New consoles already? The damage of a generation cut short

Last Updated July 5th, 2021

Gaming without generations. That was the big buzzword at Microsoft’s E3 press conference this year, but it seems to be a philosophy that all major first party companies are following. New consoles are coming and are coming soon, and while users everywhere are clamoring about a generation cut too short, Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo are swearing “this will be different.”

According to the big three, these new consoles aren’t a new generation. This is the death of generations all together and the adoption of a new, more amorphous console model. But is that really what’s best for the console fanbase, or are these companies reaching for a market that they have already lost?

Like Most Things, It Started With Nintendo

Nintendo was put into an odd situation this console generation. Having achieved great success in the previous generation with the mass appeal of the motion controlled Wii, they attempted to recapture the magic with the Wii U, this time with touch controls. The company had a lot of good ideas, like allowing controllers from the last generation work with this new generation’s hardware. Unfortunately lightning didn’t strike twice, and the Wii U, as you all know, has seen disappointing sales. 

This happened for many reasons. Nintendo’s marketing for the Wii U was an absolute failure. While they named it to bring back memories of the Wii’s success, they didn’t count on the causal market not understanding that the Wii U was a separate console. “Why do I need a new Wii?” less experienced game purchasers would ask, “my old Wii works fine!” Even today you can find confused parents entering game stores unaware that the Wii U isn’t just a high priced peripheral.

There were business problems as well. Once again, Nintendo decided to make their platform different from all others. While the PS3 and Xbox 360 showed us that gamers were ready for the world of online gaming, the Wii was mostly an offline console. So when online became standard with the PS4 and Xbox One, the Wii U was still futzing around with friend codes. Its internal drive was way too small to allow for digital distribution, which is now the more popular way to purchase games. Its architecture was hard to develop for, and the need to include touch and motion controls in nearly every game ostracized every developer except for Nintendo’s own internal studios.

The Wii U ended up being a console that could play Nintendo games and Nintendo games only, and even with Nintendo’s huge properties like Mario, Smash Bros., Mario Kart, Kirby, and more producing fantastic titles on the console, it simply didn’t have the mass market appeal that its competitors did.

Nintendo wasn’t making money and no amount of Zelda, Pikmin, or Star Fox was going to fix that. So they decided to try their luck with creating a better console.

Nintendo has been doing this for some time in the handheld world. The Gameboy, the very first Nintendo handheld, was repeatedly released in smaller versions with sharper screens until the Gameboy Color came along as a sort of half generation step between it and the next true new handheld, the Gameboy Advance. Ever since then, Nintendo has continued this policy of half-steps, releasing products such as the Game Boy Advance SP, Nintendo DSi, and New Nintendo 3DS.

But in the console world, this was still new territory. Yes, consoles every so often go “slim”, but these models were basically the same guts in a smaller package. Slim consoles never offered new functionality, outside of increased hard drive size in some circumstances.

How could they make it work?

Enter, the NX.

Sony and Microsoft Say “Me Too!”

Nintendo’s situation is complicated. The Wii U was a failure so the NX had to be something new enough that gamers who didn’t adopt the Wii U might want to buy. At the same time, the NX couldn’t be a completely new console generation, as that would alienate the loyal fans that did adopt the Wii U. That brings us to the rumors we have now of a “half-step” console generation, one that will play NX exclusive games, but that will also play Wii U games (and possibly even 3DS games if some rumors are true.)

As of now, we still don’t know what the NX is going to be. However, we do know that it’s going to be based around a digital distribution system. Nintendo has also said that the NX will not make the same mistakes that the Wii U did. This has led many to believe that the NX will be a Wii U that has finally caught up with the times (expanded hard-drives, online functionality, so on so forth). Nintendo is still keeping the details of their new console under wraps, even though it’s planned to launch in March of next year.

We have a mystery on our hands…

And not just us. Sony and Microsoft now also had a mystery on their hands. The NX is a large gamble on Nintendo’s part, and it could just dig a deeper hole for them this console generation. But on the off chance that the NX did explode in popularity, Sony and Microsoft needed a competing console. If they didn’t deliver and the NX took off, the PS4 and Xbox One could start to slip. Us gamers love our new tech.

