Now that Sony has shown the new PlayStation, what comes next for consoles?
After months of rumors, partial confirmations, and leaks, Sony has officially confirmed two new consoles – the remodeled PlayStation 4, and the more powerful PlayStation 4 Pro. The announcement comes a few months after Microsoft announced similar plans with its redesigned Xbox One and the upcoming Project Scorpio.
This will be the second time that both Microsoft and Sony have released new models of consoles mid-life cycle – both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 had mid-life redesigns – but this is the first time they have released more powerful iterations of existing hardware. That raises the question of what comes next for console gaming.
Here are four of the most likely options.
The Next Generation
The expected option is for Microsoft and Sony to join Nintendo in releasing a completely new console, kicking off the ninth generation fo consoles. The next Xbox and PlayStation 5 would potentially be significant advancements over the current hardware, offering new features and more powerful games.
If Sony and Microsoft stick with the last few generations’ time frames, the new hardware will come out in 2020 or 2021. Nintendo has already upended that plan a bit with the looming release of the Nintendo NX in 2017, it isn’t relying on more powerful hardware to sell systems.
Nintendo’s decision to release a new console four and a half years after the release of the Wii U was also necessitated by the failure of that previous system. The PS4 and Xbox One are both doing well – Sony’s system is doing much better than Microsoft’s at the moment, but both are doing well enough that no one at either company should be worried. So if both stick to previous patterns, you can expect to see the ninth generation (not counting the NX), within four or five years.
This idea has been kicked around before, but it seems somewhat unlikely. The concept is simple enough – someone will release a gaming system that can be upgraded in the same way a PC can be upgraded. Rather than releasing a system like the new PS4 Pro that plays 4K games, owners of a modular system could just replace the graphics card. Need better audio? Buy a new card and slide it in.
Granted, it would likely be more complicated than that, but rather than buying a new console every few years gamers would just buy new pieces. It would essentially be a PC, just with a restricted and standardized ecosystem controlled by a single company (or companies through licensing).
It sounds simple enough, but part of what makes consoles so appealing to many is their ease of use. There is no question that you can do more with a gaming PC and play more powerful games, but you also need to deal with the negatives of modern computing. Consoles don’t generally have issues with viruses, and they don’t slow down (much) because of multiple programs competing for resources. It’s a limitation, but also one of console gaming’s greatest strengths. You turn on the console and hit a button or two and you’re set. It’s computer entertainment made easy.
A modular console would offer the power of a PC with the ease of a console. Eventually the hardware would need to be completely replaced, but it would significantly extend the lifespan of the system. Console manufacturers would also have the option of selling new hardware without alienating developers that spend years working within one set of guidelines.
The odds of this happening are fairly low. A modular console would be complicated to design, and ultimately it would be somewhat restrictive.
Either the manufacturer would continually put out new replacement hardware, which would run the risk of alienating the gamers encouraged to buy those parts, or it would create a console that would last 10+ years – and that’s not a good thing. It would stifle the potential of console gaming. Technology moves quickly in 10 years, and even with a modular system the console would reach a point where it is out of date.
Perhaps more damaging, modular consoles might be able to run the most sophisticated games but it would also cripple innovation.The PS4 and Xbox One weren’t huge jumps over their predecessors in terms of what they offered, but both introduced interesting features and additions. The new Kinect may not have taken off like Microsoft hoped, but it was something new. Sharing streaming video, taking pictures, watching others play – none of these could have been possible on the older hardware. Even if the additions are small, having the potential to make major changes is an important part of console gaming.
No More Consoles
There have been a lot of stories floating around that this is the last generation of consoles. Gaming will continue to grow, but consoles’ days are numbered.
Longtime gaming analyst, Wedbush Securities’ Michael Pachter, believes the PS4 and Xbox One are the last of their kind. His theory is that microprocessors are advancing so quickly, especially when it comes to mobile devices, that within the next few years we won’t need a separate device to play games. Instead, we’ll be able to use a device like a phone or tablet that has the power to play the next generation of games. You’ll be able to take your games with you anywhere, then simply dock them into a TV. That puts a lot of faith int he future of mobile tech. It also discounts the potential of the gaming industry, which will likley require more tech power rather than less.
“I don’t think we need consoles at all. I think we do today, because they provide that microprocessor that is fast and connected to your television,” he said. “But I think in the next five years, you are going to see the content makers embrace their high-quality fast microprocessor games on any device, anywhere.”
Of course, Pachter has an exceptionally bad track record spanning decades. In 2006, he boldly announced that Nintendo would be forced out of the console market due to the failure of the Wii (the Wii then went on to becoming one of the best-selling systems of all time). He also claimed with confidence that the Xbox One would crush the PS4, even as most people in the industry, journalists and experts alike, saw Sony as having the clear advantage. He’s also been wrong about pricing, release dates, game plots, and much more.
