E3 and the Specter of Iterative Hardware

Prior to E3, Microsoft and Sony looked like the Hans Brinker’s Dutch boy sticking his finger into the dyke fruitlessly. Leak after leak spilled out of the companies, to the point that presentations were devoid of many surprising moments. Leaks are yearly occurrences now, but this year’s news that both companies were working on iterative hardware steps for this console cycle felt more significant than any trailer leak. Indeed, the knowledge the current consoles would soon be stepped over like AI on Tyronn Lue tended to hang over the entire proceedings.

Microsoft’s presser followed the same format they’ve used the past two years, cut the corporate speak to a minimum, tout their first-party and exclusive games as much as possible, throw in an indie sizzler real and reveal your latest online features. It’s tried and true formula, a far cry from the old days of sales figures and droll 3rd party demos that have flitted over to their publisher’s press conferences. Nonetheless, they kept any mention of their new Project Scorpio console until the every end of the conference. Presented as a console meant to allow developer’s to harness the full potential of their skills, the bravado with which they presented the new console made it feel more like a moonshot than a box with lower specs than the newest PCs.

Their presentation made it feel like it was flown from the future, (RIP to using Marty McFly in 2015 as a reference for any future jokes) bandying about technical terms like GPU and teraflop as a way to pander to the NeoGaf gamers who care about that while wowing casual viewers with developer testimonials. They’ve created a black box (and it will absolutely be black) that at this point feels next-gen even though they’ve tethered themselves to the current console cycle. Many people know that its specs aren’t as powerful as the latest PCs, but by claiming it’s the “most powerful console ever”, there’s a large segment of gamers that will buy into that. The real issue is that they can’t abandon the current install base of Xbox One owners, meaning that their decision to have new hardware looming in the distance casts a foreboding shadow over every game with a release date, every game in development that’s gone dark, and more importantly, almost every game at E3.

On the other side of the aisle, Sony rests atop the console plastic throne, grinning at every opportunity about the PS4 as one of the fastest selling consoles of all time. They’ve won this generation. But they’ve also chosen to create an iterative project in the Playstation Neo, a sort of Playstation 4.5 that is rumored to allow 4K gaming and assist with the launch of their VR headset. This seems incredibly silly to split a console audience that’s already shoveling their money into Sony’s coffers, but that’s another topic altogether, it’s more interesting to look at their hush-hush roll-out approach in contrast to Microsoft.

Prior to E3, Playstation CEO Andrew House acknowledged the existence of the Playstation Neo, while deflecting any further comments by stating that it won’t be at this E3 because they want to focus on the games. A smart approach, to be sure, a laser focus on the ability of a console to play games is what’s gotten them ahead this cycle. And focus on games they did, their presser was like a pre-set Youtube playlist of new trailers with the least amount of corporate gobbledygook I can remember. However, that also leaves the announcement and association with games in development strictly under the speculative umbrella. Assuredly, they will announce that all games on the Neo will work on the PS4, bifurcating an install base during a time of prosperity is lunacy, but it still means at some point the transition will come, and games will start to include features only available on the more powerful console.

The rapid progression of technology is making these sort of shifts inevitable. It’s remarkable the previous console generation lasted so long. The peculiar part is that I recall lots of rhetoric around gamers having to get used to longer console life cycles, as hardware companies worked longer to break even and awaited new technology to reach an affordable price point. Yet three years later we’ve already reached one of the shortest console life cycles ever. The Wii U is a torrential failure, with the NX already moving in as a swift replacement. The Xbone already has a slimmer model, and it’s older brother is only a year and a half away. Meanwhile, even Sony’s runaway success is being shoved aside to show off their shiny new toy.

Getting gamers to warm to iterative hardware jumps mid-lifecycle will be a steep learning curve. Nintendo has already started the practice by releasing an insufferable amount of ways to play their handheld games, and splitting their install base with the New 3DS. Those carry smaller price points though, and something people have gotten used to over years of remodeled, rejiggered Nintendo handhelds hitting the market. In the console community though, this is a dramatic shift. Even if it’s standard practice in other tech like phones, Sony and Microsofts’ PR teams have their hands full positioning these new consoles to get buy-in from gamers. Microsoft is already on the clock, Nintendo stopped hitting snooze around a year ago and Sony will begin their timer to the next-half-generation soon.

During this lame duck period, most of the games shown off at E3 already have the stench of console neglect hanging over them. Many of the games revealed will come out on these current consoles, but it’s an assurance that many developers are already working on the next model of the game to come out on Scorpio over Neo. Nintendo’s new Zelda is a prime example of this, but at least that is being released on both consoles concurrently. One can presume that a number of games already released earlier this console cycle will get remastered editions on the new console too, making an even more egregious recycling system than how current remasters are handled. It will also force developers to test their games on multiple systems, adding more hoops to a production process where 80 hour a week crunches are just a part of the job. No matter how excited the games unveiled during E3 might have been, it’s impossible to ignore the looming shadow of new hardware. People will still flock to pick up consoles this fall, but rest assured there’s an annoying voice shouting, “Hey, listen!”, reminding them that in less than a year their purchase will be outdated.