But Sony and Microsoft had already been doing pretty well this generation, Sony especially as the market leader. Splitting their fanbase with totally new consoles would be foolish. Thus, Sony and Microsoft announced their own plans for the PS Neo and Project Scorpio. These new systems would, much like the rumored NX, support all past PS4 and Xbox One software, but would come with some cool new features. What are those features you ask? Well, our constantly evolving technology gave Sony and Microsoft the perfect excuses to create these new half-step consoles, and those excuses are virtual reality and 4K TV. These new consoles would be optimized for the latest tech, but wouldn’t play any games that the PS4 and Xbox One couldn’t also play.

A Market Divided Cannot Stand

This all sounds great on paper. People who have a ton of money can buy these new consoles and enjoy games on their swanky 4K TVs and VR headsets, while everyone else still gets to play games on their old hardware. But, as is usually the case, things that sound good on paper break down in practice.

The first problem for these half-generation consoles will inevitably be the hidden costs associated with upgrading. Microsoft’s Phil Spencer has already said that Project Scorpio won’t do anything for you if you don’t have a 4K TV, but that was in an interview and hasn’t been communicated in their advertising blitz. 4K TVs are running anywhere from 800-1600 dollars, depending on their size. Put together with a full priced console, you are looking at a 1000-2000 dollar investment to play games that can already be played on a device you likely already own.

VR is another issue. Most people who were going to be early adopters of VR have done so already. The only people that haven’t are the dedicated console crowd who were waiting for PlayStation VR. Now, PSVR will work on the standard PlayStation 4, so there’s little reason to upgrade to a PlayStation Neo unless the graphical performance of PSVR is better on that console. However, once again you are looking at 400 dollars for the PSVR and a full console price for the PS Neo – and if you had 800 dollars lying around you could have just purchased an HTC Vive. (Or, more to the point, you likely did purchase an HTC Vive.) One of the big appeals of the PSVR was its cheap price point, and, heck, Microsoft hasn’t even announced VR support on the Xbox One!

It’s hard to justify the cost of upgrading to any of these new consoles unless they provide some awesome feature that the old ones do not. However, that’s exactly what Microsoft and Sony have said they were trying to avoid. They want all software this “generation” to be usable by older and newer consoles. The moment that one title is only playable on a newer console this generation is over, and if that happens in the next few years, gamers who bought their PS4s and Xbox Ones as an investment for an eight year long console cycle will get very upset.

Then there’s the problems inherit in developing for two different consoles at once. Anyone who owns a PC knows that games developed for high-resolution do not look great on lower settings. However, games developed for lower specs look fine on those rigs and unimpressive on better rigs. We are going to see the same problem here. Anything developed for new consoles will look horrible on old consoles and vice versa. This alone will cause a split between the people who had money to burn and those of us who work jobs with a more reasonable pay grade…like game journalism.

That split inherently devalues any piece of software that comes out during this generation. No matter how “universal” developers make a game, it will inevitably be designed for power-users or low-end users first, which means it will have reduced appeal for at least half the market.

All Praise Our Glorious PC-User Overlords

Wait a minute? Power-users? Upgrade costs? Haven’t we all heard this somewhere before?

That’s right. This is all stuff that PC users have been dealing with since the first PC game was created.

And that’s exactly why this “gaming without generations” philosophy is damaging to the console mindset.

Let’s ask a question. Why are some of us PC gamers while others are console gamers? Here’s a hint, the answer isn’t “exclusives.” While some folks likely did choose to game on the PC because of Starcraft and on consoles because of Mario, the vast majority of games these days are multi-platform. Heck, exclusives can’t even reliably be used to choose between an Xbox One and PS4.  Nintendo is the only company with a large library of exclusives anymore, and they have the least market-share.

Rather, the more likely explanation is the split between power-users and casual users. PC gamers traditionally had to keep track of a lot of different variables in order to successfully play games. Does this game work with my processor, my graphics card, or even my operating system? Do I need to purchase my own controller or can I use KBAM? How stable is it and what do I do if it crashes? For PC gamers, these questions might seem simple, but to someone with less PC knowledge they are monumental.

