Console generations are dead
We are less than a month out from the ninth generation of video game consoles coming out. Fan boys are foaming at the mouth over their new shinny hardware that they may or may not have been lucky enough to snag a pre-order of. Sony and Xbox fan boys are launching fierce political like attacks at the other side for reasons which I will never understand. Everyone is waiting with baited breath for the heads of Sony and Xbox to release juicy details on the upcoming systems so they can complain online about small details that once they load a game up, they will never think about again. This is nothing new, but it's annoying as hell and is something that will fade away when we are all playing Cyberpunk 2077 in a couple months...Maybe...If it actually releases in December.
Looking back at the previous generations of console gaming, there has usually been a clear jump in performance, features and overall experience between generations. However those large generational leaps have become smaller refinements to the gaming experience that we have all come to expect. To understand how this generation may be the smallest advancement yet, it is important to understand the massive progress between generations that got us to this point and where we realistically have left to go.
The beginning of it all
While when most people think of "the first home console" they think about the Atari 2600. Even the fictional character and authority of all things video games/pop culture from the book Ready Player One, James Halliday mentions how his first console was the Atari 2600. I am sure the author of the book, Ernest Cline, picked that system since it is so iconic.
Side note, if you have not read Ready Player One and maybe just watched the movie and were underwhelmed. Do yourself a favor and read it or download the fantastic audio book narrated by Will Wheaton from Star Trek. Ready Player Two comes out next month!
The 2600 is not the first home system though, it is actually in the second generation of home consoles. The first generation was what we would probably be referred to as tech demos now a days. First gen consoles were amazing examples technology for the time, and usually would just play one game. Think of Pong... Things took off when the second generation of consoles came out. This is where the famous Atari 2600 debuted, along with the ColecoVision, and the Intellivision. The graphics were crude, but you could change out the games, and a limited selection of colors were possible. Things really advanced when the third gen of systems came out. This is when the titans of the industry emerged.
The Nintendo NES and the Sega Master System both defined the third generation of home consoles. New 8 bit graphics and identifiable characters brought the mightily struggling video game industry back into relevance. The third generation of consoles is where the linear progression of console generations really took off. There was a clear progression for multiple generations. 8 bit to 16 bit to 32/64 bit and so on. I think everyone has a memory of the first time they saw a next generation game for the first time. If we look at early games for each generation, using our favorite friend zoned plumber the advancements are easy to benchmark. You can see that as the generations advance, the changes in the later generations are harder and harder to notice. There are obvious improvements, but nothing like the early generational leaps.
Those "wow" moments have become fewer and fewer as the generations have gone by. looking at a PS3 game compared to a PS2 game was impressive, but it was still a 3D rendered game, just less ugly, and in a higher resolution. This progression was even less impressive when we moved into the current generation.
Developers and hardware manufacturers stopped chasing raw compute power, and instead had to start balancing graphics, frame rate and resolution. The N64 was designed to run on the same TV that the Atari 2600 was. In comparison, the PS3 (720/1080p), PS4/PS4 Pro (1080p/4k) and PS5 (4k/ 8k) were all aimed at different displays. Outside of the PC gaming world, before the current generation, no one really questioned a games frame rate, unless it dipped below the established 30 fps mark. The only time I noticed frame rates is when I was playing Goldeneye 007 on N64 and noticed the game chugging when there were multiple explosions and enemies on screen.
Now a developer catches hell if their game is not a buttery smooth 60fps at a crisp 4k. A dev can create a beautiful detailed massive open world game that blurs the line between video games and reality, but if it runs at 25fps, then no one will buy it. The current climate of gaming is a balance of how pretty your game looks and how smooth/fast it can run. Not every company has the luxury spending the better part of a decade working on one game like Rockstar and CD Projekt Red. The result is a compromise of graphics and performance that is great, but not the giant leap of previous generations.
What is Happening Now in the Industry?
Some customers don't really care about life like graphics and just want to have fun gaming. This the Nintendo Switch crowd. They would rather play Mario Kart than God of War. So basic rules of capitalisms dictate that if there is a demand, someone will supply it. There are a handful of Switch game exceptions that try to compete graphically with Xbox and Sony and to be honest they just highlight how underpowered the Switch is.
The Switch is vital to the gaming industry as it will bring in an entire new generation of gamers playing Pokemon, Mario, Zelda, Smash Bro's, and Animal Crossing. These kids will eventually grow into more serious gamers that will graduate to an Xbox or PlayStation customer. It also grabs older gamers who may not want to buy a cutting edge TV and undertake a 100 hour RPG or play the newest Call of Duty to be destroyed by 10 year old's online. I have said before how much I love my Switch for shorter casual play sessions sitting on the couch.
