eight years before that. This generation, we were treated to the worrying development of a mid-generation “upgrade” that added more power, in the form of the Xbox One X and the PS4 Pro… though if anyone upgraded specifically for that, they were in for some disappointment on what it really provided.
Those particular upgrades were done to support “4K gaming,” though in truth, only the Xbox One X really support it, and it was fairly limited. If you buy a TV now, 4K is basically the only option available (or, if you have more money than brains, you can get more than that). Yet less than a third of all installed televisions were 4K as of 2018 (and that’s not even accounting for multiple televisions in a household); I’m sure it’s gone up since then, but that particular electronics segment had been lagging for years. I don’t own a 4K TV (our primary TV is also old, I think 12 years at this point), and I know I’m not the only one in that situation. I mean, yeah, if my TV dies, I’ll get a 4K model, but I’ve never been one for spending a fortune on my TV setup.
That’s not to say that the current generation of consoles don’t have problems. The Nintendo Switch, while an absolutely amazing little system, is an underpowered tablet that struggles to run games from early this generation, or sometimes, remasters from the last one. Both the PS4 and the Xbox One have pretty terrible storage options, especially given that most AAA game studios seem to have no care whatsoever for people with iffy internet speeds, bandwidth caps, or using the storage on a console.
That being said, all of that alone don’t really feel like enough to push to the next generation. Sony is apparently banking almost entirely on the fact that they discovered that SSDs exist (while PC and Mac users just snicker); Microsoft is reintroducing memory cards (though it’s not as sinister as that, and the devil is in the details when it comes to pricing). The reason behind this is that when you look at the breakdown of the consoles, they look almost identical from a technology perspective.
Sony has shown basically nothing when it comes to gameplay for the PS5, and Microsoft hasn’t done much better, despite having two different streams promising gameplay (and pretty much just showing us Halo). What has been shown has been pretty well slammed or praised, mostly because so little of what we’ve seen looks drastically better than what the current generation of consoles offer.
There’s a reason for that…
The Graphics Dragon has been Slain
So, fun fact about the Microsoft gameplay video for Halo on the Xbox Series X… it looks better if you stream it, and watch it, on a 4K display and stream. Of course, while 4K screens are getting more common, even if they aren’t the majority (my 4K screens are on laptops and my primary desktop, so I’m not without it) – but 4K videos and streaming are far more rare than having the screens available. The digital revolution is here, from streaming videos, getting games digitally, and pretty much everything being the cloud has ended the era of media… but bandwidth and networks, especially here in the US, haven’t kept up.
Ultimately, though… graphics can only go so far, for two reasons, really. First and foremost… as resolution goes up, it’s takes more and more effort to make and create textures. The defenders of the AAA industry and their bad behaviors, like raising prices on games and including predatory monetization schemes, are right in the fact that it’s more expensive to create games (but ignore all of the other things that offset that increased cost). This chase after graphics and resolution has been going on as long as there have been games, but it really kicked into high gear with the 3D revolution and the introduction of consoles that supported it.
The second reason is a lot more basic… things can only improve so far and still be viable and accepted by consumers. We’re seeing that with characters and facial animations in games. The biggest gains were the jump between PS2 and PS3… and while the PS4 looks better than either of those, it wasn’t nearly the jump as before. As we’ve already seen from the “next gen” gameplay / not-gameplay trailers… the just to the PS5 will likely be even less.
That’s not to say that graphics aren’t improving… they absolutely are, just not in the centerpiece items. Increasing stuff like draw distance, pop-in, environmental density, and effects are all important pieces, but they aren’t what wow the audience and sell the marketing. Unless you’re Square and you’re putting out a boring-ass movie and want to talk about strands of hair, I suppose.
PC gamers have seen this development coming for some time; it used to be that there were generational jumps with video cards in the PC space used to be excessive, and the gains were fairly marked. Since the previous generation… that’s fallen off quite a bit, and it’s been two years between releases
with no real sign of what’s coming next and it looks like the next generation of nVidia cards will get announced in September. The gains were not really gaming related (the virtual currency bubble sucked up a ton of GPUs), outside of the same things that the updates to the current console did… 4K support and support for VR for the couple of dozen people that still care about VR.
For a long time, the gains in PC gaming have been in things other than raw horsepower… its been power efficiency, thermal ratings, and utilization. That’s now coming to consoles, and it’s why they’re so eager to talk about the memory architecture and the storage solutions.
