Home Gaming and esports The last generation: The real impact of the console upgrade cycle

The last generation: The real impact of the console upgrade cycle

Since the dawn of gaming (the exact date of which honestly depends on who you ask), consoles have been viewed in terms of generation. From the fledgeling days of the Atari 2600, through the quiet console wars of the 90s and eventually the consoles’ ‘coming-of-age’ at the cusp of the 21st century, gaming has always moved fast but it’s always moved in generations.

In much the same way that society has been broken down into tangible ‘groups’ (the baby boomers, the millennials and so on) console generations have always stood alone in their own unique ecosystems. From the Super Nintendo and Sega Mega Drive onwards, we’ve become accustomed to a world where third-party developers split their resources between creating two or three different versions of the same game for different hardware.

But with the ninth generation on the horizon and both Microsoft and Sony gearing up to launch the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 respectively this coming ‘holiday season’, is the generation gap ready to close once and for all? And what will that mean for developers?

retro controllers

Console wars

After the cataclysmic video game crash of the early 80s that saw a wide-scale recession take hold of the industry, video games were thought of as little more than a fad. It wasn’t until Nintendo released the Famicom in Japan (to be launched as the NES in the western world) that the industry managed to find its footing again. 

For half a decade, Nintendo had an automatic monopoly on the market, with only Atari nipping at their heels. It wasn’t until Sega released the Mega Drive (or “Genesis” to North American readers) that the paradigm which would shape the industry for thirty years began to reveal itself.

Nintendo responded to this bigger, faster, louder and more powerful adversary with the Super Nintendo (SNES). This was far from the first ‘ console upgrade’ (Atari replaced the 2600 with the 5200 and then finally the 7800) but it was certainly the most notable up until that point. 

The Mega Drive vs SNES debate waged heavy in playgrounds across the globe for years before Sony and Microsoft arrived on the scene, with Sony’s PlayStation and Microsoft’s Xbox replacing Sega and Nintendo as the console war’s chief combatants by the start of the 21st century.

There were always other contenders waiting in the wings, of course, and Nintendo managed to hang on in there due to the phenomenal success of their Gameboy family of handheld consoles. Sega, however, fell spectacularly out of the fight with their failing Dreamcast console in 2002, allowing Microsoft and Sony to duke it out for the sixth, seventh and eighth generations, whilst Nintendo essentially did their own thing.

games console launch

The biggest upheaval in gaming, however, was arguably the introduction of CD-based consoles in the mid-90s. Compact disks might have led to longer loading times but they were also able to store larger amounts of data than even the largest cartridges and were significantly easier (and cheaper) to produce too.

It was around this generation (the PS1, Sega Saturn and the failed likes of the Panasonic 3DO) that developers were able to start thinking about developing for systems before the proprietary hardware was officially unveiled. Though there were still hurdles to overcome.

The EyeToy, Kinect, and later, the Nintendo Wii, were also a pretty big deal too. They gave developers a chance to explore how their audiences interacted with their game in an entirely new light. The ability to immerse yourself further in the game by using your body was lots of fun and a great way to involve more people in wanting to play games, both alone and socially. 

This is a concept that has only grown and expanded with the modern trend towards VR gaming. 

games console launch

System upgrade

Today, whilst it has been 8 years since the launch of the Xbox One and PS4, it’s generally expected that ‘console cycles’ will last around 5 years. Each cycle poses a new challenge for developers that have to wrap their head around new system architecture and figure out how the new systems work because, unlike PCs, consoles can be tricky platforms to master for developers. Indeed, tricky development is arguably what sunk the Sega Saturn and ensured that the Xbox 360 was able to almost match the PS3 back in the seventh generation.

As in any creative industry, however, the challenge is often what leads to the greatest innovation. The move into 3D was the first major challenge many developers faced, with some seeing spectacular success (Mario 64 being perhaps the best example here) and others failing badly (Lemmings 3D was quite aptly about as fun as taking a running jump off a cliff). 

The problem for many developers was that to develop for this new breed of consoles, you couldn’t just boot up your PC, knock together a build and hope for the best. Not only did the custom workstations required to create these games need to be in another league in terms of sheer power, but developers also required access to expensive development kits that were unique to each system. 

Today, that’s no longer an issue. The latest consoles use many of the same components as gaming PCs, which means making console games today is no more complicated (in theory) than making them for PC. That process is looking to be even further streamlined in the coming generation, as the latest consoles would appear to be (on the surface, at least) little more than living room PCs with more user-friendly interfaces.

The next generation

A new generation of hardware will always impact game development to a certain extent as different architectures and technologies require a degree of flexibility. This generation will see a greater emphasis on technologies and techniques such as ray tracing and SSD hard drives and developers will need to optimise their own software and processes to ensure they can make the best use of these new features. It’s also a case of deciding how they are going to use this new technology to their advantage and make the kind of games they couldn’t on previous hardware.

Generally speaking, it’s easier to be a developer today than it was 20 or even 10 years ago. Indeed, provided that an individual developer or team has the talent and desire, there’s no real reason why they wouldn’t be able to create something which realises their vision with the tools available today.  The uphill struggle is mostly on the marketing side of things – getting the name out there and getting it heard amongst the noise and the competition. 

