The next generation of consoles is upon us. We've already gotten the names out of the way—PlayStation 5 and Xbox are the official console names. (Xbox Series X is the primary SKU for Microsoft's new console.) We even have a rough idea of the internal hardware for both consoles, which will based on AMD's Zen CPU and Navi GPU processors. All we're missing is specifics: pricing, release date, and the all-important games.
What's harder to glean is the ultimate effect this console generation will have on the gaming industry. Beyond a simple growth in graphical power, every new lineup changes how we play games as a whole. To wit, this generation saw a rise in digital releases, games-as-a-service, and game sharing across platforms like Twitter and Twitch.
While console generations have always been fairly rigid, the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X look to blur the line between generations. Microsoft and Sony want to ensure a certain amount of continuity, allowing players to bring their accounts, friends lists, and games over to the new consoles. They want you to think of PlayStation and Xbox as platforms, not simple boxes you buy every couple of years. The PlayStation 5 will be fully backwards compatible with the PlayStation 4, and Sony has already confirmed that PS4 players will be able to enjoy certain games with their PS5 counterparts.
"Backwards compatibility gives us the opportunity to migrate that community from PlayStation 4 to next-gen," said chief executive officer Jim Ryan last year. "Using the ability to play the PS4 games that they have on their next-generation console."
"When everything is networked and everybody is connected and everybody is friends, the opportunity–with backwards compatibility–to migrate that community in a more efficient manner I think is massively more attractive for gamers and for us than at any point in the past," Ryan added in a later interview.
Microsoft has long been trying to move towards a fluid platform. It started with bringing Xbox One games to Windows 10, allowing players to purchase a game once and play it on either hardware platform. That's only grown with services like Xbox Game Pass and Project xCloud. Ultimately, Microsoft wants you in the Xbox ecosystem. However you get there is fine. So for Xbox Series X, backwards compatibility is one of the primary selling points: even Xbox One accessories are supposed to work on the new console.
"We wanted to make sure we had that, day one, we could deliver on the compatibility promise. And so I've been playing quite a few [Xbox 360] games on my [Xbox Series X] and Xbox One games on the [Xbox Series X] and that's just to ensure that we can be there day one," Xbox boss Phil Spencer said late last year.
"We want your gaming legacy to come with you, whether that's your Gamerscore, whether that's your friends list, all your Achievements, your game saves, all of that should come forward so there are no barriers for you as you think about moving forward," Xbox partner director of program management Jason Ronald said in the same interview.
This paints a picture of an ecosystem where game consoles are more like smartphones or desktop PCs. There might be hardware models that are stripped down or provide more bells and whistles, but there will potentially be a wide range of hardware that all uses the same software. Imagine a PlayStation 5 launch title that still supports play on PlayStation 4 Pro and PlayStation 4. There are drawbacks to this model, especially in terms of software running on lower-end hardware. Already there are games that struggle to run on base PlayStation 4 or Xbox One models. It falls to the consumer to keep up with the mainstream, or get left behind.
As this generation comes to a close, we've already started to see new features to make sliding platforms work. Leading the list is more support for cross-save and cross-play. As I noted before, Microsoft lets you buy Forza Horizon 4 on Xbox One and then carry your progress from Xbox One, to Windows 10, and even to mobile with Project xCloud. And if you subscribe to Xbox Game Pass, you don't even have to purchase the game in the first place. This ability to carry games over is enticing; when you buy an Xbox Series X or PlayStation 5, you're not going to be stuck with a limited library of games, you'll have your entire current generation slate to continue playing.
Even the name Microsoft chosen name for the model revealed at the Game Awards, Xbox Series X, points towards something akin to akin to smartphones. The Series X is likely the rumored Project Scarlett "Anaconda" unit, and we could see the weaker "Lockhart" release with a name like Xbox Series S or Xbox Series L. You can also imagine a more powerful Xbox Series X2, or a diskless Xbox Series D (or whatever you want to call it). They all will play Xbox games, just in slightly different ways. Microsoft seems like it will be all in on this idea, whereas Sony is taking more tentative steps in this direction. There might be a PlayStation 5 Pro or PlayStation 5 Lite eventually, but that's not currently on Sony's radar at the moment, even in terms of rumors. They're focused on the PlayStation 5 alone.
Analysts have been predicting the end of traditional hardware consoles for some time now, but the infrastructure isn't quite there yet to make a streaming-only box a reality for everyone. Instead, it feels like this generation will be the beginning of a stretched, longer run. Instead of drastic shift, we're in for smooth incline upward. Smaller bumps in power, over a shorter time period: the PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X were just previews of what will become the main event.
I'm up for the change as someone who always wants the latest phone, TV, or video card, but we'll see if the average consumer prefers that model, or the box you buy once every 6-7 years. Bring on holiday 2020 and let the cards fall where they may.