For Microsoft and Sony, the future of the console game business just might involve catering to a more enthusiast market, according to research published today by Nielsen Games. While Nintendo seems content banking on its portable Switch device, the owners of the Xbox and PlayStation brands are hoping mid-cycle console upgrades will convince consumers to shell out hundreds of dollars for only incrementally better devices. That could mean fewer consumers buy the latest devices, as the upper end of the console market starts to resemble the PC.
Sony was quickest out of the gate here with the PlayStation 4 Pro, which came out last fall. It arrived with a noticeable boost in performance that allowed for near-4K image quality and compatibility with HDR lighting effects, if you have the right TV hardware to go with it. Microsoft is taking a more calculated approach with Project Scorpio, a new version of the Xbox to be unveiled at E3 this year that will come with more sizable boosts in speed and power over the current generation.
Both are more or less attempting the same thing: a kind of PC-like upgrade from the current generation that swaps out some old parts for newer, faster ones. We aren’t getting a big leap forward, as we might expect from a new console generation, but a modest step up in power and capabilities. The biggest issue, however, might be consumer awareness. According to a new report from Nielsen Games, only a small fraction of the overall gaming community may be interested in buying these devices, and most have never even heard of Project Scorpio or the PS4 Pro.
Nielsen Games’s annual Games 360 Report is a comprehensive breakdown of consumer habits in the US gaming market. It tracks everything from the shifts between console, mobile, and PC popularity to the rise and growth of new technologies and trends like VR and e-sports. It also does deep dives into just how much both the average American and the average gamer knows about the industry and where they might spend money. The survey collects data using 2,000 interviews with a 50-50 male-female split, and the raw survey data is then weighted using US Census information to extrapolate the insights to the general population.
For Microsoft’s Project Scorpio and Sony’s already-released PS4 Pro, the numbers are neither all that stellar nor all that surprising. According to the study, just 14 percent of gamers over the age of 13 have ever even heard of Project Scorpio, while just 27 percent have heard of the PS4 Pro. (The figures are far less for the general population.) When it comes to purchasing those devices, just 15 percent of gamers said they’re interested in buying Sony’s new console, while just 13 percent said Project Scorpio is on their prospective buy list.
If you’re an avid follower of gaming and tech news, this might be hard to believe. How could millions of people not know these new products, or have paid attention to any aspect of the console industry over the last year or so without ever hearing about new console upgrades? But generally speaking, the average player consumes far less news about these sectors than hobbyists and hardcore fans, and these consumers likely have only passing awareness of even the most seemingly obvious of game industry shifts. In fact, Nielsen reports that just 72 percent of gamers have ever heard of the Xbox One, let alone something as cryptic sounding as Project Scorpio.
This might suggest a loose definition of gamer, a nebulous and somewhat toxic concept in the gaming community. There is no dictionary definition that can satisfy everyone, and no certification board that decides how to define the fandom and how far it extends or to whom. That means these concepts have typically been the subject of fierce debate in online forums and elsewhere over who is and isn’t a “true gamer.”
Putting aside those arguments, Nielsen says 64 percent of the US population qualifies as a gamer, having played some type of mobile, console, or PC game in the past year. Yet its research does prove that console gaming remains the most popular way to play games. The study shows that 47 percent of the people it judged to be gamers preferred to play on console, compared to 27 percent who chose to play on PC, and 26 percent who preferred mobile gaming.
So Microsoft and Sony clearly think it’s worth targeting those console users with Scorpio and the PS4 Pro, even if they won’t sell tens of millions of units. There is the possibility of a chicken-and-egg problem on our hands. It won’t matter how polished the new console hardware is if game developers don’t feel it’s worth extensive optimization, and consumers won’t want to buy the hardware unless there’s a slate of games that take advantage of the full suite of performance boosts.
Sony says it’s developing tools to make it easer for developers to implement PS4-ready features at launch. The company also issued an update to the PS4 Pro that included a new “Boost Mode” — a feature that lets the hardware run at a higher GPU and CPU clock speed to improve performance on games released prior to the updated console. For newer titles, developers have to specifically enable Pro support to take advantage of it, and even then the effects tend to vary greatly. So just like with the current VR ecosystem, both game makers and players might hold back the adoption of Scorpio and the PS4 Pro for fear that it might be too costly and too early to put in the investment.
A Game Developers Conference survey conducted earlier this year indicates this sentiment of uneasiness is prevalent in the industry. The survey asked game makers how they felt about mid-cycle console upgrades, and 41 percent said they were undecided on the benefits. Only 18 percent were on board with the idea, while 33 percent said they were neutral and 5 percent saw the arrival of new consoles just three years after the last generational jump as strictly negative.
This means that, even with a new PS4 on the market and a new Xbox just one month from its global unveiling, Microsoft and Sony may be wading into a market not that many consumers or developers are interested in. Sure, there will always be the hardcore fans — those interested in the best graphics and performance — who want the latest gear. But those consumers have typically found shelter in the PC space, where modular upgrade systems allow for constant part swapping, and where consoles are seen as the poor relations.
But perhaps that’s the whole point. Microsoft and Sony may be fine with selling lower numbers of these “pro” devices, and more of the standard systems, if it can nurture an enthusiast market in the console space like the one that exists currently on the PC. In an deal world, both Microsoft and Sony would be able to support players across the entire platform regardless of the power of their hardware. But the potential downside is that these aggressive refresh cycles risk splitting the console market into the haves and have nots — and developers seem more wary of that than anything else.