Yes, graphics in games could absolutely be improved, but the more detailed and demanding they get, the more it will run up against the uncanny valley and the more money it will take to do less and less. There’s long been this idea that gamers will reject titles that don’t look as good, or don’t keep improving, or don’t push for the latest and greatest. It’s this weird blend of FOMO and a need to constantly make more and more from the companies (which is a whole different issue) that seems to press it, and why we get a new generation when the games on the current one, games like God of War, Forza Horizon 4, Ghosts of Tsushima, and so many others look amazing.
There’s also a simple way to refute this push and drive, and show that gameplay is and has always been king. Let’s point to some of the biggest games of the last decade: Minecraft, which is never going to win any graphical awards; Fortnite, which I think runs on more devices than Skyrim does at this point; the Nintendo Switch, which is never going to win awards for its graphics but is still, arguably, the star of this generation. Yeah, the PS4 has sold more units overall, but the Switch has sold more than half of what the PS4 has in half the time.
Nintendo as a company has always understood that gameplay is ultimately what wins, and they’ve found ways to push their hardware constantly to get the most of out it while still delivering things that gamers love to play, rather than just stuff that looks cool. Just look at their best selling titles of this generation, Breath of the Wild (14.7 million), Super Mario Odyssey (17.1 million), Super Smash Bros. Ultimate (18.8 million), and Animal Crossing: New Horizons (13.4 million after 6 weeks).
In case you are curious, only Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and Marvel’s Spider-Man have sold more than any of these games among Sony’s first-party exclusives. Only Grand Theft Auto V has sold more copies than those two games (and really more than anything else in the generation)… except for Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, which has sold a staggering 24.77 million copies. That’s close to one copy of the game for every two switches sold, which is just mind boggling.
Yeah, the Switch is underpowered, but turns out that a lot of consumers don’t mind. No, you’re not going to go and play Grand Theft Auto V on there anytime soon, but you can go play The Witcher 3… even if it makes compromises on the graphics to get the gameplay and fun there.
Past that, you can also look at the biggest sector in gaming, by far, and see that power isn’t the real driver for it: mobile gaming. Almost 60% of the revenue being made in the entire game industry is made on mobile at this point. Sadly, a ton of that is on predatory microtransaction games, but there’s a lot of it that isn’t. Apple Arcade has shown that there’s still a market for good games without all the nonsense, and there are an increasing number of ports of classic games coming to mobile that aren’t available anywhere else (looking at you, Final Fantasy 1 and 2).
The Remake Generation
If it feels like there have been less new and unique titles coming out this generation, that’s mostly because that’s true. Much like how movies feel like everything is a sequel or a remake (contrary to popular opinion, Hollywood has always been like that, it’s not something new), games feel like they’re following the same path. The reasons behind that are simple economics, really… there’s more risk to a new IP and property, and more cost in its development and design than using an existing game.
Both the PS4 and the Xbox One, specifically the upgraded versions, are the most powerful consoles ever made. They’re capable of making some amazingly beautiful games and environments, and some of the most amazing games released in the history of gaming have been on those systems. They’re also the systems most defined by remasters, re-releases, and remakes… and given that the next generation is touting the “free upgrades to next gen,” that pattern isn’t changing anytime soon.
Controversial opinion time… but I don’t see that as a problem for the most part. I don’t tend to keep the older generation of consoles around, as I rarely come back and play the older games (especially if they’re available on PC) on those machines. The consoles take up space, and I’ve only got so much living room and closet space available.
Backwards compatibility is a weird thing in this space, one where Xbox has a clear advantage, because, you know, they’re actually doing it. The numbers are on the side of Sony, to an extent, here… the majority of consumers don’t go back to previous generation to play games. At the same time, how much of that is because it’s so difficult to actually do that? They’re relying on the PS2 to PS3 comparison when those systems still had it, but ignoring that the PS3 took a long time to catch on, and didn’t really hit big numbers until after they removed it.
For my own point of view, I would love to get some older PlayStation titles available on my PS4… like all of the Metal Gear Solid series, which is only available on the PS3 if you purchased a very particular version of the game. Or the old PSX Final Fantasy anthology and chronicles titles, which are the only way to play some of the classic games without using my iPad for it (with those controls, just ick) or paying a fortune for an old GameBoy advance, DS, and 3DS (they’re spread out across all of those systems).
All of the major three consoles have survived and thrived on remakes this generation. The Last of Us Remastered is one of Sony’s best-selling titles. The Witcher 3 is another top-seller… and a last-gen title. Same with the number one selling game, Grand Theft Auto V. On the Microsoft side, backwards compatibility was a killer feature when it launched, and they’ve continued to build on and expand it. They’re not without their own remasters, though, with Halo: The Master Chief Collection and Gears of War: Ultimate Edition both coming in (along with AAA titles like GTA V, the Witcher, Skyrim, etc.). The huge draw of the Switch is that a great deal of the releases have been remasters and remakes of great games people missed out on because they never had a WiiU.
