The battle for console power ramps up this week with the upcoming release of the Xbox One X. The console which currently claims to be the most powerful console on the planet…for now. With this release brings new rumors on the PS5, and its ability to not only play 4K games at 60FPS, but at even higher frames per second. The continuing ping-pong back and forth as both Sony and Microsoft vie for claims to be king of the land of consoles.
A lot has changed with this iteration of consoles. Starting with the Playstation 4 Pro, the Xbox One S, and the release of the Xbox One X, both Microsoft and Sony have steered away from new generations of console that no longer support previous generations of games (natively), and have chosen to go with a hardware iterative approach. One that is familiar to PC gamers and has been pretty much the staple of PC gaming since the days of DOS and later days of Windows. Each promising more powerful consoles, that will support current generation games, and make room for upscaled games, 4K gaming and improved graphics.
Sony was the first on the scene with this new iterative model, the Playstation 4 Pro. The Playstation 4 Pro boasted the same CPU, but a GPU roughly twice as powerful to allow for gameplay at 4K resolutions with High Dynamic Range. It provided increased horsepower to better handle the demands of the PSVR and increase FPS on games even when played on 1080P. To some just the promise of stable framerates in more demanding games was enough to sway the decision to wait for the next big thing or upgrade.
The Playstation 4 Pro seemed to appeal to three distinctly different types of individuals. It appealed to the early adopters, those who had moved forward with 4K televisions while they were still priced fairy steep just to have the best visuals that were currently available. These early 4K adopters understood that 4K content was limited, but hoped that with time, as with most technological advancements, the devices and content to run in 4K resolution would not be far behind.
The second group that Sony seemed to take aim at were those who wanted the very best virtual reality experience available for Playstation. While the PSVR ran decently on a standard PS4, is was not without its limitations. Particularly where smooth and stable framerates were key to a pleasant and not vomit inducing experience.
Finally, there were those who wanted it because it was the most powerful console (at the time). Wanted to have it because they were those who wanted to be able to play their Playstation games in the best possible way, it didn’t matter if they didn’t have a 4K television, or weren’t planning to purchase a PSVR. They had the disposable income and the desire to purchase the latest and greatest whether they fell into the previous two categories or not.
For the rest it seemed, the question remained whether there was a need to pay for a new system if they were satisfied with the existing system. Sony sales figures have mentioned that one in five Playstation 4 purchases are Playstation 4 Pros. While this is hardly something to sneeze at it does tend to indicate that most gamers continue to think more budget conscious with their system purchases. While Sony has never indicated that their intention was that the Playstation 4 Pro would be their best-selling console, it puts both the adopters and the developers in a precarious position. Do developers spend the time, resources, and budget to improve visuals and appeal to 1/5th of the Playstation population? Or do they continue to optimize their builds for the earlier Playstation 4’s while still potentially offering some sort of FPS boost or frame stability?
With the upcoming release of the Xbox One X, Microsoft themselves may very well be asking this very same question. They will undoubtedly have the most powerful console, able to theoretically play games at 60FPS on 4K televisions, but will gamers care? Xbox One X will likely find itself appealing to the early adopters and those who must have the best looking, best playing versions of Xbox games, but will that be enough to entice people to upgrade?
This holiday season will likely be a very good indicator of measuring the direction that both companies have taken. Will we see Playstation 4 Pro outsell Playstation 4s? Even with the cost of 4K televisions continuing to tumble, will it be sufficient reason to expect that the Pro will overtake the Playstation 4 in sales? Based on what we’ve seen so far, that’s highly unlikely.
What about Xbox One X? Will the nuance of a new console, be enough to sway those looking to purchase and Xbox One to the more expensive X? Those looking for a 4K UHD Blu-ray player still have the option of going with the Xbox One S, so that alone will unlikely be a reason to upgrade. What will be the incentive for those looking for the Xbox One experience, but also looking to save some money? Will the improved graphics on existing games and improved frame rate be enough to convert those who already own an Xbox One? If we look at the sales figures on the Playstation 4 Pro, then the answer is likely no.
Ultimately it boils down to whether the decision to go with a hardware upgrade approach versus releasing a new and better console was the right decision. Did both Sony and Microsoft over estimate their expectations that the promise of higher FPS and 4K gaming would be enough to convince existing and future consumers to invest in the new technology? Or is it simply gotten to a point where the improvements promised aren’t substantial enough to warrant the cost? No one would argue the difference seen between Playstation 2 and Playstation 3 games was astonishing and noticeably better. Even look at the difference between Xbox and Xbox 360 and you’ll likely be blown away by how far things had come. Looking at the difference between Playstation 4 and Playstation 4 Pro, maybe 4K alone isn’t enough of a driver to convince people that they need to upgrade. Maybe console gamers have gotten accustomed to playing on lower FPS and don’t see the difference or don’t have the need for anything better.
I believe that the interactive hardware improvements are a welcomed choice for those with the desire and expendable income to buy into it. Much like PC gamers who choose to upgrade to a more expensive GPU for the improvements they will see versus staying with their existing system even when it was perfectly playable. The greater question is what this will mean for consoles down the road, particularly with the anticipated announcement of the Playstation 5. Will we continue to see faster hardware and backwards compatibility, or will we see the focus again shift to proprietary systems with games designed only to be played on the newest versions? Will we possibly see the day where the console becomes much like its PC brethren and instead of an entire new console we see upgraded parts for your existing console?
It’s a brave new world for consoles, one that we are just beginning to see take shape across both Sony and Microsoft. What will be the next technological leap, that will drive consumers to purchase the latest and greatest? If 4K isn’t enough of an incentive and virtual reality isn’t a main factor, then what will be the next giant leap that will make an upgrade a necessity? That’s the technology that I’m excited most to see.