6 March 2016

Why the phone model won't work for games consoles... [UPDATED]

It was recently revealed by sites such as Eurogamer and Ars Technica that the Xbox One might see hardware upgrades over the coming generation.

While the speculation is that the XBox One itself will itself have varied models with different innards, it has also been pointed out by commentors that Phil could have been referring to a phone-like situation where the new model is more powerful but the games will work across both models with some caveats such as increased texture resolution or post processing power. 

This might look interesting to Microsoft from a business perspective because they might think that they can sell new models to existing customers and have the old models recycled back into the consumer ecosystem with the games remaining with their original owners.

However, I don't think that the phone model will really work in the console space. First off, the majority of consumers do not buy their high end models outright - they are usually offered as part of plans, often with the new phone as an upgrade to the old one so the overall cost of the phone is spread out within a plan over two to three years. Secondly, the console business relies on consistent architectures in order to provide a single large platform for the game developers and publishers to target. Thirdly, the whole advantage of consoles is that developers can learn the architecture really well so that games take increasing advantage of the available hardware - which is why technically inferior consoles can surpass superior PC setups due to increased overheads and having to design the game for a myriad of configurations.

Addressing the points in order: I do no believe that consumers will buy a new console ever 2-4 years for exactly the same games and at a full system price. €400-500 over that time span is very expensive and while people may counter argue that phones manage to shift in decent numbers, even for those people who buy them outright, nobody buys a phone or tablet PC for the games. There are other reasons to do so, gaming is just a side function of their purpose. Why would a consumer upgrade to the new console system just to play the exact same games?

Here you could make the argument that developers could release the same game but with added features on the more powerful console systems. The problem is that publishers and developers are businesses and so having a fragmented install base means that they will target the most populated system: i.e. the original console. Whatever small percent of XB2s and XB3s there will be in the future market, the majority of the market will be XBOs and so what reason is there for developers and publishers to spend the extra money, time and effort coding advanced features for a small subset of the Xbox console market? Very little incentive indeed. One area that might be okay is having better graphics options available to XB2 and XB3 owners. However, this isn't really all that great of a bonus to someone who's put down €400 x2 or x3 to have the latest systems so isn't much of an incentive to the average consumer who thinks that the output from the XBO is probably 'good enough'.

Add to this the fact that the XBox doesn't exist in a market all by itself, there is also the PS4 to take into consideration and, as history has told us, publishers and developers will target the console with the largest install base and/or the console with the weakest system architecture. The original Xbox (and to some extent the gamecube) was more powerful than the PS2 but did multiplatform games really take advantage of that extra power? For the most part they did not. If Sony do not go down the same road as Microsoft then publishers and developers are going to ignore the extra power and concentrate on the PS4 as their design template which not only has the larger install base but is a little bit more powerful than the XBO to boot.

Finally, with changing architecture, there are increased overheads for developers by having to test (and submit to the console holder's certification) more times the amount of configurations than you would normally find. Instead of having to just test for XBO, they're now having to test and certify the XBO and XB^n. That's not good. Taking the architecture into account and having all games fully compatible across the XBox landscape means that every game will be limited by the original XBOs ability. i.e. Area sizes, polygon counts. There are many games which, when ported to PC have tiny in-game areas and multiple loading screens which only exist because of the Xbox 360 and PS3's relatively small pools of memory. (I'm specifically thinking about Mass Effect here but there are many more). If developers had targeted the more powerful PC instead of the large install bases of the consoles then the level sizes and geometry could have been different... not to mention the level of detail on the characters and post-processing effects such as anti-aliasing. 

One counter argument to this might be that developers do this all the time on tablets and phones for their games. This isn't 100% true and isn't applicable to the console game space. Many games do not run on older phones and tablets even if they use the most up to date OS. Also, a mobile game that is developed for phones and tablets is orders of magnitude cheaper than anything released on a full-blown games console. The level of risk/reward is completely different.

All these factors will be in effect for the games designed for the successors to the XBO - all of which will have the requirement to run on the original hardware of the XBO.

Once again, as with the messaging and ideas pre- XBO launch, Microsoft have come out with an idea that might seem feasible and beneficial at first glance but which doesn't pass muster upon a deeper look.


Well, there are now rumours swirling around that Sony is also working on an upgraded PS4.

I'm as against this as I am a multi-SKU XBO but more to the point: isn't this just exactly what Sony would do in the face of rumours of a more powerful version of their current-gen competitor?

I mean, we're talking about competition that has been so puerile in the past that they literally have bad-mouthed each other. It's pathetic, the level of one-up-manship both Sony and Microsoft have gone to so this sort of thing doesn't surprise me at all.

One interesting thought I did read (from a commenter) that reeks of conspiracy theory - but aren't they so good when you just dip in a little bit? Basically, this person thinks that Sony and MS are announcing 'upgrades' as a way of both hedging their bets against the incredulous rumours surrounding Nintendo's NX platform and also trying to draw Nintendo out into the light regarding the capabilities of the NX.

Unfortunately, I doubt the second part is true because Nintendo is notoriously the most tight-lipped of the three console platform holders. They've played this game of chicken before and won.

The first part is a bit believable because if the NX has some killer feature that neither the XBO or PS4 have then Nintendo could have another Wii on their hands. I doubt they will (I think they'll have a solid platform but it won't be another Wii-level of success) but I can see that Microsoft is hurting over skimping a bit on the graphics capability of the XBO, Sony is hurting a bit over the increased density Blu Ray 4k-capable drives coming out soon and both would love the phone model to work in the console space.

Maybe both MS and Sony will release upgraded hardware that can output at higher resolutions or run VR better.... I still think that's a terrible idea, though.

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