They have also found creative ways to breath life into old games like the new Mario 35 which turns the original Mario Bro's into a 35 person battle royal or Mario Kart Home Circuit, that uses a real RC car with a camera mounted on top, to turn your living room into the track on your Switch. This is the innovation that Nintendo is king of, over bleeding edge graphics.
Microsoft has made it clear that they honestly do not really care how you play their games, just as long as you are playing them. Right now I can play Halo Master Chief Collection on my Xbox One, PC, and Android phone all without losing my place in the game.
This is the direction that Microsoft feels that the industry is going and when you are big enough to buy Bethesda on a whim, the industry tends to move where you want it to. The $15/month I spend on Gamepass Ultimate, more than pays for itself when you look at how many first party and 3rd party AAA come to the service. This service has a ton of potential when you look at the shopping spree Microsoft has been on the last few years. Gamepass will eventually house franchises like Fallout, Elder Scrolls, Starfield, Doom, Halo, Forza, Fable, Gears, Avowed, Flight Sim, Minecraft, State of Decay, and future games from powerhouse studios that have yet to show off their new projects. I predict that the Xbox Series X/S will stumble out of the gate this November, but eventually win the next "console war" with how many studios they have brought under their umbrella.
Sony is taking the most traditional console route out of the big three, focusing on more power, smoother game play, and high resolution single player console exclusives. Their hardware features mostly the same guts as the new Xbox, but it is featuring a quicker SSD hard drive to make their new games feel even faster than ever before. Sony has always enjoyed a stellar lineup of popular exclusives titles, and that is what they are counting on this generation as well.
The PS4 lineup was the bane of most Xbox fans existence, and something that I can see them expanding on that as they have found some franchises that really established themselves on the PS4 like Horizon Zero Dawn, God of War, Spiderman, Last of Us and Ghost of Tsushima. Sony will have the massive advantage of an almost 2:1 player base compared to the Xbox One player base at launch. However with how hard Microsoft is pushing Gamepass, and lowering the barriers to entry with game streaming to mobile devices and expanding their lineup of titles available on PC, Sony may have to look for ways to expand their own user base. If you want the traditional console experience, Sony is going to be your best bet. However that does not mean you are going to amazing jumps in visuals anytime soon.
PC and Hardware
This is the destination everyone is going to ultimately end up at. I am not saying eventually everyone will be a PC gamer, I am positive there will always be a home console. However this generation is more like a PC than any other generation before with maybe the exception of the original Xbox which was pretty much a "prebuilt" gaming PC. The next generation of consoles will feature NVMe SSD's hard drives, AMD Zen 3 CPU's and "RDNA2" GPU's. There are real world counterparts that you can put into a gaming PC.
There are no distinct generations in the PC gaming world. Sure there are new components that let you get more performance out of your system, and make your games look better or play at a higher frame rate/resolution, but there is no defined generations. Think of PC gaming as a ramp vs the staircase of console gaming. This is where the console industry has arrived to. We are already seeing mid cycle upgrades with the current generation, much like someone would upgrade their graphics card (GPU), but not their entire PC. A top of the line GPU from 2 years ago will hang with a Xbox Series X or PS5 today. An entry level GPU from 4 years ago will hang with a Xbox One or PS4. This flexibility along with the ever increasing amount Xbox games on Gamepass and Sony bringing more PlayStation titles to PC convinced me to skip the next generation of systems and build a new gaming PC. I am still waiting to snag a new GPU, but my old entry level GPU (1050ti) out of my old emulation PC is doing just fine for now. It really shows how flexible gaming PC's are.
The PC gaming model is where we are all seem heading. A gradual improvement over time, with more control over the experience. I hope that Sony and Microsoft give console players the freedom that PC players enjoy. If they want to play games at 1080p, but with the best graphics and highest frame rates, they should have the option. Not everyone wants to play games at 4k and sacrifice frame rate or graphics.
The advancements that we have seen since the release of the Atari 2600 are truly amazing for a consumer entertainment product. This is not industrial tech or medical advancements. This is innovating how we all save the princess from a mean turtle. Part of me thinks that we have or are approaching the point of diminishing returns. How much better do we really need out games to look? Do we want Call of Duty to look much more lifelike? Do we really need to see Spiderman look exactly like a Marvel movie? Maybe eventually, but right now I think most of us want a game to run smooth vs looking photo realistic. We need this sliding scale of graphics, FPS and resolution at least until we can all agree on a TV format. So until we are all watching 8k 240hz refresh rate TV's lets give the console generations a break and find the best option for us.
As always thanks for taking the time to read this and come hang out on the Emulate This Discord to discuss whatever is on your mind!