The gaming industry is simultaneously enabled and limited by what is under the hood of our favorite game machines. Consoles are essentially mass-produced computers designed with gaming in mind and they set a benchmark by which developers can exert their programming panache. However, just as new hardware allows the proverbial stretching of legs, aging hardware transforms that freedom into confines by which ever-growing ambition is stymied. This ongoing dilemma in gaming has perplexed console-makers since home consoles became a standard in 1985, but the recent strategy employed to combat rapidly advancing technology has been iterative hardware.
A persistent problem in the gaming industry, the rapid advancement of technology dictates a pace that laps the traditional lifecycle of a console. Five years was typical for a gaming machine, with the previous generation lasting an astounding eight because of the economic crisis. This was a general rule of thumb, as it allowed for periodic advancements in hardware that improved power for developers. While longer cycles allow publishers to make more money on games, they have the added detriment of capping potential hardware sales.
Revised models have always been the solution to this issue, with these revisions usually adding a few new features or a lower price point while adding little in terms of power. So, realistically, unless a player’s console stopped working, there was never any real need to purchase a newer addition. They existed but were not essential. So how does a console-maker persuade the consumer to continue to purchase hardware while simultaneously giving developers additional tools? That’s right: iterating.
The PlayStation 4 Pro (PS4 Pro) was the first major domino to fall in our iterative reality. Capitalizing on an increasingly informed audience fluent in the language it was speaking, Sony released its half-step console to refresh the experience players were enjoying while simultaneously shaking more coin out of the pockets of established PS4 owners. It was essentially a win-win; players could capitalize on the increased fidelity of their television sets with the increased performance and Sony could continue to make money on hardware 3 years after the launch of the PS4 from the same consumers who helped launch its success. In other words, it was smart business.
This seems to be the trend that the industry giants are all leaning into. With Xbox One lagging behind, Microsoft is set to introduce Scorpio later this year. While we know little about this console and its nature, we do know the specs, which is an odd thing to publicize upon initial reveal. What this tells me is that rather than being a brand new concept, Scorpio will instead build upon the Xbox One and deliver a large leap in performance for that audience. While you might think that it would be smarter to simply beat Sony to the punch on the next console cycle and leave Nintendo and Switch in the dust, there is another benefit to iterative hardware that has been recently enabled by the shift to more universal PC hardware: playerbase
Despite being behind the PS4 almost 2:1, Xbox One has been incredibly successful on the market. A Game Informer article reports that the playerbases for PS4 and Xbox One are outpacing the historically successful PlayStation 2 and Xbox 360, meaning that more players are invested in the hardcore console space than ever before. Another recent report states that PS4’s attach rate is a little over 7.5, which is a fantastic number. It can be inferred that Xbox One could have a similar number, illustrating the success of the platforms. If the two consoles are selling extraordinarily well and players are continuing to buy games, what incentive is there to hit the reset button with a new generation? Unlike the Xbox 360’s kickstart of the HD generation, a massive leap forward for games, there isn’t massive, obvious technological upgrade potential for a new machine to capitalize on. Though 4K is great, the technology is far from standard or essential. Also, after the long wind of the PlayStation 3 and 360, I don’t believe players are ready to leave behind their current systems. Simply put, the market isn’t ripe for another Microsoft head start, so why not hit refresh instead?
Every new generation sees the same narrative. The console wars commence and the battle between friends and strangers over gaming supremacy begins. Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo have all been burned by this generational shift in recent memory. Do you think that Sony would have loved to keep the 150 million PS2 players in their ecosystem on PS3? Does Microsoft wish that the Xbox 360 playerbase would have all migrated to Xbox One instead of jumping to PS4? Nintendo obviously wanted to keep Wii players in the family with the Wii U, just as they wanted to keep DS owners in-house with 3DS. Releasing a new console is always a risk, but that risk can be mitigated if hardware is refreshed rather than reset.
