First Click: Are Sony and Microsoft's new consoles PC gone mad?

June 16th, 2016


Although we still don’t know many specifics, both Microsoft and Sony have now confirmed this E3 that they’re planning to turn the console business upside down by releasing more powerful systems in the middle of this generation. The Xbox One will get a major upgrade in the shape of the 4K-capable Project Scorpio, while the PlayStation 4 is set to get a similar but reportedly less powerful bump codenamed Neo.

This goes against everything console manufacturers have done for decades. The prevailing business model has been to create a powerful, exotic machine sold initially at a loss, make the money back through software sales, and continue selling the same console as prices come down over five years or more. The fixed hardware specification means games run the same for everyone, and developers are able to optimize more efficiently than they could for a similarly powerful PC. And as developers learn the ins and outs of a given console, the results improve — latter-day PS3 and Xbox 360 games like The Last of Us and Halo 4 are far beyond what could have been achieved upon their consoles’ release.

So why would Sony and Microsoft want to tear up the rulebook? The clue is in that first rule I mentioned above, stating that you start with a “powerful, exotic machine.” The PS4 and Xbox One are nothing of the sort — powerful, yes, and capable of great things, but based on middling PC hardware. They share the same architecture, and thanks to the PC industry that architecture gets iterated on at breakneck pace — just like you see in the smartphone market. And, just as companies like Apple and Samsung are able to release cutting-edge new models each year, Sony and Microsoft would like to sell you on more up-to-date technology.

The problem is that no-one’s quite sure how this is all going to work in practice. Microsoft’s Aaron Greenberg, for instance, proclaimed that there would be no Scorpio exclusives, while ignoring that only the newer console is said to be VR-capable. Xbox chief Phil Spencer said that Scorpio "is not going to do anything for you" if you don’t have a 4K TV, after earlier suggesting that developers would be free to use Scorpio’s 6-teraflop power to create better-looking games at 1080p. (Microsoft did not respond to The Verge’s request for clarification.) And we know even less about Sony's Neo.

On paper, existing Xbox One and PS4 owners have little to worry about — their consoles will continue to work the way they did when they were bought. But if the newer models sell well, developers may have less incentive to target the original boxes, meaning that their lifespan may be shorter than you’d otherwise expect. Conversely, the older models may be albatrosses around the newer systems' necks, forcing developers to design their games for a lower specification and build up from there. And if it does turn out that Scorpio targets 4K rendering at the expense of visual quality, quite a few people who would otherwise be interested in upgrading will consider it wasted power. 4K resolution is incredibly difficult to push even for the highest of high-end gaming PCs, and the trade-off is unlikely to be worth it for a console. Offering PC-style variable hardware without giving users control over how it’s used feels like a dubious move.

I’m a serial console buyer, and I would have expected myself to pick up both Neo and Scorpio. But the more I think about it, the more I think I won’t want to unless either offers something spectacular that’s yet to be revealed. Instead, I built a new PC this week with a GTX 1080, and I think that’ll last me long enough — I’ll still have the original PS4, Xbox One, and eventually Nintendo NX for exclusive games on my sofa, and by the time the 1080 is long in the tooth, maybe the next next Xbox and PlayStation will be out.

The shift to a more flexible release cycle could well be a good thing; the fixed generations are certainly anachronistic for the tech world at large, and different levels of hardware will offer more choice over where to buy in. The current usage of more conventional architecture means it'd be strange not to capitalize on the potential flexibility. But Sony and Microsoft’s quest for better performance is bound to run into compromises, and that’s what’s ultimately likely to drive me to an even more flexible solution: the PC.

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