Does a Pro Console After 2020 Make Sense?
There’s a sense of foreboding about becoming an early adopter. As much as the world of tech assures us that the ‘next thing’ and the ‘future of’ is always going to be worth the price of day-one admission, console generations have always bandied about the mid-cycle upgrade as a way to introduce new features, better specs, and improved hardware. Our fast ending generation of consoles saw three refreshes of the PlayStation 4, eight if you count their model revisions, and four revisions for the Xbox One, or six separate model revisions. As we barrel towards the late-2020 launch of a brand new generation of consoles, you’d be understood for already wondering; “yes, but what comes after this?”
You’ll have to forgive me for this admittedly pre-emptive speculation. Let’s just enjoy these new consoles for what they are, right? However, the focus on messaging (especially from Microsoft) of a more flexible, accessible future of gaming begs the question of what does a mid-cycle refresh of a platform like the Xbox Series X or the PlayStation 5 even look like? Do they even exist, squirrelled away in a manilla folder in some engineer’s filing cabinet (presumably not the same engineer)?
The line of inquiry here isn’t about whether or not Gamers(TM) will get a slightly better box to transfer their download purchases onto in roughly three years time, but whether the industry we’re about to have — come the end of 2020 — is one in which a mid-gen refresh console even makes sense.
The business pivot that Microsoft has undertaken since the launch of the Xbox One is nothing short of astounding, a complete 180-degree turn from the ‘persistent online’ and ‘media platform’ position they took in early 2013. While the Xbox One seemed actively hostile to the concept of generational cross-play and used-games, the Xbox Series X couldn’t be a farther cry.
Between Microsoft’s smart-delivery program and their stated support for games working across generations, the Xbox Series X seems to signal a perspective shift on what role a new console plays in the beginning of a new generation; a technological leap and stepping stone all in one. Throw Microsoft’s xCloud service into the mix and the idea of a Slim or Pro version of the Xbox Series X starts to sound quaint by comparison.
The experience of playing a video-game is moving laterally; broadening its scope — releasing a smaller box with a quieter fan and a slimmer profile in 2024 when players could be playing big-budget releases on a streaming service like GeForce Now (provided it still exists) would feel like missing the bigger picture.
Consoles don’t exist in a vacuum. They’ll be weighed not only against other gaming options available on the market but also the average hardware people have in their homes, like, for instance their televisions. The leap from 1080p to 4K and HDR was a significant one, and it’s where the last generations ‘pro’ consoles sought to justify themselves. This upcoming generation does state that they’ll support 8K resolutions at launch, but when experts talk about the next major upgrade in screen technology, like 8K, they don’t see that leaving any kind of impression until at least 2022. Furthermore, those televisions aren’t going to migrate down in price at the same speed as 4K TVs.
Basically, what we could expect is that Full HD and 4K remain the standard for a significant period of time, therefore leaving little incentive (or room) for a mid-generation upgrade from the PS5 or Xbox Series X to say anything other than “it’s faster, we swear.” When we look at the marketing surrounding both the PS5 and the Xbox Series X, we see a huge focus on teraflops and highly-powered SSDs. To provide an 8K-centric upgrade three years into the generation would be betting that the industry (and the market) was even ready, 8K TVs and all. The PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X were direct responses to the increased prevalence of 4K, but it’s entirely possible the television market won’t be different enough to warrant a similar release pattern.
It could be that we’re about to experience the most front-loaded generation of consoles in a while; with innovation and power intended to go the distance.
Of course, all of this speculation could be wrong. The allure of a ‘slim’ PS5 (a console which seems to be one of the largest ever made), could be enough to justify another upgrade cycle, but figuring out the other hardware benefits of PlayStation making a move like that feels like clutching at straws. Perhaps a black, slim PlayStation 5. Now that would be something, huh?
Microsoft’s possible intentions are equally hard to pin down. Not only does the next Xbox mark a significant leap in processing power, it also exists within Microsoft’s new approach to game delivery. Xbox Game Pass and Project xCloud don’t really seem to care what Xbox product you’re using, and it’s in those services where Xbox could end up making most of its money. Does an Xbox Series Y or Xbox Pro X (or whatever) make sense in that equation?
The way Microsoft and Sony are re-examining (or not re-examining) what a console can or should be in the future is where the most interesting friction arises. The console wars are no longer simply defined by what console gets what exclusive, but also by how they structure their console ecosystems. Whether that structure provides room for a mid-cycle refresh is a murkier question than ever.