Xbox One, PS4 and the elusive dream of "good enough"
Excitement builds for new hardware, but their greatest competition may come from an unlikely source - the past
PlayStation 4 and Xbox One have yet to hit retail shelves, but over the past few months, lots of people have had a chance to spend significant amount of time with games for both systems. With the hardware locked down and in full production and launch window titles nearing, if not already past, their gold master dates, the new consoles may remain an exciting enigma to consumers but they've already been reasonably well explored by plenty of people. Like many, I've had some hands-on time with both consoles - both at trade shows and in private meetings. It'll probably be some time before one of the new consoles finds itself plugged into my TV, since there's no launch in my territory until 2014 - a fact which I originally found quite annoying, but the more time I spend with the newcomers, the less the delay bothers me.
"Microsoft greeted the launch of the 360 by loading a shotgun and dragging the original Xbox around the back of the woodshed"
Why? It's not that PS4 or Xbox One are bad consoles - far from it. Rather, it's that I've found myself increasingly feeling that I'm not actually done with the previous generation yet. There are plenty of games I haven't played, or haven't completed, and a handful more still on the way - especially for the PS3, a late bloomer which had a rocky start but has blossomed into a genuinely fantastic platform over the years. Meanwhile, the stack of games I need to play on the handheld platforms has grown to genuinely embarrassing levels - I've not touched anything in Vita's increasingly impressive portfolio, while the 3DS' recent releases alone (Pokemon X/Y and Monster Hunter 4) promise tons of entertainment. I'm keenly aware of about half a dozen Wii must-plays that I never-played, and Wii U - a peculiar device bridging the generations rather than a "next-gen" system in the horsepower sense - is looking increasingly appealing as well.
I'm hardly alone in that feeling. Plenty of core gamers are increasingly vocal in their interest in Wii U this Christmas - not, perhaps, enough to drive Nintendo's sales figures just yet (the sluggish demand for the system is still eating into the firm's profits, although the 3DS more than balances the picture) but enough to suggest that there's pent-up demand that will be unleashed when a bit more first-party software turns up. Others are pointing out that the real "winner" of the season in hardware terms is likely to be the PS3, and it's likely that the Xbox 360 won't have a shabby Christmas either (although how Microsoft will behave towards the 360 is hard to gauge; it greeted the launch of the 360 itself by loading a shotgun and dragging the original Xbox around the back of the woodshed, but then again, the original Xbox wasn't an enormously successful device anyway).
This isn't unfamiliar territory, of course. Sony's consoles in particular have enjoyed very impressive long-tail sales over the past two generations - PSone sold remarkably through the early years of PS2, and PS2 itself did fantastically well almost the whole way through PS3's lifespan, with production of the system only ending earlier this year. It's to be expected that the previous generation of hardware should continue to sell even after the launch of a new generation, not least because its enormous software library and low entry cost opens it up to an entirely new audience. Moreover, the platform holders welcome this fact - old game consoles are sold at fantastic margins, helping to fund the next generation and smoothing over any bumps in the profitability of the new systems.
However, there are a few unique factors about the current generation transition that are important to consider. The first is the longevity of the previous generation. The PlayStation 3 will have celebrated its seventh birthday before the PS4 turns up - the Xbox 360 will be a venerable eight years old. These systems are remarkably long in the tooth and might reasonably be expected to decline fairly quickly after the new systems hit the market. One might also reasonably expect that there would be a huge pent-up demand for new hardware to replace such ageing systems. By the end of the PS1 and PS2 eras, both systems were seriously showing their age - some excellent games turned up late in the day (think Metal Gear Solid on the PS1 and Shadow of the Colossus on the PS2, for example) but by and large the gaming audience was chafing at the technical limitations of these systems and keen to upgrade.
"You can trace a clear line from late-stage PS3/360 titles to early PS4/Xbox One titles, and it's a curve that doesn't rise all that sharply"
That motivation exists this time as well - but in spite of just how old the PS3 and Xbox 360 are, few would argue that they've dated quite as badly as the PS1 or even the PS2 had by the point of their replacement with newer hardware. In fact, games like The Last of Us, Assassin's Creed 4 or Beyond: Two Souls continue to seriously wow audiences with their visuals, while many other developers are learning to sidestep the graphics arms race entirely by focusing on beautiful, innovative and eye-catching art styles rather than technical prowess. Even with the PS3 entering its eighth year and the 360 about to embark on its ninth, few people feel like these systems have been exhausted of their potential. Nobody - or at least, nobody apart from a very technically aware minority - feels like these are consoles that have been left behind by gaming, too lacking in power to deliver really fantastic experiences.