With every generational shift, developers will be the first ones to gain access to the new consoles - how they work and what they are capable of. The developers who will get first pickings, however, will always be the first-party developers and the major studios (mostly owned by EA at this point). This is one area in which indie developers are still very much on the back foot, but that hasn’t stopped them.

The indie revolution

Whilst PC gamers have been enjoying independent games for decades, there was always traditionally a barrier between indie gaming and consoles, whether down to licensing issues or the fact that independent developers couldn’t afford the costs of physical distribution. However, with the launch of the Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA) on the Xbox 360 in 2005,  a quiet revolution began to take shape.

This was a platform that allowed independent developers to upload their games to the wider Xbox audience for the first time and it arguably catalysed the indie gaming industry that is worth literally billions today.

Once independently developed games such as Super Meat Boy and Braid began taking the XBLA platform by storm, it spurred countless other developers into action who might not otherwise have had the opportunity to have their voices heard. However, the really exciting stuff was happening across the aisle.

games console launch

Joining the PC gang

Anyone who plays video games on their PC is 99% likely to have a Steam account. Valve’s incredible online gaming platform has been setting the standard for years now and manages to effectively bridge the gap between the old and new generations by offering several decades-worth of gaming in one place. The open-source nature of the platform has also led to some of the most exciting gaming innovations of recent years. Indeed, the Steam Direct program (previously known as Steam Greenlight) has led to roughly 180 games being released every week and whilst there is a fair amount of chaff in there, it’s a system that allows for bold experimentation and risk-taking.

So, for those wondering whether or not to ‘upgrade’ to the PS5 or Series X (a decision made even more vague by the possibility of backwards compatibility) when they launch later this year, there is, of course, a third option for both gamers and developers to consider. It’s also one that seems to be making more and more sense as the gap between console and PC gaming continues to narrow. With consoles becoming more and more like PCs, maybe it’s time for those previously tied to their console roots to ascend into the so-called PC master race?

Microsoft has not even tried to disguise the fact that the Xbox and Windows 10 platforms are essentially interchangeable at this point and whilst details about the PS5 are scarce, we can probably expect a console that’s interchangeable with the Series X in terms of raw power and even system architecture.

For gamers, the only compelling reason to stick with any one console,  rather than taking the infinitely upgradable custom PC route, is the exclusive games. Whereas this exclusivity was once tied to hardware performance (arguably still the case with the comparably underpowered Nintendo Switch), it’s now simply down to politics. 

For developers, meanwhile, the line between developing for console and PC has started to blur. As consoles become more powerful with each iteration, there are fewer concessions that need to be made in order to hit not only performance targets but also comparable visuals across platforms. 

That being said, there will always be a clear difference between consoles and PC in that the former have their own unique platform requirements, whereas PC is much less stringent in terms of rules and regulations. Either way, there are no real drawbacks to consoles getting better and better – as gamers and developers, everybody wins when technology takes a leap forward!

Closing the gap

The gaming industry has never been healthier. Indeed, the UK market alone is worth almost £6 billion - more than video and music combined. The next generation, however, will most likely represent more of an evolution than a revolution.

VR is still a viable concern, of course, but until the technology advances to a stage where it’s not so bulky and inconvenient (not to mention expensive), it’s likely to remain little more than a  way for developers to flex their creative muscles. Maybe in the 10th generation, it might finally break through into the mainstream, but for now, developers are largely going to be playing it safe.

This generation won’t completely change the shape of the industry; it will most likely be more of an evolution than a revolution. Indeed, whilst a new generation of consoles might mean developers will have to invest in some new hardware, Microsoft and Sony have both made it clear that they want their latest babies to be as simple to program for as possible. Almost PC-like, if you will.

Some have even posited that it could be, in effect, the ‘last generation’ of gaming consoles. They believe that once the PS5 and Series X have outstayed their welcome, we might just migrate into a cloud-based future where we stream our games – similar to the way we watch Netflix.

Google tried to jump the gun in this regard with its Stadia platform, but the infrastructure simply isn’t in place yet. Maybe in 10 years. Maybe in 5. Who knows? But for the foreseeable future, the gaming landscape will still be framed by familiarity, with games still being released on physical media and the big three companies still vying for the attention and the loyalty of gamers and developers alike. 

It’s a status quo that has existed in one form or another for decades now but it’s subtly shifting and the community needs to take note. Because whilst the ninth generation might be very much ‘business as usual’, the tenth generation could very well end up being the last.

Ultimately, regardless of what’s going on behind the scenes, one of the things we all love the most about the industry and gamers around the world is that they always recognise good work and they’ll lift you onto their shoulders if they love what you’re doing.

 

Whatever the future of gaming, Novatech is here to help. We custom-build our workstations, so almost every aspect can be modified for your development needs. Check out the full range today. And if you need something special, let us know what you’re after and we’ll put it together for you.

Posted in Gaming and esports

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Published on 19 Mar 2020

Last updated on 19 Mar 2020

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