There’s something distinctly different in how Microsoft and Sony are going about the philosophy of gaming, with Sony trying to present a narrow “you should enjoy it this way” and creating limits to how you consume it, and Microsoft putting up the big tent and trying to give as many avenues as possible to enjoying gaming the way you want to play. That’s kind of stunning when you think about it, and compare it to what the generation looked like at the outset, with arrogant Microsoft crapping the bed and the PS4 firing on all cylinders.
Of course, that’s all in the marketing.
When is a Console Worth it?
Ultimately, it was all just marketing. Microsoft had some real anti-consumer and pro-publisher stuff baked into their consoles (like an always-online requirement or games would stop working), were requiring a Kinect at purchase (which isn’t even supported anymore), and had the more expensive console. Sony touted their game sharing, the lower price, and showed off a lot of potential in it.
I bought a PlayStation 4 the day it came out; I still have that same machine, actually… I’ve never had to upgrade it or replace anything on it. I did have to take it apart once because a certain child of mine decided that it would be a great idea to get into his mother’s purse and jam a couple of cards inside the disc drive, but it survived unscathed once they were removed.
I’ll also let you in on the secret… buying the PS4 on release date was a mistake. The initial console lineup was a joke, it didn’t have backwards compatibility (and still really doesn’t), and there wasn’t a “big” release on it that I couldn’t get elsewhere for a couple of years after it came out. All of those first-party IPs that people point to when they call the PlayStation the superior console? They weren’t really there, and most came in the latter half of the generation.
Killzone: Shadow Fall was a release title and it was… honestly, I can’t tell you anything about the game. I got bored with it and ended up trading it in. Knack was also a launch title, and it was terrible. inFamous: Second Son came out six months later, and it was a fun game, but not one that gets talked about in the “great” games of this generation. The first game that could be called great (even if it’s not my jam) would be 2015’s Bloodborne. For me, the first “I need this console” game was 2016’s Uncharted 4 (I was one of those sales mentioned above). I could have easily waited the two years and just gone along happy with my PC or the Xbox One I picked up a couple of months after launch.
Though it’s not like the Xbox One fared all that much better for releases; I bought the console so I could play Titanfall, which was a mistake in and of itself… the first Titanfall is terrible. The sequel, which EA has gone out of its way to bury and kill, is one of the greatest first person shooter campaigns that has ever been made, and is absurdly fun to play. It was also available on other consoles, while the original was an Xbox exclusive.
I was on that console because my friends and I had been playing on the Xbox 360 together for years, so we stuck with the Xbox One… mostly for games like Call of Duty, Forza, and other multiplayer titles. That being said, I don’t even remember the last time I played a game on my Xbox One… it’s been just a streaming console for the rest of my family (anything else aside, it’s interface is vastly better than the PS4; didn’t start the generation that way, but certainly has ended it like that).
Xbox has, and has always had, the superior online experience over Sony’s “okay, just go do whatever” approach. Yeah, the original console announced had a lot of extra junk, and focused on a lot of features that few needed or wanted, but it still had a better core. What Sony did with the interface that was so smart was basically ripping off the 360 interface and making it all slick. Which was fine when the amount of titles and utility was limited, but really doesn’t work now with the place gaming is at and what consoles represent in most people’s lives.
Like I mentioned, my Xbox is mainly a streaming station. It’s got Disney+, Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime, CBS All Access when I need to watch some Star Trek (that reminds me, Lower Decks came out, so I suppose I should go renew it)… it’s also got Vudu, which is where most of my digital movies are. The Blu Ray drive crapped out on me ages ago, but I rarely pick up games on disc, and luckily, the PS4 has a Blu Ray for the movies I have there and don’t have digitally. My TV is older, and not a smart TV… even if it was, I likely wouldn’t use it, because I’ve never found a Smart TV interface that didn’t seem to be like some exercise in rage and hatred of the users.
FOMO got me in both of the consoles in the last generation, when I would have probably been better served enjoying my PS3 and Xbox 360 for longer. I did that with the PS3… waiting until the release of Uncharted 2 before I picked up the console. You know, like everyone else, because Sony charged a fortune for it and no one wanted to pay what they were asking. Marketing worked, and looking back on it, I want to kick myself for it.