Playing games on PS4 and Xbox One actually confirms that feeling, rather than confounding it. Launch titles are rarely amazing examples of the potential of a system - those we remember clearly, like Halo or Super Mario 64, are remembered precisely because launch titles of that quality are so rare. All the same, it's hard to escape the feeling that PS4 and Xbox One games are simply shinier, slightly sharper updates to previous generation games, with better draw distance and more objects on screen. Of course, technically speaking, that's a major upgrade in and of itself. There's no question that these games are doing things which the old hardware couldn't have managed. From the epic battles of Ryse or the sheer detail of Titanfall to the vast numbers of objects being thrown around by Knack - these are genuinely new things and it's undeniable that there is a wow factor to many of the launch titles at certain moments. All the same, you can trace a clear line from late-stage PS3/360 titles to early PS4/XB1 titles, and it's a curve that doesn't rise all that sharply.
The consequence is that having played next-gen games, it's perfectly possible to go back to last-gen titles and enjoy them. That's a bigger deal than it sounds. After a while playing PS2 games, it was pretty tough to play most PS1 games without feeling like they'd really dated badly. The transition from PS2 to PS3 was less dramatic, but nonetheless, my huge pile of to-play PS2 games ended up never being played to completion (I think Persona 4 may be the only exception here) largely because going back to the now very dated PS2 catalogue didn't appeal so much after playing PS3 and 360 games. This time, though, the curve is even shallower. After playing many of the launch titles for the new consoles, I have no problem going back to PS3 and 360 games. They still look and play just great; I'd be happy, in fact, to stick with this level of hardware for another year or two, if I had to.
I don't believe that this is down to a flaw with the new consoles or their approach. Rather, I think it's because we've seriously started to hit a plateau stage in the progression of 3D graphical quality - a stage which was probably inevitable from the moment we started making 3D games. Ever since the first graphics cards appeared for PCs, I recall people asking at regular intervals, "is this good enough? Do we ever need a more powerful system?" - and the answer was always an eye-rolling and resounding "no, it's not good enough". The ideal of photo-realism is always there to be aimed for, after all - until the point where our hardware can genuinely replicate the real world (and indeed all sorts of unreal worlds) to the point where our eyes can't tell the difference, it'll be impossible to say that there's no room for improvement.
"After the initial excitement for next-gen, the process of convincing people that it's worth making the leap may be much harder"
There is, however, a serious diminishing returns curve involved in all of this. The progression of 3D graphics technology continues to be absolutely astounding, but it's undeniable that it's focused on smaller and smaller things as time goes by. That's understandable and necessary - the road to better visuals is paved with small innovations - but it does mean that from the standpoint of the average consumer, the actual difference between hardware generations is being diminished. On the PS3 and 360, and indeed on high-end PCs around the era of Half-Life 2 (systems that are now considered effectively obsolete), we hit a point where the hardware allowed developers to create environments that "felt" right to gamers. Advancing beyond that, you seriously diminish your returns. The most beautiful environments in Crytek's extraordinary game engines running on top-end PCs may, objectively, be enormously more advanced and impressive than those achieved in The Last of Us or other benchmark games on the ageing console hardware, but from the perspective of user experience, it barely matters - both can create believable environments that are of sufficient fidelity to be recognisable and "realistic", and for many if not most consumers, that's "good enough" as long as it's married to a worthwhile game experience.
This is the single biggest challenge the new consoles are going to face - not tablets and smartphones, not the Android-powered microconsoles that are still struggling to explain their raison d'être to the world at large, not the unquestioned resurgence of the PC as a gaming platform. No, the real challenge comes from their older siblings - consoles that are still "good enough" for many, and may well continue being "good enough" for several years to come. If software development jumps en masse to the new platforms, of course, then gamers will eventually have to jump as well - but I suspect that after the initial excitement for next-gen, the process of convincing people that it's worth making the leap may be much harder than the platform holders expect. PS4 and Xbox One both look like great systems, but greatness alone may not be enough to overcome the sheer inertia of the older hardware - the first generation of consoles for which "good enough" really does seem to have been a fair moniker.