PlayStation and Xbox: The Infinite Consoles

The seven-year console cycle is likely a thing of the past. Thanks to new, cheap tech and the demands of VR, we may see new hardware annually

Announcements about upgraded versions of PlayStation 4 and Xbox One consoles are expected during Electronic Entertainment Expo that begins June 14th. Credit: Nick Tribe and NeonMob

The biggest event on the video games industry's calendar is imminent. The Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) officially kicks off in Los Angeles on June 14th, where we'll see dozens, if not hundreds, of new game announcements over the course of the week. High on the list of likely revelations is the prospect of tweaked and upgraded versions of both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One consoles. Hints of something coming have been circling for a while now. 

Back in March, Kotaku broke the story that Sony is planning a new version of the PlayStation 4 that boasts beefier graphical capabilities (said to be AMD's new Polaris chipset), presumably to provide the necessary horsepower for its future designs on virtual reality. This new box is now thought to be codenamed Neo and the odds are high that we'll see it at the company's pre-E3 media event on June 13, with a release probably alongside the PlayStation VR headset this October.

In April, Oddworld creator Lorne Lanning added fuel to the fire when he appeared on the The Game Informer Show with a revelation about a comment made to him by Sony president of worldwide studios Shuhei Yoshida. According to Lanning, while preparing for a  presentation with Yoshida at a games industry event in February 2015, the subject of future iterations of PlayStation came up. "I said 'well what does the PlayStation 5 look like?'" Lanning remarked, "and he said 'you mean if.'" 

In late May, Kotaku reported that Microsoft is also looking to beef up its Xbox One, and it has plans to release a more powerful version at some point in 2017. Based on rumored specifications, this upgrade, with the delightfully villainous codename Scorpio, should theoretically have enough juice to support the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. (The current Xbox One most certainly does not.) Like Sony, Microsoft has a big media event prior to E3 on June 13, and if Scorpio is really ready for primetime, we'll no doubt see some acknowledgment of it then.

While neither of these new systems seem like they are intended to completely supplant existing hardware, they are more powerful (and presumably more expensive) versions that will sit alongside the consoles that are on store shelves today. They'll run all the same games, they'll just do so a bit better.

Given that both the PS4 and the Xbox One were only just released in 2013, and the life-expectancy of a successful game console is typically in the six to eight year range, you'd be forgiven for scratching your head and feeling a tiny bit annoyed that the expensive box you just bought is no longer the new hotness. Furthermore, you might wonder why these companies are thinking of fragmenting their audience just as these things are hitting their stride. 

What's really happening is that hardware is now basically just a commodity. Consoles no longer require the bespoke silicon that older generations did to deliver state-of-the-art games. Off-the-shelf chipsets mean the hardware is no longer loss-making at launch, but break-even (this used to take three years – another reason why a seven year console cycle was popular with Sony and Microsoft; they got to make money on hardware for a few years before junking it and starting over.) Both the PS4 and the Xbox One are fundamentally just task-specific PCs, albeit ones that are set up to serve closed, entertainment-focused ecosystems – the Xbox even runs Windows.

In March, Xbox boss Phil Spencer commented: "I look at the ecosystem that a console sits in and I think that it should have the capability of more iteration on hardware capability." Later, he elaborated further, "...what I'm saying is as hardware innovations happen we want to be able to embrace those in the console space, and make those available and maybe not have to wait seven or eight years for things to happen."

What Yoshida was hinting at last year was basically the same thing. He was acknowledging the need to be more agile and adaptable. Hardware advances are coming from the likes of Nvidia, AMD and Intel at a phenomenal pace. Emerging technologies around virtual and augmented reality are likely to see dramatic capability changes at a pace akin to mobile phones rather than the more lethargic update cycle for consoles. If current gaming hardware struggles to deliver a contemporary virtual reality experience (which it does,) how antiquated is it going to look in three years when there are Google Daydream-compliant mobile VR doohickeys that do it substantially better?

The future of PlayStation and Xbox is more than likely not really about boxes. Sure, they'll be the big ticket items that yield fat profits for Sony and Microsoft, just as the iPhone is for Apple, but the real meat is elsewhere. Much as the iPhone is really about iOS and its associated iTunes ecosystem, and PC gaming is (primarily) hardware that runs Windows, Steam, and a few other services, the future is really about standards. Standards that lock you into an ecosystem because you have so much invested in a collection of digital content that you can't really justify leaving.

Just look at your iTunes or Steam library for a second. 

Yeah, like that. 

"PlayStation" will more than likely evolve into being the brand for a platform – a set of hardware and software standards, an ecosystem for acquiring and storing content, and an infrastructure that allows you to access it all digitally through your TV, headset or conforming mobile device. Microsoft is already on the way to unifying in this way, and the convergence of Xbox and Windows is a vitally important aspect of that.

In this eventuality we could potentially see new tech every year, and the notion of a "cycle" will be the number of annual iterations of hardware that a newly shipped game must support in order to be certified for each respective ecosystem. Much as contemporary iOS games don't "support" older hardware (try playing Hearthstone on an iPhone 4,) we should brace ourselves for the inevitability that an Xbox game shipped in 2018 may not run on an original 2013-era device. Ideally, this new cycle of obsolescence will ultimately be similar to the current hardware cycle so that any given iteration has at least five or six years in it before it becomes outdated, but that is by no means guaranteed.

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