Pachter’s record is so bad that his predicting the end of consoles seems like a good indicator of the exact opposite. One thing potentially backing him up are the rumors of the Nintendo NX, which is said to be essentially a large tablet that can be played on the go and docked. It could be a huge hit, but that doesn’t mean it will define the future of consoles any more than the Wii did when it sold over 100 million units by appealing to non-gamers.
Iterations of Consoles (the smartphone path)
This may be the most likely scenario.
We may now be seeing the future of console gaming playing out through the new Microsoft and Sony systems. Gaming consoles may move to a development cycle closer to smartphones and tablets, with gradual iterations coming out that don’t necessarily replace the old systems, but they do offer new features older models don’t. The timeframe will be different though.
Consoles won’t come out annually. Even if there were some form of subsidized deal, the R&D is too costly. Most consoles initially sell for a loss due to the costs of the new components and the development that went into them, so even if it were practical to release a new system each year – or even each two years – it wouldn’t make financial sense for the manufacturers.
Instead, what may happen is we’ll see a new, upgraded version of the existing console every three or four years. The new system will play the existing games, just better. Maybe they will offer something the older hardware doesn’t – better VR support, for example – but it won’t be a required purchase for gaming fans.
This is arguably the best way forward for everyone involved – including developers.
As of May 2016, after two and a half years, the PS4 had sold around 40 million units, nearly doubling the PS3’s 22 million units sold after three full years. The Xbox One is trailing Sony’s sytem with a respectable 20 million or so units sold – that’s not far off of the Xbox 360’s sales at the same point in its life; Microsoft sold 28 million units in three years.
Although the PS3 and Xbox 360 launched a year apart, if you add up their sales after three years, together they sold roughly 50 million units. After less than three years, their predecessors have sold well over 60 million. Granted, those current numbers don’t factor in the Wii’s 101 million units sold, but the current generation is doing well. So much so that consoles aren’t going anywhere.
Another thing in favor of consoles sticking around is that developers like having a ready-made market. If a developer releases a game on PS4 and Xbox One, it has a potential audience of 60 million gamers (not counting the people that have both systems). And if a game runs on a console it will run on a PC, while the same is not always true. Developing for consoles just makes sense from a business standpoint.
If console makers can continue to put out hardware that gradually increases the hardware capabilities without completely changing the hardware architecture, it will make the development process easier and make games more financially secure. Teams can plan titles five years out and not worry about having to keep up with the hardware, and they would be selling to larger audiences.
Sony is currently promising that a PS4 game is a PS4 game without exception. If you play a PS4 titles on a PS4 Pro, it will look better, but you don’t need that new hardware to play the game – the games will work on both system. That might change one day and they could sneak in a “PS4 Pro exclusive,” but if not, if games remain the same and the hardware just gives users more options, people could be playing PS4 games five years or more from now, even if they are playing the game on different systems.
Microsoft has hinted at something similar as well.
“For us, we think the future is without console generations,” Microsoft’s Aaron Greenberg told Engadget. “We think that the ability to build a library, a community, to be able to iterate with the hardware–we’re making a pretty big bet on that with Project Scorpio. We’re basically saying, ‘This isn’t a new generation; everything you have continues forward and it works.’ We think of this as a family of devices.”
Eventually, games will become too powerful for the oldest hardware in the family, but if the transition is gradual, over the course of multiple new hardware releases, it would be easier to accept.
We might have one more generation of consoles to go before we see the introduction of upgrade cycle, but it would make sense for all involved. Developers would extend their audiences, manufacturers would have more options, and gamers would have longer console lifespans.
Game manufacturers need to plan years out, but things can still change quickly – the rapid growth of mobile gaming is evidence of that. The PS4 Pro and Microsoft’s Project Morpheus are unproven both as hardware and as concepts. Will gamers accept a new mid-life system? Will developers resist the urge to develop for the new hardware and only the new hardware? Time will tell.
Despite the naysayers, the console market is doing well. Aside from the new mid-life systems, there is still VR to look forward to, streaming games continues to grow in popularity, and software updates continue to add new features. The games on the eighth generation arguably took five or six years to really push the systems, and we haven’t even hit the three-year mark. Plus, more and more entertainment is moving to an app format, which favors the PS4 and Xbox One.
The console market is without question in flux, but it is also still going strong. This coming year stands to be a transformative one for gaming0 with Project Scorpio and the Nintendo NX joining the PS4 Pro, which is due out in November 2016. How the market reacts will likely determine what happens next. 2017 is going to be an interesting year.