I keep having to tell myself… the really good games won’t be out for some time. Yeah, we’ll get graphical overhauls of some late generation titles, and newer stuff like CyberPunk 2077 will run great (and other stuff like Watch Dogs Legion and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla will likely go unplayed for some pretty obvious reasons). I don’t have a 4K TV, and I don’t plan on getting one before the new consoles come out. With Xbox, everything is on Game Pass, and most, if not all, will also see a release on Windows as well.
There’s Marvel’s Spider-Man Miles Morales, slated as a launch title, which is either an expansion pack, a stand-alone game, or a “new experience” that’s bundled with a remaster of the old game. Sony and its own dev studio can’t seem to agree on the specifics. After that, until Horizon Forbidden West comes out, supposedly next year but likely 2022, there isn’t a marquee title that’s been officially announced. I’m not even aware of anything being rumored… there are some smaller titles, and the normal AAA stuff, but that’s about it.
For the Xbox Series X… I’ve got a PC, and I’ve got Game Pass. If I want the console, it honestly makes more sense from an investment standpoint… my Xbox One has been slowly dying and the drive doesn’t work. But do I even really need that, if I can play the games on PC and enjoy them? Their big title, Halo Infinite, just got delayed until 2021 and won’t be a launch title either, so is there much to chase after?
Does this Generation Even Make Sense?
In case you haven’t noticed… the world is kind of messed up right now. Do people even remember that the the fires in Australia were this year? I’m not going to do a run down of the life we’re all living… but let’s suffice it to say, it’s kinda been a year. What I will focus in on with that is the thing that’s often getting overshadowed by all of the other terrible things… the economy is kind of in the crapper right now.
I’m not talking about the stock market, which only tells us how the 1% and the companies that exploit us as consumers and workers are doing… I’m talking about the actual economy, production, and GDP. Here in the US, about 20% of the working population has filed an unemployment claim this year. The actual unemployment numbers are at a level worse than the great depression in the US, and the effects are rippling worldwide. Yeah, sorry world… you’ve all done better at this whole “actually doing something” in the face of a pandemic and meltdown, and we’re mostly at “it is what it is” and we’re yelling at store clerks because of a bit of cloth might accidentally help someone other than ourselves, and that’s un-American now.
All of that is to say… who is going to be able to buy these consoles? Yeah, there was a real boom in the market when lockdown started and we were all stuck at home, and there’s still demand that’s being pent up because the supply chain was so thoroughly emptied… but I have strong doubts of that carrying forward. Especially when you look at the real cost of a new console being likely a couple of hundred more than your initial investment, and that two of them are coming out at roughly the same time.
Yeah, Sony and Microsoft have poured a ton of money and R&D and marketing capital into making these consoles… and those are creating some jobs. But they’re also gigantic companies that could easily still put that effort into the existing generation, and hold off on this release because it’s not especially needed. The world won’t end if the PS5 and the Xbox Series X don’t come out this Christmas. I’ll survive, you’ll survive… everyone will be able to hold on a bit. They don’t need to whip up FOMO on this at a time when people are struggling to pay rent and groceries and medical bills.
There’s a weird mix here, as we’re a pop-culture site devoted to things that are all “nice to have” purchases. No one needs video games, LEGO, movies, or toys… but they all make our life better. All I’m saying that, right now, maybe we should be focusing on a bit more basic stuff and preparing for what’s ahead, because I’m going to let you in on an unfortunate truth – we’re not through the worst of this yet.
I won’t hold it against anyone who’s still excited for the new console generation, or who plans to buy one. I won’t hold it against anyone who wants to get both… only hope that you’re able to do it and get your bills paid while we wait for the Bell Riots and our United Earth future to finally start to materialize. I’m still not certain where I will fall in this, to be honest, or if the FOMO monster will get me despite repeating over and over and over that I don’t really need these things.
All I’m really saying is that this generation jump, more than a lot of them, feels forced and artificial. The game that they keep playing, pushing for technologies and forcing the upgrade or else, all feel wrong. Xbox is doing a better job, with at least giving an outlet for games that sit between generations to come out both places; Sony is taking a much harder stance, and they’re apparently already done with the PS4, as there are no more big releases slated for the system in their pipeline (the AAA companies will support it for a little while). The current generation of consoles look and play great, and more than ever before, it just doesn’t feel like we need to make the jump.
Beyond that, in the immediate hype cycles and the upcoming release… the consoles are going to still be around after Christmas. There’s an excitement to getting something new on launch day… followed by a sinking feeling when you see what you spent and realize there are only like two games even worth playing on it. The only way this cycle will change is if enough of us stop buying into it… or more tragically, aren’t able to buy into it because the world is a wet dumpster fire right now.