So how does PC architecture mitigate this? Well, in my opinion it is the most important factor in making iterative hardware successful. Just as games can be played at many different settings on a PC, moving to PC innards for consoles allows them to similarly scale. This means that a machine like PS4 Pro can play the same games as a base PS4, only at a higher graphical fidelity. In theory, this would mean that a new machine would be able to play current generation games and set another benchmark for what developers can accomplish. While development would advance toward the new machine, players could potentially play scaled down versions on current consoles in addition to their available libraries. Eventually, similar to the upgrade from 3DS to New 3DS, certain games would require the hardware advancements while others wouldn’t necessarily need them. PC flexibility allows for cleaner upgrades and transitions for developers and consumers.
I would bet money that the Scorpio will allow Xbox One players to continue their libraries on the new machine, just as many 360 games are playable on Xbox One. If a player already has an established collection of Xbox games and the next machine is compatible with them, their incentive to upgrade to Scorpio would be much higher than the incentive to jump over to the inevitable PS5. PC architecture makes it possible for Scorpio to exist alongside the Xbox One and be nurtured in the same ecosystem until such a time that the One is abandoned in favor of its teraflop-infused brethren.
Thus, iterative hardware solves a few common industry problems. It allows power to continually evolve with a platform while also incentivizing players to continue to purchase hardware from the same console-maker. It makes too much sense to not continue, as the market has grown accustomed to periodic upgrades to technology through the smartphone industry. Now that PS4 Pro has set a standard with a substantial, but not truly game-changing, jump in power, I truly believe that we will never see a true hardware reset ever again. Scorpio may reset the Xbox brand in terms of strategy and message, but it will most likely allow consumers to have community consistency.
While not a massive talking point currently, Nintendo is also set up nicely for the iterative present. Because the Switch is actually two separate units, a tablet and a dock, it is easy to imagine upgradable parts being made available as time goes on. Recent rumors state that Nintendo is planning either an upgradeable dock for the Switch or a plugin that would give the system a boost in power. This would go a long way in ensuring the system’s relevance beyond this year as it prepares to compete with Scorpio and the as-of-yet unannounced PS4 successor. Switch is already based on flexible Nvidia hardware that has already seen upgrades, meaning that it is similarly flexible to the innards of its console cousins. Nintendo has also set a precedent for iterative hardware, with the New 3DS featuring a noticeable performance boost to the point where it has exclusive games. This move proved that Nintendo was not afraid to eventually fracture its own market, the biggest risk with the iterative concept. If even Nintendo is on board with a hardware strategy, it must be a fairly universal and lucrative prospect.
While it is obvious that gaming has shifted toward iteration, the change could cause the loss of something that had always made console gaming unique: simplicity. If players had a console it was guaranteed to play the games associated with it. But with iteration, this simplicity, while still inherent to the space, is whittled away. While it will never be as complex as the PC realm, what with graphics cards and the like, there will still be benchmarks that fragment the audience. It will be up to marketing and public relations teams to clearly message these inevitable shifts so that they are understood by the public. Just as certain mobile games are not compatible with older smartphones, there will come a time when a launch PS4 will no longer be good enough. This problem is on the horizon, and is the largest hurdle for consumers to wrap their collective minds around.
So whether we are ready or not, the iterative future is no longer a future; it is here. It simply makes too much sense to the bottom line for it to be avoided any longer. Whether it comes in the form of half-steps like PS4 Pro or in larger leaps like Scorpio is uncertain, however it is apparent that the machines that we have will be acknowledged as obsolete by their manufacturers every 3-4 years. While it is sad to see the neat organization and simplicity of console generations fade away, I am excited to see where this constantly refreshing ecosystem leads us. All three consoles are in prime positions to be upgraded, and we can fully expect that position to be capitalized on. Only time will tell whether it is a healthy or harmful development.
Brett Williams is an Associate Writer for MONG who has accounted for approximately 487,826 of the new Breath of the Wild trailer’s 6.5 million views. Gets him every time. You can follow his nonexistent ramblings on twitter.