But consoles solved that problem. Consoles kept to one hardware standard and couldn’t be upgraded. You were certain that if you purchased a game for a console you owned, it would play. Keeping to this one hardware standard made console games more stable and minimized crashes, as well as eliminating any need to screw around with operating systems or program files.

There’s also an element of cost. No matter how often you see articles saying “you can build a VR ready PC for 500 dollars!” that’s a difficult process that limits your computer’s functionality. To have a solid gaming PC that will last a whole generation, you usually have to spend more money either upfront or over time with upgrades. Consoles allowed you to pay one price and be done for the generation. They only had to do one thing: play games, so you could get comparable performance with lower specs on a console. This also lowered a console’s price, which was a huge selling point.

Except, this new “gaming without generations” philosophy has turned all of that on its head. While a low end 4K TV requires you to drop a cool thousand, a similar 4K monitor only costs about 200 dollars. Granted, a lot of that has to do with size, but that’s another plus of PC gaming. You don’t need a huge monitor to enjoy your games. These new consoles are theorized to retail at around 600 dollars, but for the same cost you could get a new Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 and have better graphical performance, or even go a step down for cheaper and have comparable performance. For that matter, anyone with a relatively recent graphics card doesn’t even need to upgrade in order to take advantage of VR. These new power consoles are MORE expensive than PC upgrades, not less.

And that’s a problem in a world where PC gaming is already starting to overtake console gaming, according to a recent ESA survey. PCs can already play most games that a console can, along with their own exclusives. They can also play Microsoft supported titles for the Xbox One.  PC versions of games tend to be cheaper, and with a little knowhow you can squeeze more performance out of your PC version than your console version. After all, PC versions are the only versions that support modding. This might just increase the speed at which console gamers migrate to PC platforms, possibly sticking with some old hardware for exclusives like Persona 5 or God of War.

But What About Nintendo?

The majority of this article talks about the repercussions of the PS Neo and Project Scorpio, but what about the NX. Wii U games cannot be played on PC. In fact, they can’t be played on any other platform.

There is the hidden genius in Nintendo’s plan. You see, by Sony and Microsoft saying “me too” they are decreasing the value of their existing properties. But Nintendo announcing a new console will increase the value of their properties. If the NX is actually worth buying, it will allow people to play all those awesome Wii U games, provided that they weren’t an early adopter of the Wii U. Trust us, there are more people without a Wii U than with. Worst case scenario, Nintendo is where they are now. Best case scenario, the NX is the new hotness.

So does this mean Nintendo is going to grasp a come from behind victory in this generation’s console war with the NX?

Not quite.

Nintendo is still splitting their fanbase like everyone else. They only won’t be affected as much by the split because fewer people early adopted the Wii U. This E3 they had very little to show, and the only thing holding up Nintendo right now is faith in them as a software developer. If their software base gets split, and their lineup gets thinned, the reasons to get a Nintendo console drop as well.

And here is the dirty little secret that Nintendo doesn’t want you to know. They have seen how sales stack up in the handheld sphere. Whenever a half generation handheld comes out, sales are never as good as when the handheld first released. The NX’s success will, in a large part, come down to marketing. If Nintendo can convince the populace that the NX is new, different, and most certainly not a Wii, then it stands something of a chance. That’s not a satisfying or glamorous answer, especially for the general gaming populace who wants to believe games only live or die based on their quality, but it’s the truth.

But Nintendo has done some damage in their own way. They have set a dangerous precedent with their move to the NX. That precedent is the ability to “end” a console generation when you fail. While failing console manufacturers certainly like to get a jump on the next generation, rarely have they cut a generation short the way Nintendo did. If this becomes the standard practice, and if “gaming without generations” really does become the norm, we could be looking at upgrades every 2-4 years from this point onward, an upgrade cycle that, once again, isn’t very appealing to the console market.

In the end, console manufacturers seem to be trying to appeal to PC gamers more and more. Ever since last generation, consoles have been marketed more as catch all media devices than just game playing machines. But the PC crowd already has a catch all media device: the PC. There’s little that would make them switch over to consoles other than exclusives, and exclusives are in limited supply. So instead of appealing to PC users, they just alienate console users.

So maybe Microsoft is right. Maybe we will see the death of the console generation soon. Because if things stay as they are and the PC migration continues, we may just see the death of the console, period.