Earlier this week, Sony put the rumor mill to rest by confirming details of its upcoming PlayStation 4 Pro console, a new high-end PS4. The news follows on from a summer of similar announcements, with Microsoft taking to the E3 stage in June to reveal their Xbox One S and Project Scorpio systems, and Nintendo confirming the existence of the Nintendo NX via an official statement just prior to the show.
With news of these four systems still relatively hot off the press, one of the natural reactions has been to speculate as to what this all means for developers.
In answer to that question, Crytek Game Designer Niklas Walenski says that, in his opinion, new consoles primarily represent new opportunities from a development perspective.
“We are always limited to some extent in videogame development, and we have to work within certain constraints that are usually related to the power of a system versus what we would like to do. But new hardware inevitably removes some of the limitations. We can create bigger worlds, render much more, and have more complex systems running our ideas.”
“Each console has its own twist to it, but there are standards between them. If a console has a unique peripheral you have to think a little differently about it, but in general they tend to share key similarities. So new hardware doesn’t usually tend to present the same issues as a new medium like VR, where we’re having to throw away a lot of the things we did before, or iterate on them, because they just don’t work anymore. Instead, you’re essentially gaining varying degrees of additional power to play with.”
Much of the discussion around the new hardware disclosed this summer has centered on its seemingly incremental nature – with some new consoles being pitched largely as upgrades within the same family, rather than replacements. But, despite all the talk of backwards compatibility and increased choice for gamers, the reaction from many of those who will be shelling out for new systems seems to sit in contrast with manufacturers. Check the comments on any story highlighting the potential “iPhonified future” of the console cycle, and you’ll find that the majority currently center around approximations of the question, “Who’s paying for all of this?”
But, even if the jury is still out on the part of gamers, the expectation that hardware developers will push on with more frequent system upgrades is becoming increasingly taken as read. Head of Xbox Games Marketing Aaron Greenberg went as far as saying, “I think it is,” when Engadget asked him this month if “this is the last console generation.” And, although he offered his opinion alongside a promise to see how the strategy is received, his initial position is mirrored in dozens of gaming industry headlines that assure us “Video game consoles, as we know them, are coming to an end,” and that “Soon you’ll buy consoles the way you upgrade iPhones.”
If those prophecies come to pass, Niklas says the fact technological barriers are regularly being removed has to be seen as a positive, even in light of the fact developers may find themselves under pressure to ensure their games run across the differing systems manufacturers have in play at any one time.
“We had a very long console cycle with Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, which is good for developers from one standpoint, because you know exactly what you’re working with and can refine things more and more over the years. But, on the other hand, there were certain limitations you were always operating within, and you were bound to those while technology raced ahead. A lot can change in seven or eight years. Ultimately, though, we will have to wait and see what everyone has planned.”
Whatever form the console landscape of the future takes, the race between hardware manufacturers to provide more power is now being run at a faster pace than ever. And, for developers at least, the promise of having fresh creative possibilities at their fingertips holds the same appeal it always has. But perhaps the true fate of the console cycle will be more about the details – the size of the technological gap that emerges between platforms; a given system’s ability to support new peripherals; and the openness to making certain experiences exclusive to a single console within the “family” – to name but a few. And, of course, the small matter of whether gamers feel inclined to come along for the ride. They, after all, have always held the ultimate power when it comes to determining losers and winners in the battle for shelf space in the living room.
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