After months of anticipation, Sony and Microsoft have started releasing concrete details for their upcoming flagship next-gen consoles, the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X. After days of press releases, blog posts, and presentations... I am mostly just tired of hearing the word “teraflop.”
It’s not that the specific measurement of computational power for graphics cards is getting me down; rather, it’s the entire approach that Microsoft and Sony have taken to announce their respective next-generation consoles. Both companies have decided that the first and most important message to give customers and developers is about the pure hardware specifications. And so, just over half a year away from these consoles launching, the only thing we really know about them is cold, hard numbers: how fast the processors are; how many compute units the GPUs have; how quickly the SSDs can process data; how much RAM they have; and, of course, the often-bragged-about teraflop count.
These details are important, don’t get me wrong. Developers need to know specifications and design strategies behind these consoles so that they can take advantage of these features. And getting that information to them is important. This week’s spec-heavy announcements, in particular, were likely rescheduled from the canceled Game Developers Conference — a developer-focused event — and it makes sense that the news from it would be developer based.
But why make this the focus of the announcement campaign? Why are these details the only ones we have about the Xbox Series X or PlayStation 5? I’m a tech reporter; I enjoy hearing what people consider to be dull technical details about computer hardware, and even I was bored.
Show a tech demo! Or an actual game! Companies need to stop taking the entire exercise so seriously. These are boxes that play video games, a form of entertainment that is ostensibly supposed to be fun. Why not actually show that, instead of treating the details like Cold War intel that needs to be carefully distributed?
Because right now, for all the speeds and specs that have been promised, we have little idea of what this actually means for next-gen games. All we have to go on are a pre-rendered trailer, a few screenshots, and a few videos showing faster load times on mostly older games.
Compare Microsoft and Sony’s first looks at their consoles to Nintendo’s reveal for the Switch. The focus is on the experience of playing the console, the joy that it brings to people in different ways. There were games shown off that Nintendo hadn’t officially announced for the Switch at that point, some of which wouldn’t arrive for at least a year from when they were first seen in the trailer. Sure, Nintendo also gave hardware details as to how powerful the Switch was, but it wasn’t the spotlight — playing games was.
The entire point of buying a video game console is that you don’t have to worry about specs
The entire point of buying a video game console from Sony or Microsoft or Nintendo is that customers don’t have to worry about specs. The implicit promise of consoles is that by paying slightly more for hardware and games and giving up customization and higher levels of performance, you get a box that will play whatever games match the logo on it, no questions asked.
There will always be a subset of fans who like to boast about how their favorite company’s box is better or faster than the others, who are no doubt delighted to use this week’s announcements as the latest salvos in their unending online fights. But it misses the point that it shouldn’t really matter what’s inside your console. And the fact that Microsoft and Sony not only expect me to know what a teraflop is but are actively emphasizing these hardware specs as the core of experience for their new consoles is fundamentally backward.
Despite most of the next-gen console announcements doubling as dry white papers, it probably won’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Microsoft and Sony will still sell millions of their new consoles anyway. Hyped-up reveals focusing on the actual games that you can play and how these consoles will make that better and more fun will undoubtedly arrive at some point in the coming months.
But right now, the balance feels off. Microsoft and Sony seem to be too focused on one-upping both each other and their existing hardware’s specifications and not focused enough on making the argument that these innovations — which are no doubt important and technically impressive — are actually going to make anything more fun.
Update March 19th, 10:50 AM ET: Added links to Microsoft’s loading and quick resume demos in addition to Sony’s loading demo.