The console generation, in loose, constantly shifting terms, has dominated the world of video games for my entire life. The early era of home consoles is various and crazy, but for the sake of simplicity we’ll put the codification of the idea on one company alone: Nintendo. The NES, for all intents and purposes, standardized what we come to think of as a game console today, even if plenty other companies did something like it before. So that would make the transition from the NES to the SNES the first real console generation, something that all other manufacturers would begin to adopt as time went on. Eventually the field winnowed down, and generations became much more rigidly defined, eventually coming to a kind of apex with the release of the Xbox One and PS4, released as generational updates to their predecessors within a week of each other. And it’s well that the console generation reached it’s platonic form back in 2013, because that’s all done now.
Microsoft’s recent discussion of its plans with the Xbox Series X wasn’t really news, but it’s striking nonetheless. When the Xbox Series X releases, it won’t have exclusive games. Every Microsoft game that works on the Series X will also work on the Xbox One, and vice versa. Third-party publishers won’t have to abide by that at the beginning, but the economics of install bases dictate that they almost certainly will. While the PS4 and PS5 won’t necessarily abide by the same rules, we’re all assuming that Sony will at least pursue backwards compatability, and I have to also assume that it’s going to have to have some kind of strong cross-gen compatability plans. So while we’re still waiting to hear exactly what’s happening here, Microsoft’s rejection of the old ideas seems to confirm to me that the console generation, as we know it, is over.
This has been a long time coming. Console transitions are hellish on developers, which have to both work extra hard figuring out how to develop for new hardware and then turn around and sell those new games to an install base the fraction of the size of the previous generation. And they’re limiting for manufacturers, too: Apple gets to sell people a new iPhone like every other month, while console manufacturers find themselves waiting years to sell new hardware.
Cybperunk 2077, likely a cross-gen title
Credit: CD Prokejt REd
The first sign that Microsoft and Sony were done with generations came with the Xbox One X and PS4 Pro: mid-generation refreshes that functioned like a mini-generation, selling new machines and capabilities without any of the restrictions of previous generations. But with the next machines I expect this idea to be eliminated entirely. That’s what Microsoft’s naming convention is all about: it will release the Xbox Series X, followed by the Xbox Series (something else) and so on and so forth. PlayStation reserves its numbers for traditional generations, but I fully expect Sony to follow suit with the PS5 Lite, the PS5 Pro, or something like that.
The PS5 and Xbox Series X are much bigger deals than those refreshes. But when they launch, it will look a lot more like those refreshes than a traditional generation.
In this new scenario, games work backwards and forwards, playing on older machines with graphical compromises and upgrades on newer machines. Much like in the world of cell phones, older machines will still get phased out, it just won’t happen with the notion of generational sweep that it does now. So 3 years into the lifespan of the Xbox Series X—at which point we expect to have another Microsoft console in the mix—games will start getting released that won’t run on the Xbox One S. A year later, we might see games that don’t work on the Xbox One X. And so on.
Developers are ready for this. As Microsoft has noted, they’ve been doing it for years with PC development: most new games can be souped up to 4K, 60FPS with raytracing or be turned way down to what Gamespot calls “potato mode”. And while most developers don’t really want their games to look quite that bad on any hardware, they should be able to get games to run on a much wider variety of devices than they did in the past. One of the benefits of modern lighting-based graphical improvements like ray-tracing is that they can be turned off.
It’ll be interesting to see how it all works. Console Gamers are still very much invested in the idea of a console generation, which you can see from the degree to which we’re going to hype these new machines. But while the launch of the Xbox Series X and PS5 is going to look a whole lot like the launch of the Xbox One and PS4, in practice it’s going to be nothing like it. I’m mostly curious to see what things look like when the dust settles in 2021.