The original Xbox was less than four years old when Microsoft formally unveiled its successor: the HD-capable Xbox 360.
By the standards of the time, it was a quick console transition, coming a full year earlier than usual. The Sega Genesis had made it six years before the Saturn and PlayStation came along in 1995, while the PlayStation had lasted five. There was much grumbling as Microsoft effectively pulled the plug on development for their inaugural console in order to promote the new Xbox 360.
Fast-forward to 2017, and we're once again seeing an earlier-than-usual console transition. This time, though, Microsoft is being more subtle. Project Scorpio will be in many ways a brand new console, sporting native support for 4K displays and a much more powerful processor. But rather than replace the Xbox One, it will exist alongside it, with games developed for the Xbox One being compatible with Scorpio, and vice-versa.
It will fill much the same niche that PlayStation 4 Pro is now filling with the PlayStation 4, effectively copying Apple's Macbook strategy with light, standard, and power models. It's not a perfect comparison—the Xbox One S is actually superior to the original Xbox One, for example—but it offers some insight into Sony and Microsoft's approach going forward. In effect, they will be selling gaming laptops that can connect to your television.
The shift in strategy by Microsoft and Sony is an acknowledgment of both the constant churn of technology as well as the problem of diminishing returns. There's no question that PS4 games are more attractive than PS3 games, but we're a long way from the days when console transitions could actually wow you. That makes brand new consoles that require a new library a tough sell, especially with mobile and PC providing so much competition. The PS4 Pro and Project Scorpio are Sony and Microsoft's way of working around that little problem while ensuring that the current generation of consoles doesn't abruptly become stale.
As for the Nintendo, they're in the midst of a console transition of their own, though it's more traditional than the one offered by the PS4 Pro and Scorpio. The Nintendo Switch will be a brand new console that effectively consolidates Nintendo's handheld and console businesses into one machine. Following on from the disappointing Wii U, the Switch will be an important test of whether Nintendo can continue to compete in the current era of gaming.
With that, here's what to expect from each console:
We know precious little about Project Scorpio outside of the fact that it exists and that it will be more powerful than the original Xbox One. Microsoft is touting its "six teraflops of GPU power" and 60 hz rendering, and promising that it will be in "native, true 4K." While nothing has been announced, many observers have speculated that the Scorpio will be used as a platform for high-fidelity VR gaming. No word yet on pricing, but some are predicting that it will be $399. Ultimately, it should be similar to the PS4 Pro in that it will offer more attractive graphics and better load times for high-end users, though not necessarily better framerates.
PlayStation 4 Pro
The PS4 Pro launched last November and reportedly sold reasonably well, with Famitsu and GameSpot both reporting sizable jumps in PS4 sales after its release. It caught flak for not supporting 4k Blu-ray playback, as well for not being powerful enough to render many triple-A games in 4K, but it nevertheless received relatively positive reviews. At around 4.2 teraflops, it won't provide the graphical punch of the Scorpio, but it will nevertheless offer a nice upgrade over the standard PS4 going forward. First-party developers will most likely offer PS4 Pro-exclusive features, though third-party developers may be more circumspect. What will be really interesting to see is whether Sony pushes out a more powerful PlayStation VR to take advantage of the PS4 Pro. It may not be this year, but it could happen soon...
The Nintendo Switch
The Nintendo Switch has generated a lot of positive buzz since its official reveal late last year. Even questions about graphical powerful haven't been enough to diminish interest in Nintendo's hybrid portable, which looks to match the best of the 3DS and the Wii U into a single unit. It's buoyed by the fact that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild will be coming out in its launch window, which should help to drive interest. Unlike the Wii U, which was hard to explain to lay-people, the Switch has a simple and compelling hook: It offers triple-A quality gaming at home or on the road. A strong reveal has generated early momentum for the Switch, but much will depend on whether it can secure enough games in the early going to avoid one of Nintendo's dreaded content gaps. We'll know a lot more when Nintendo formally reveals the Switch's release date, price, and launch lineup in a couple weeks.
Each of these consoles will ultimately accomplish something different for their respective platform holders. For Sony, it will be an opportunity to jump on the 4K train and keep their momentum going through the end of the generation. For Microsoft, it will be an attempt to regain the technical edge over the PlayStation 4. And in the case of Nintendo, the Switch will simply be about staying relevant in a market that is more competitive than ever.
But in a larger sense, each console is an attempt to grapple with the rapidly changing gaming market—one in which, despite all the talk about teraflops, power is actually less important than ever. This isn't the beginning of a new era of annual console updates, but it does suggest that consoles will be more like PCs than ever before. You could say this is the culmination of the process that began when Microsoft essentially built the Xbox with off-the-shelf PC parts.
We'll see how it plays out, but it's fair to say that times are changing.