To Iterate, Or Not To Iterate

I was reading this blurb over on N4G and while it adds up to little more than speculation by a developer I had an instant revulsion to even the suggestion that Sony or Microsoft would entertain this idea. Naturally that revulsion eventually coalesced into an opinion that I thought belonged here.

“With Sony and Microsoft expanding the line with PS4 Pro and Xbox One X, we might just see continual evolution in the line rather than completely new boxes and architecture. We can see both follow a similar formula that Apple has with cell phones.” – Colin Moore, Holospark

It’s not that the thought hadn’t crossed my mind since Sony announced it was dipping its toe in with the PS4 Pro to see how console owners might react to a mid-generation upgrade. By all current metrics the experiment certainly hasn’t been a flop and may even end up being an overall success but I don’t think we can really know that for sure quite yet. Their competition over at Xbox certainly haven’t been idle, putting in the work to upgrade already released games to make them worth revisiting on the One X. I’ll be very interested to see how the cost of that extra work tallies up against the sales numbers for the system which thus far has beaten out the Pro in units shifted. The biggest knock against Xbox right now is a lack of platform exclusives to stack up against the rather impressive stable Sony has built up but ultimately if you’re asking people to spend another $400-500 mid-generation they’re going to go where the value is and eventually developers will follow. All that can come in a later post-mortem once we get a little closer to the next generational step, for right now we have other things to talk about.

What is it about the concept of iterative consoles that repulses me and in my opinion should do the same for you?

For starters let me go back to the argument that console fans generally make against their bigger siblings, the PC. Cost. One of the things that is generally laid at the feet of PC enthusiasts is that while they may be better they also pay an exorbitant premium for that status. Unfortunately for people who use that argument its easily disproven and I don’t say that to be flippant, it’s just the simple truth. Consoles these days are using the same hardware that we use in PCs only theirs are a handful of generations behind almost immediately after their release. We can build budget PCs that cost less than consoles and perform better on modern games, this comes with the caveat that we have to build our rigs instead of pulling them out of the box ready to use but thats a pretty small speedbump even for the most tech-illiterate. The added problem with this argument is that we can easily upgrade individual components instead of having to build or purchase entirely new systems when we want to see a boost in performance. Smart PC builders can to an extent “future proof” their builds by leaving themselves room to upgrade without having to replace other core components due to compatibility problems.

What this boils down to is that the all-or-nothing limitation of home consoles necessitates a wholesale replacement of your system with an iterative release schedule if you want to stay up to date. A modular approach to home consoles where you could purchase specific upgrades for your system is most likely a pipe dream as I can’t see how they could possibly make that fiscally profitable or easy for consumers. The most common counterpoint to this that I can see is the mitigating affect of trade-in programs like those available at Gamestop which is a good point. Trading in your Xbox One or PS4 will net you $140 or $170 respectively which isn’t bad when weighed against the cost of an upgrade, sort of.

Those values leave you with eating $229 for a PS4 Pro and a real gut punch of $359 for the Xbox One X which leaves it only $40 shy of the non-Kinect release version you just traded in. Both of these systems are a definite improvement in performance so I won’t call them a ripoff or even a poor value but for your average console consumer that is a nearly impossible reality to swallow. This reality gets even worse when you realize that the Pro released just three years after the standard console for a combined $628 in just that time if you want to upgrade. I remember people theorizing about a 6-10 year lifespan for these new systems and while an iterative timeline doesn’t mean they are dead it does leave you feeling like you’re not getting the best the platform has to offer which leads to people feeling like they misspent their money.

This also leads me back to the quote earlier from Colin Moore and in particular this portion, “We can see both follow a similar formula that Apple has with cell phones.” which is a sentiment that I think should have people who game on consoles screaming bloody murder. I wont get into a long discussion on the price of cellphones but anyone who looks at an iPhone X with its accompanying price tag and thinks, “Makes sense.” needs their head examined. Just some quick context for those who may have forgotten, the original iPhone retailed for $499-599 however within three months that price was dropped to $399. The 3G retailed for $199-299. Fast forward a mere eleven years and your new iPhone X will run you a staggering $1,149USD or otherwise known as a low-ish end mortgage payment. But no need to worry, a couple of months prior to that release the affordable iPhone 8 series released covering the $700-900 range if you don’t want their flagship product.

If you think that iterative console releases wont end up skyrocketing the cost of your “cutting edge systems” I’ve got some bad news for you. I make no bones about the fact that cutting edge or even high end PC gaming is not every-day-affordable and I really don’t want to see the same thing happen to consoles for the sake of being able to play the newest Call of Duty in 4k. Focus on hitting a steady 60fps at regular HD, it’s cheaper and you’ll be happier, trust me. Consoles will never be out in front of PC tech nor should they be as that isn’t their purpose, the extra cost burden of an iterative release schedule will do nothing to really improve the experience in a meaningful way. Whats more I don’t think that the majority of their consumer base will engage with that schedule outside of a handful of early adopters with enough money to make the expense negligible.

Suffice it to say the cost to everyone involved, including Sony and Microsoft, just isn’t worth whatever if any potential upside that they see from mid-generation upgrades or the simple abolition of the entire current release structure. Let the PC market bear that burden as we have from the beginning, don’t poison the console market by needlessly dragging them into that mess. If you really feel like you need to close the gap then look at a shorter life cycle for consoles, I always thought that ten years was too long when compared to the speed of technology. I think you could make a reasonable argument that end-of-life for a console could start at year five and be phased out completely by year eight without burning out your consumer base on “constant upgrades”. If we look at the PS4 and Xbox One right now around four years from their release date I think we’re just about seeing their peak performance with releases like Assassins Creed: Origins, Horizon Zero Dawn and God of War 4. I’m sure we’ll see some clever developers squeeze a little more out of them over the next year or two but I doubt much beyond that. That puts us at a couple years to enjoy the plateau or marginal improvements before we start looking towards the next major generation. That period will be the real test for the Pro and One X, will Sony and Microsoft position them to be the exclusive console versions to bridge this generation and the next while ending support for the base models? If they don’t will we ever see games that really push the Pro or One X to their limit as it becomes harder to keep parity between them and their predecessors? Questions I am eager to see answered as it will give us hints to their plans going forward, for now its hard to say. Sony is riding high on being the current undisputed king of this console cycle and Microsoft is still doing its utmost to win back their customers in any way they can after stumbling hard at the outset.

You’ll notice I have yet to mention Nintendo in all of this and if you’re curious why I’d invite you to read my write-up about the Switch. They have smartly avoided this path with their main home consoles and I think they’ll continue to do that for the forseeable future.

I’ll work on cutting myself off here as I don’t want this to be overly long winded and save my further comments for later because I’m sure this will come up again before long. What my argument comes down to is that I don’t think the value proposition for an iterative release schedule benefits the consumer in any way shape or form and realistically only serves to enrich console makers. I don’t begrudge them for seeking out new profit avenues as I’m sure I pointed out in my lootbox post  but I have an issue when there is little to no value for the people who are shelling out the dough. When it comes to technology we’ve become a little upgrade crazy and overall we’ve become comfortable enough that companies like Apple will nudge us towards upgrading with some pretty underhanded tactics. Aging technology is not useless technology and allowing consoles to spiral into the money vortex of constant upgrades, trade-ins and iteration hell I think is something that is best avoided at all costs for businesses and consumers alike. And this is coming from a card carrying member of the PC Elitists you all love so much.

Till next time, happy gaming!

  • Non-Washable



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