Since time immemorial (30 or so years) video game consoles have followed a pretty predictable pattern. New sets of consoles tend to come out around the same time and stick around for five to seven years before being replaced with a new generation of hardware. That may be changing with the latest consoles, along with a host of other ideas gamers have taken for granted for the past few decades. What’s going on? Let’s take a look at the weird things that are brewing for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and whatever Nintendo device is cooking up.
In previous console generations for nearly every system, you’d buy a piece of hardware and it would sit under your TV unchanged for years until you bought the next new thing.
Now, both Microsoft and Sony seem to be planning to introduce more powerful versions of their current hardware. Xbox head Phil Spencer said he wants Xbox to be more like the iPhone, with new, more powerful iterations coming out regularly. This would keep the system fresh and competitive on a technical level with other devices. Kotaku reports that Sony is contemplating a similar mid-generation power boost for PlayStation 4.
In other words, both companies want to keep up with competing devices so their hardware doesn’t look dated next to PCs and even phones and tablets. One report suggests that graphics on phones and tablets may surpass consoles as early as 2017.
This would probably be good for console makers, because they could sell new hardware to existing customers before the generation is through. It’s less certain that it would be good for gamers, because it would cost them more and could potentially block them from playing certain games if they were exclusive to newer versions of the hardware. In any case, releasing more powerful versions of existing hardware is a relatively new idea for video game consoles.
Endless backwards compatibility
Microsoft has made great strides in terms of backwards compatibility, which lets gamers play a growing number of Xbox 360 games on their Xbox One consoles. Mr. Spencer said he envisions a future in which gamers can keep playing their old Xbox games on new hardware as future Xbox consoles come out — much like you can on PC.
If it works as planned, this is unequivocally good news for gamers, who tend to either box up or sell old games each time a new console is released. If the latest system could always play games for previous systems, you’d never have to leave your old video game library behind.
Sony has a program that’s somewhat similar called PlayStation Now, a subscription service that lets you play PS3 games on your PS4. Now if only Sony made it free for you to play older games you owned …
Exclusives also on PC
It used to be that exclusive games were exclusive, meaning you could only play them on a single platform. That idea seems to be losing cachet, since a number of high-profile exclusives lately, from both Sony and Microsoft, are launching on PC as well. Quantum Break is a big Xbox exclusive, but it’s also coming to PC. Sony snagged Street Fighter V as an exclusive, but it launched on PC as well.
Microsoft recently said it’s willing to offer cross-platform online play between Xbox One and PC, as well as “other systems,” which clearly means PlayStation 4 and Nintendo’s upcoming system that’s set to be unveiled (and possibly released) later this year.
If cross-platform play happens on a large enough scale, it wouldn’t matter which game console your friends have. As long as you own the same game, you’d be able to play together. That would be great. The only problem is there’s not a whole lot of evidence Sony is interested. Still, even if cross-platform play is limited to one console and PC, it widens the multiplayer options, which is always a good thing.
These consoles have only been out about two years, and already Sony and Microsoft are introducing strange new ideas that have never been tried in the console space. What else will happen if the generation lasts another five years or more? There’s only one way to find out, but it’s good to see console makers trying new ideas.