We try to stick to covering news that’s either about or directly related to Nintendo here, but some interesting chatter from both Microsoft and Sony has caught our attention lately. Word has it that Nintendo may not be the only company readying new gaming hardware for the near future; it sounds like both of its competitors could be exploring mid-generation upgrades or revisions to their respective consoles. And, unlike the maelstrom of rumors and conjecture about Nintendo’s impending NX, these new Xbox and PlayStation rumblings already sound pretty legitimate.
Let’s start with Microsoft. During the keynote of its Xbox Spring Showcase event last month, Phil Spencer, head of Microsoft’s Xbox division, dropped some not-too-subtle hints about what the future of Xbox might look like. He outlined a vision of an Xbox console that, like a PC, could be modified and upgraded on a regular basis.
“Consoles lock the hardware and the software platforms together at the beginning of the generation. Then you ride the generation out for seven or so years, while other ecosystems are getting better, faster, stronger; and then you wait for the next big step function,” he said.
He went on to indicate that Xbox One owners might be offered optional hardware upgrades at some point in the future, and hinted at the potential for 4K gaming and a library of backward and forward-compatible games that will always be with you. Needless to say, this could signal a dramatic shift away from the typical five to seven year console cycle that’s existed since the birth of video games. It’s a concept that has been tossed around for years, and while Spencer didn’t offer any concrete timeframe or details on how Microsoft might be planning to implement this new approach, he made his enthusiasm and commitment to the idea clear.
While Microsoft’s ideas for an iterative Xbox certainly caught us off guard a few weeks ago, a new report from Kotaku paints an equally perplexing picture for the future of PlayStation 4. Citing conversations with a number of developers working with Sony, the report claims that the Japanese giant is prepping a revised PlayStation 4 console to be released sometime during this generation. These sources corroborated that this ‘PS4.5’ will have upgraded hardware that will support 4K gaming, offer additional processing power, and improve support for the PlayStation VR headset due to launch this fall.
Kotaku attempted to verify this information with Sony directly, but received the standard “We can’t comment on rumors or speculation” reply. Still, Kotaku has become infamous for repeatedly breaking insider news that turns out to be true, like Fallout 4’s setting and unannounced Assassin’s Creed titles.
Part of me is curious about exactly what form these half-step consoles might take, and how dramatic an effect they could have on the future of gaming. But a more insistent and inquisitive part of me simply wonders: Why? PlayStation 4 is the fastest-selling console of all time, with over 35 million units sold in its first two and half years. And while the Xbox One may be struggling a bit by comparison, it’s still on track to achieving a very comfortable install base. So why split these massive user bases now, when consumers are generally happy with their systems and expect them to stay relevant for at least a few more years? Is the consumer demand for 4K content forcing their hands earlier than they anticipated? Or maybe developers are already reaching the technical limits of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One and can only really flex their muscles on gaming PCs. Only time will tell.
So what does all of this have to do with Nintendo? Well, maybe everything and maybe nothing; it all depends on what exactly the NX turns out to be. Until news of these new hardware plans broke, the NX had a wide open release window all to itself. Launching smack dab in the middle of its competitors’ console generation would give Nintendo unprecedented freedom in deciding the specifications of its new machine. Erring on the conservative side of power, a machine on par with the PS4 and Xbox One would open up many possibilities for third party support, and keep its hardware relevant for at least the next few years. If Nintendo chose to amp things up and exceed the status quo, it would hold the power advantage for the remainder of the generation. Either scenario would give the NX a technical edge that no home Nintendo console has had in quite some time.
If, however, the NX were to launch this holiday season and be followed up sometime in the subsequent year or two by a new PlayStation or Xbox device that once again trounces it in terms of power, it could seriously affect the commercial appeal of the new system. This would essentially be a repeat of the current generation, where the unique qualities of the Wii U and its exclusive titles would be all that set it apart from the competition. And while that’s all the incentive that most Nintendo fans need, it doesn’t make for a compelling sales pitch to the mass market.
Thankfully, the rumor mill has given us many other reasons to be optimistic and hopeful for the NX. The most prevalent of these rumors, a handheld/home console hybrid machine, is an evolution that we are all expecting at this point, and could be the consolidation that refocuses Nintendo into the juggernaut that it’s been in the past. There’s also the fact that the limited power of its consoles has never stopped Nintendo from making the gorgeous, high quality games that it’s known for. With so many other factors to consider on the horizon of video games though, like VR, it’s impossible to say what needs to happen and how things might evolve in the next few years.
The nature of video games is in an unprecedented state of flux, right now. Console generations are shifting, mobile gaming is huge, the virtual reality that we’ve been promised for decades is finally coming to fruition, and developers and hardware manufacturers are constantly finding new ways to show us what the future holds. Personally, I’m not too worried about these theoretical hardware upgrades from Microsoft and Sony just yet, but they do make me more curious and nervous than ever about what Nintendo currently has up its sleeve.
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