A couple of weeks ago at their Spring Showcase event, Xbox’s Phil Spencer brought up in discussion the possibility of the Xbox One platform iterating through hardware over a much shorter time that the last generation which could mean consoles operating on a model more like smartphones. In an industry where a stable and consistent platform has been one of the pillars to its past successes, that Xbox might be attempting to get into a new technology arms race with competitors potentially reeked of desperation.
And that’s a fair assumption to make; PlayStation 4 has been a huge success thanks to a clear PR message from launch and hardware that more often than not comes out the victor in the increasingly boring world of console video comparisons. And with talk that Nintendo’s upcoming NX console being close to Xbox One performance in a handheld, a revised Xbox console makes some sense just to ensure the brand won’t be looked on as providing the less powerful machines.
Microsoft have previously hit the reset button on their console generations before so taking some extreme steps isn’t anything new. The transition from the original Xbox to the Xbox 360 was a case of where manufacturing costs forced a generation switch faster than expected. After that you could even look on the 360’s own Red Ring of Death dramas as pushing the company again to rapidly change. And again with the Xbox 360 Slim and the release of the Kinect peripheral. For company who at the time appeared to steer like the Titanic when it came to addressing change, the Xbox team was forced to be nimble and had success from it.
Now with Xbox (and Microsoft) moving to a more common foundation through Windows 10 and the Universal Windows Platform, they are betting the future is more about the software you are running and less about the hardware itself. And finally, backward compatibility won’t be a problem ever again. Maybe that may mean in the future both the PC and Xbox will become one but for the time being there is still value in having a box specifically designed to plug into your big screen television and just play games. Sony ran with that philosophy to a lot of success this generation so there are still a lot of people who agree.
But if you think this new hardware news is restricted to Xbox though then you’ll be wrong. Surprisingly, new rumours coming from the Games Developers Conference were that a “PlayStation 4.5” or “PlayStation 4K” might be on its way to coincide with the PlayStation VR launch. Little details are available but the impression given is that such a console would have a performance bump to better support 4K content (such as Netflix and 4K Blu-Rays) as well as get better results from both virtual reality and existing games.
It can seem a little strange that Sony, now operating from a position of strength, would even consider taking the risk of fracturing their massive install base but unlike Microsoft who are only competing with Sony (and to a lesser extent Nintendo) in the console space, Sony are now having to also face off against the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive on PC. With both of those capable of much higher fidelity VR thanks to better hardware, PlayStation 4/VR might come across as the inferior technology and need some additional features. That would certainly be a course that runs counter to the PlayStation 3 which actually lost functionality (backwards compatibility, memory card slots, Linux support) as it evolved.
Any technical advances made in their console though, however small, might just give them an edge in VR or at least let them even the score against the PC headsets. Getting closer to achieving that still elusive stable 1080p/60fps might even put Digital Foundry (they of the many video comparisons) out of business. Sony haven’t officially confirmed or denied the rumours and are likely wanting to avoid any mention for fear of losing sales during the next six months but as the launch date for PlayStation VR approaches the truth of it will become apparent.
Looking at both hardware launches it’s a shame that Microsoft and Sony produced hardware that is so PC-like in design because they left themselves open to direct comparisons to a platform that iterates at a rate that neither can really compete with on performance. Even though they’re optimised specifically for games, the AMD powered CPU/GPU on both can’t hope to match the horsepower of Intel’s latest or even the top spec GPUs from AMD and rival Nvidia. When the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 first arrived, there was little to compare them to as capable PCs were still an expensive proposition and in the mobile space we were still eighteen months away from seeing an iPhone, longer still for an App Store. But much has changed since that time and getting a PC capable of games running at 1080p/60fps is not much more expensive than these consoles were at launch.
With the timing of both news items being so close together I wonder if Phil Spencer’s talk might have helped to trigger further discussion that lead to the Sony talk gaining more weight. Both companies are likely to have been developing the next iteration even before the last ones shipped so this isn’t necessarily news… just something that isn’t talked about so soon into a console’s lifespan. Perhaps they had thought it would take longer before the PC performance divide became noticeable? And then with VR being popular amongst developers, things had to change again and to ensure they are excited for your platform for the long term, irrespective of whether VR catches on with the public.
As a result, don’t be surprised that if Microsoft announces an updated Xbox and that it’ll be supporting either their own VR headset or Oculus/HTC hardware. Sony will also be keen to stay ahead on performance but also have an expensive new peripheral they will want to sell by the truckload. Happy developers equals more games and console manufacturers will be doing their best to entice them over to their side by making their platforms innovate more rapidly than ever before. Consumers would unfortunately be left to buy consoles more regularly that are only a quarter or half step up from the previous. All in the interest of playing the latest and greatest games… welcome to the point five generation!
This is based on news and rumours that have floated around recently so it might never happen… nevertheless is it something we should be excited for or concerned? Feel free to share your thoughts.