It's common knowledge that the lifespan of game consoles has been slowly stretching out -- a trend you can trace in a fairly linear way, for Sony consoles at least, from the roughly five years between the launches of PS1 and PS2 up to the seven years between the launch dates of PS4 and PS5.
What's perhaps less widely appreciated, however, is that measuring the interval between launch dates only tells one part of this story. In parallel with the slow growth in that interval, consoles have also come to enjoy longer and longer market relevance even after the launch of their successor. Supporting the previous console through a single annual cycle used to be plenty for most publishers; nowadays it's fairly common for the old hardware to get parallel releases of major franchise titles for two years or more.
That overlap is important for consumers, of course -- a system you bought only a year or two ago suddenly seeing no new games released for it because of a new system being released would be a pretty awful experience that would do nobody any favours -- but it's a bit of a headache for game creators.
That overlap is important for consumers, of course, but it's a bit of a headache for game creators
The overlap period effectively demands the creation of multiple versions of each major game serving systems with radically different technical specs and performance profiles; at best it's expensive and time consuming, and at worst, it limits the design and technology decisions that can be made for the versions on newer hardware because of the need to maintain broadly identical functionality on older hardware. Of course, in the end this is done because the market exists for the older versions; the minute the remaining market on last-gen consoles no longer justifies this expenditure, companies up stakes from the old system and move on.
The current generation transition -- occurring under the unusual and hopefully not-to-be-repeated circumstances of both a global pandemic and massive supply chain problems that have hit the semiconductor market especially hard -- has exacerbated this situation enormously. The inability of consumers to easily get their hands on PS5 and Xbox Series X hardware has necessarily meant that older systems, especially the PS4, continue to make up a sizeable part of the market long past the point when we might have expected the curve to enter terminal decline.
However, it's not just the supply and demand problems that are making the overlap period between generations unusually long this time around. Some of this is also happening by design; indeed, the systems benefiting most from the stock shortages of the high-end consoles are not the PS4, but rather other consoles that are broadly in the last-gen power category, namely Nintendo's Switch and Microsoft's Xbox Series S.
These two systems aren't directly comparable -- either to the PS4 or to each other -- and each of them has features and functionality which make them quite unique on the market. The Switch is of course a hybrid portable system; the Series S, meanwhile, straddles the two generations, with some features (most notably the fast SSD storage) putting it in a next-gen bracket, but its overall performance is more like a souped-up previous generation console.
Between these three devices -- Switch, Series S, and PS4, which continues to sell pretty strongly in some markets -- it's not unfair to say that a very sizeable chunk of the current console hardware market is not for devices in the "next--gen" performance class; in some markets, these "previous-gen" class devices comfortably make up the majority of sales.
We always knew that the enormous success of the PS4 meant that it would overhang significantly into the start of the next generation
We always knew that the enormous success of the PS4 meant that it would overhang significantly into the start of the next generation; all those tens of millions of actively used consoles wouldn't have disappeared overnight even if store shelves were filled with PS5s as far as the eye can see.
However, the calculus around that overhang -- the extent to which the generations will overlap and thus the length of time for which last generation hardware needs to be supported by any game with an eye on the mass market -- has grown more and more problematic as stock shortages have extended and consumers' eyes have turned to devices that are either fundamentally last-gen, or newer devices whose performance profiles are closer to last-gen devices. Publishers and developers are now faced with stretching out their timelines for continued support for older hardware years past their original milestone dates.
To some degree, this was planned. Nintendo, which has always greeted the notion of major cross-platform franchises with a bit of a shrug anyway, made a conscious decision with Switch that it would not engage in a specification arms race with its larger rivals; it doesn't have a dog in the "high-end" console race and thus has no reason to care if those devices find themselves being held back by the need to support older hardware for multiplatform games.
Microsoft, on the other hand, does have a high-end device -- the Xbox Series X, which is just as hard to get your hands on as a PS5 in most markets -- but it has been open about its intention to chip away at the generational nature of the console market, moving from clearly defined cycles to a more regular pattern of upgrades with systems of different power levels (within reason) coexisting on the market. Sony is less openly supportive of this vision, but the existence of PS4 Pro in the past generation is a tacit admission that it makes a lot of sense up to a point, at least; longer console cycles and ongoing advances in technology in other areas (TV displays, VR etc.) make mid-generation spec bumps almost inevitable.
What's happening now, however, is bringing that hypothetical future into reality much more quickly than most people might have expected, and in ways that aren't really under the control of any of the industry's major players. There are warnings that even as the pandemic subsides, the semiconductor shortage -- which was only ever pandemic-related in the most superficial ways -- could last for years longer, leaving us facing a very lengthy period of possibly four or five years in which consoles at two distinct power levels, "PS4-esque" and "PS5/XSX-esque", exist side by side on the market.
In this scenario the lower-powered devices would continue to hold significant market share and account for a declining but still significant proportion of sales of major new games. We can see a taste of how that may look in recent sales data, such as PS4 accounting for 40% of the sales of Horizon: Forbidden West, a marquee title for PS5 well into the second year of the new console's life. That's a sobering data point in that regard -- even if we allow for a few points of sales inflation from the oddity of the PS4 version being cheaper and offering a free upgrade path for PS5 users, 40% of the sales being a last-gen version could well be enough to tip conversations about which platforms next year's major exclusives need to support, and for big annual sports or FPS franchises the calculus is even more clear.
This change to how the industry works doesn't necessarily have to be a negative; in a sense, the longevity of platforms could be a very welcome change, especially as it opens up opportunities for cheaper development (and doubly so given the broad compatibility between the generations on the market right now).
From the perspective of the industry's multi-platform titles, however, this difficult transition period -- when the number of SKUs of a given game that need to be created each year balloon right alongside the huge performance profile difference among the supported systems -- just got several years longer, and the impacts that will have are likely to be far-reaching, not only financially but also in terms of the design and technical aspects of the games we see in the next few years. For exactly how many years the "PS4-era" performance level remains the industry's baseline remains to be seen -- but even if for some creators this is an opportunity, for others it will undoubtedly become a millstone.