by Paul Tassi via Forbes
There has been a lot of debate about the potential of upcoming “half-consoles” that Sony and Microsoft are rumored to be making. Sony’s PS4.5, or PS4K, or NEO, seems to be more tangible, as at this point leaks have spilled nearly every detail about the system, which may be coming this fall. And though Microsoft has cautiously backed away from talking about an “Xbox 1.5,” rumor has it they are indeed testing more powerful versions of the Xbox One behind the scenes.
Some view these consoles as inevitable, that technology is evolving in ways that require incremental upgrades rather than these big leaps every 6-7 years. The idea is that the original sin was releasing underpowered Xbox Ones and PS4s to begin with, and now these new consoles may be what they were supposed to be originally. The “death” of the console generation could be a good thing, as it may allow the industry to evolve along a smoother curve with smaller upgrades in time, and so long as there’s backward/forward compatibility, it shouldn’t disrupt players who own even older versions of the new consoles.
That’s all great in theory.
What I can tell you in practice is that no matter the logic here, if Sony releases a PS4.5 as an entirely new, more powerful console this fall, you are going to make a large percentage of ~40 million PS4 owners pretty damn angry. The same goes for the Xbox crowd if Microsoft does something similar.
Though “industry experts” may be split on this development, from what I’ve seen, consumers are a lot less so, particularly if they already own one of the new-gen consoles. The idea that a new PS4 could be released this fall, and suddenly when Destiny 2 or Black Ops 4 comes out, they will see beautiful previews of the “NEO” version, but will only be able to make their game look like that after buying a new system, it’s going to be rage-inducing. PC players are looking at console players like they’re crazy, as to keep up with “maxed” PC games, you constantly have to be investing hundreds of dollars to upgrade your system.
But that’s never been the case with consoles. Instead, gamers have been taught the opposite. If you buy a console at launch, and wait 6-7 years, the games at the end of its lifecycle will have evolved into something even more beautiful. Compare Xbox 360 launch era games like Perfect Dark Zero to end-of-life titles like Gears of War 3. They’re not even in the same universe, yet they were released on the same hardware, and consumers never had to upgrade anything at all. This is a major appeal of console gaming.
And yet, there’s really nothing that consumers can do about this if Sony and Microsoft decide to go down this path.
The problem with the current video game landscape is that if Microsoft and Sony both agree on something, in this case releasing “upgraded” versions of their consoles without jumping to a full generation, that’s pretty much the way it’s going to be. Why? Because in this market, consumers simply don’t have another choice.
You can say they do, but you’re wrong. For all this talk of Apple TV and other smart devices posing some threat to consoles, that has not come to pass. VR may take off, but in terms of replacing traditional console gaming? It’s still a solid decade or more away from approaching that sort of mass adoption. PC gaming is and has always been an alternative, but the PC model being brought to consoles is what these players are rejecting in the first place. And while Nintendo may end up being the only company releasing a full-on new-gen console in the next few years, it’s hard to believe that the NX is going to have rebuilt every single third party relationship that players take for granted on Sony and Microsoft systems.
So, if there’s a PS4.5 and an Xbox 1.5, and players want to continue on with the same kind of console experience they’ve enjoyed for twenty or thirty years, they will have to adapt. Players aren’t just going “quit gaming” and though they may choose to stick with their original PS4s or Xbox Ones for a while out of spite or financial necessity, if five years from now the incremental upgrade model is still in place, they’re going to cave eventually. It will simply be the new normal. It may not be “right” in the eyes of many gamers, but it will be reality, like it or not.
Sony and Microsoft are in a position to make this gospel, if they want, because there is no direct alternative to either console at this point. The Prisoner’s Dilemma play would be say, Sony trying this upgrade system out, and Microsoft acting like they were going to do the same, only backing out at the last minute, sinking more power into their unit and releasing a full-on Xbox Two in two years or so. Or Sony could pull a reversal and do the same. But the risk there is that if this mid-gen upgrade does work, do you really want to be the console that is demonstrably underpowered for a few years?
This is turning into a very weird console generation, but the fact is that if this is the direction that both Microsoft and Sony want to go, there’s really going to be nothing stopping them. Streaming boxes, Steam machines, VR, the NX and PC are all “alternate” forms of gaming, but right now, for the most traditional console experience that players have grown up with, there still isn’t anything else besides Xbox and PlayStation. If they change, their consumers will have to change as well, either by buying these new systems, or altering their gaming habits to fit one of the alternatives.
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