Today Sony is trumpeting the fact that its PlayStation 4 console has sold more than a million units since its Friday launch, and that's in the U.S. alone. This is no mean feat; when Dreamcast sold 300,000 units on its first day of availability in America back in 1999, it was heralded as an unprecedented triumph for video games: Proof that the medium had arrived and could finally sit at the big kids' table with film and music. And now here's Sony putting up a number more than three times as large.
But let's not get cocky. It's been seven years since the PlayStation 3 launched, marking the previous console generation's full arrival. Seven years! Eight since Xbox 360 kicked it off. That makes the previous hardware generation the longest in console history; most cycles last only about four years. Prior to the PS3-to-PS4 gap, the longest space between generations was the five years between the debut of the GameCube and Xbox (November 2000) and Xbox 360 (November 2005). Gamers as a whole -- at least the core gamers who lined up in droves to buy PS4 last week -- are a technology-obsessed bunch. With such a pent-up thirst to see some sort of advancement in the console space, it's hardly surprising PS4 sold so well out of the gate. The question, can Sony sustain a healthy pace? And how will Microsoft fare when Xbox One arrives in a few days?
The video games industry has always operated within steady, predictable rhythms. New hardware stimulates excitement; sales spike and build steadily for several years as a generation's install base grows and developers grow more comfortable working with it; after a while, profits stagnate as the machines age; and everyone begins bracing for the next wave of consoles. Repeat. And again.
But the new generation of consoles -- Sony's PlayStation 4 and Microsoft's Xbox One -- don't seem to be holding to the new pattern. Sure, there's plenty of discussion about the machines, especially now that PS4 has launched, but the search engine volume for the consoles appears to be much lower than it was seven or eight years ago when the machine's predecessors came to market. Most forum discussions about Xbox One and PS4 prior to launch revolved around he-said-she-said debates about particulars like each machine's reported video output capabilities. Can the PS4 churn out 1080p graphics at 60 frames per second? Can the Xbox One? If so, why not?
Generally absent amidst all of this raging number-counting is any real enthusiasm for the systems' launch lineups. With heavy hitters Watch_Dogs and Drive Club delayed, the machines are making their debut with libraries primarily consisting of shallow quickies and a pile of up-rezzed ports of current-gen titles (some of which suffer from severe frame rate and other technical issues compared to their current-gen counterparts; these will be patched, we're promised, but the fact that patches are necessary at all is a letdown). Only a handful of launch titles for either system seem likely to be greeted with universal enthusiasm and praise. Granted, this is usually the case for console launches, but 2013 feels like the first time the hardcore gaming fanbase -- outside the usual loyal platform defenders, of course -- has been willing to admit it.
Meanwhile, awareness of the machines outside the core gaming demographic seems severely lacking. Until PS4 launch reports began trickling into the news this past weekend, the mainstream press and public appeared blissfully unaware of the looming hardware launches. This is entirely anecdotal, I fully admit, but I've kept my ear to the ground, and conversations I've had with many others in the press and the industry corroborate my own experience. The general sentiment I've observed (as has been the case with a number of people I've spoken to) runs along the lines of, "Did I hear there was going to be another Xbox/PlayStation system soon?" It's not excitement or eagerness I hear, but rather a mildly curious sense of befuddlement -- the same befuddlement that the Wii U (which doesn't really factor into the next-gen race, by Nintendo's own design) seems to inspire, in fact.
I worry that the Wii U will prove to be the next generation's bellwether: A decent machine with a decent lineup that fails to inspire anyone outside its core fan base to jump in. Nintendo has been dealing with the reality of its worst first-year console sales ever with Wii U, and while some are quick to shrug it off a situation unique to Nintendo (what with the system's confusing name, confusing controller, and last-gen tech level) I don't think we can completely discount the possibility that PS4 and especially Xbox One -- with its equally ambiguous moniker -- won't find itself in a similar situation a year from now.
I don't doubt Xbox One will launch almost as strong as PlayStation 4. Again, core gamers have been champing at the bit for a new generation of hardware for several years; the previous generation lasted three or four years longer than most cycles, and the flaccid sales for games and machines of late has borne this out. But once the built-in audience have acquired their few million systems, do the next-gen consoles have legs?
The answer to that question remains every bit as hazy as it was when the new generation was first revealed earlier this year. The fundamental technical potential of the new consoles seems alarmingly vague, with visible but not shocking graphical improvements on offer... this, despite the fact that offering a new, more impressive visual experience has always been a basic part of the next-gen upgrade process. We could look at a Genesis and see its superiority to NES at a glance; we reeled at what a PlayStation could do compared to a Super NES; the Xbox 360's high-definition graphics left us stunned by how much sharper its visuals appeared compared to PlayStation 2. But does Knack really look that much better than Beyond? Is Killer Instinct's visual patina really so much more compelling than Grand Theft Auto V's?
Core gamers have been champing at the bit for a new generation of hardware for several years. But once the built-in audience have acquired their few million systems, do the next-gen consoles have legs?
Realistically speaking, the new consoles don't offer a significant leap over current high-end PCs, especially if they can't even output in true high-definition reliably. And in a couple of years, today's "high-end" PCs will be decidedly middle-tier, with the new high-end leaving consoles in the dust. Cost arguments (i.e. "PCs cost more") grow increasingly irrelevant as the price of decking out a self-built PC with power to rival the new consoles constantly decreases. Most of the industry's truly inventive creations come from small, independent studios and don't require top-of-the-line gear anyway -- and most of them are only on PC.
In fairness, horsepower isn't really the point of the next generation. PS4 and Xbox One offer more impressive graphics than their predecessors, sure, but not wildly more impressive. The heart of the next-gen packages they offer lies in their more intangible capabilities: Instant streaming, sharing, a true set-top box. Those are much harder points to communicate than obviously stunning visuals -- and unfortunately, developers have largely hit a wall on just how good they can make things look without breaking the bank. Instead, Sony and Microsoft have to sell the general public on supplemental features. That is, things like social media integration... which their PCs smart phone apps can already do.
I can't help but feel those shiny new black boxes are being forced to play catch-up with fundamental features offered by a device they carry with them daily. It's not just portable consoles that are being challenged by mobile platforms. Even more alarmingly, both Microsoft and Sony seem to be banking on significant improvements to America's network infrastructure happening in short order: Microsoft aims to "upgrade" Xbox One on the fly with cloud co-processing, while Sony hopes to stream game libraries through its partnership with Gaikai.
This seems like a dangerous state of affairs all around. A highly respected Microsoft analyst and insider views the Xbox division -- along with Bing -- as a major drag on the company's profits and strongly recommends the company's next CEO spin it off or shut it down entirely. Failure could be even more devastating for PlayStation 4, however; Sony's computer entertainment division was the most profitable portion of the company in 2011, but barely registered in the black in 2012. If PS4 launches as poorly as its predecessor did, it could scuttle Sony's profits across the board.
Amidst all the hype and excitement of the impending console launches, it's hard to find a word of caution. Game enthusiasts, regardless of their feelings on the companies or products involved, want both consoles to succeed; the next-gen's performance will tell us whether the medium as we know it can continue to carry on as it is or if it needs to be burned to the ground so the industry can start afresh. But that's precisely the problem: Enthusiasts care, as this weekend's numbers bore out, but does anyone else? How these consoles fare beyond the initial holiday rush, once the core is satisfied, will help determine the future of the industry at large.