With Microsoft putting out their plans for Scorpio and Sony having the rumored Neo on the way, this next year looks to be one of the most influential in terms of console gaming. People have been speculating that they are moving to a hardware cycle more akin to Apple's which releases a new iteration of hardware every couple years or so. In the Giant Bomb interview with Phil Spencer though, Phil mentioned that it was not their plan to stick to a 2-3 year cycle. He more or less said they would put out new hardware when it makes sense to upgrade. So what exactly will these new hardware iterations line up with? Consoles have been fairly under-powered this generation compared to PCs, more-so than usual. With Steam as big as it is, most games are being ported to PC. I think this has a big part in how they came to the decision to upgrade their hardware early. On the other hand, Phil Spencer made it clear that Microsoft's focus on Windows gaming is stronger than ever, and that people buying software for PC instead of purchasing an Xbox isn't seen as a misstep anymore. Even so, I think they would like their console to be more on par with the PC gaming experience.
So will new console iterations coincide with big leaps in PC hardware, such as the one we're seeing now with the new generation of video cards coming out? I'm not sure if there is a certain metric they're comparing console hardware to in order to determine when to upgrade, it's probably a decision based upon many things. Microsoft did mention that VR was one of the reasons they wanted to upgrade. VR is sure to be huge, but it's still in the early days of VR and the software experience isn't really there yet, so I don't see that as being something to rush out new hardware for. 4K resolution gaming is another thing Phil said was a major factor in why they were upgrading hardware early. If we look at how significant the jump was from SD to HD gaming, it's understandable that a new resolution standard would be a motivating factor for an early hardware upgrade. Again, as I said with VR, 4K is in its early days and not a ton of people have 4K displays yet. Another couple of years would be right in the wheelhouse of when to really get into the 4K market I would think.
One also has to wonder what the next move by Sony will be. Everyone is aware that the leaked specs of the Neo is less than what Microsoft has confirmed for project Scorpio. I get a similar vibe about Nintendo as well actually. Nintendo has always been secretive about their new hardware, but as the NX approaches launch, I feel like they should of started marketing it by now. They are even announcing games for it even though no one has any clue what 'it' is. Could Sony with the Neo and Nintendo the NX be scrambling to make sure they don't release new hardware that is too far under-powered compared to project Scorpio? Microsoft took to heart what happened this console generation when they went from way ahead of the pack with the 360 to underdog because their console under-performed compared to Sony's PS4. Maybe Sony and Nintendo will look at that result and try to make sure that doesn't happen to them. Nintendo is a bit harder to predict though as they have stated many times they don't even consider themselves in competition with those guys and they certainly haven't been afraid to put out an under-powered console. With the Wii U being a certified failure however, maybe their confidence is a bit shook and they are hedging their bets with this new NX hardware.
It's tough to imagine all of the ramifications that will occur to the console industry as a result of this shift in release time. Since these companies will be spending less time putting together the next generation of hardware, we can probably expect it to not be so drastically different as it traditionally is. We might not see big leaps forward in console UI design or network infrastructure. They are considering these more of a new iteration of the old hardware rather than a brand new product also, so as new iterations come out, they might not look drastically different either. New console launches will be a lot less exciting if it's more like new Iphone launches where you look at the thing and can barely tell it's new other than how it performs. There are still a few things that we might see within another iteration or two of hardware though. Things like ditching the disc drive completely and going all digital, or even just a reasonably sized hard drive. New tech like VR really requires in-store kiosks to show the average consumer what it's about, so maybe they don't' want to sever their ties with brick and mortar retailers just yet.
With console cycles being shorter, we might also see more distrust from the consumer. Or at least less interest in buying consoles since the promise of 5-6 years of relevance will be gone. This is especially true since as Phil mentioned, there is no set cycle they have in mind, just whenever it makes sense. So the console hardware you buy might last 5-6 years, but might only last 2 or 3, who knows. I appreciate the fact though that Phil said he wanted to come out with the Scorpio announcement at the same time as the Xbox 1 S announcement so that consumers don't get burned buying the S then a year later seeing a more powerful version of their hardware available. I would expect that we also wouldn't see as much new peripheral hardware from new console iteration launches. Things like new controllers and the like might not accompany new hardware anymore. Do they necessarily need to put out new controllers? Not really I guess, I mean we're at a pretty good place with current gen controllers, but as the success of the Xbox Elite controller shows, there's always room for improvement. At the very least I think we can always look to new Nintendo hardware for some new crazy controller.
With Microsoft's hard push toward PC gaming and their need to elevate their console hardware to PC comparable levels, I wonder if there will ever come a time when it just doesn't make sense to put out this other box. Maybe someday Microsoft will just remain as a software developer with a game service/store on Windows and call it a day. But with Steam being a might adversary in that space and Microsoft putting out a new piece of hardware, that would be a far flung future. I'm going to remain optimistic about the Scorpio and Neo launch and hope that the hardware turns out to be really cool. If all else fails, Nintendo will always be putting out something weird and interesting. And they just recently discovered that gamers do in fact like to use the internet, so they are pretty far removed from anything PC. I'd love to hear what you guys think will happen to the console industry from this change in the hardware release cycle.