Editorial: The Next Generation Race is a Marathon, Not a Sprint

Sony can take pride in the opening-day success of PlayStation 4, but the next gen has a long way to go before it proves itself.

Article by Jeremy Parish, .

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.

A million of these bad boys are sitting in America's living rooms, and most of them actually work.

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.

It's been a long road, getting from there to here.

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.

The most important next-gen feature of all: The ability to hover silently over an endless expanse of white.

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.

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Comments 19

  • Avatar for DiscordInc #1 DiscordInc 4 years ago
    This is something I've been feeling as the release of this consoles get closer. It's not that unusual for a console to sell well at launch. I mean the Wii U technically sold out at launch, and how much has that helped it? It will be interesting to see how all of the consoles are doing this time next year.
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  • Avatar for whitestreak #2 whitestreak 4 years ago
    I'll admit that I'm not the ideal person to comment on this: after buying the N64 pretty close to launch day, I haven't bought a single full-size console (but I got the GBA early, the DS a bit later and the 3DS a couple of months ago).

    Most of my old friends haven't either, though whenever we meet up we talk about the good old days; about Duck Tales or Mega Man or Goldeneye or whatever. But none of us play anymore: the joypads are too big and have too many buttons, and to finish a game you need at least 15 hours, if not much more.

    Obviously, my generation is a bit old for all of this, but still. The kids of today encounter video games on ipads and iphones, toys which their parents buy for their own leisure, and most of the games they will play are simplistic rubbish like Angry birds, not those games of old which demanded skill and reflexes, but were still extremely accessible.

    Hence, I fear that many of those buying consoles now will end up like me, watching the business from a distance without spending much on it, while the younger generation will spend its time with cheaper, more primitive, extremely addictive app games. Then, the video game market might actually crash, or at least it will be reduced to a fringe phenomenon like LPs...
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  • Avatar for CkRtech #3 CkRtech 4 years ago
    I was cruising through this entry and enjoying the content until I got "Where My Heart Will Take Me" stuck in my head. Thanks, Jeremy.
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  • Avatar for jeremycarrier12 #4 jeremycarrier12 4 years ago
    Nothing's over yet, but I just don't see PS4(or Xbone) falling on their face the way the Wii U has. The Wii U has zero third party support, a central gimmick that nobody wants and is hard to explain the appeal, have lackluster marketing, and spent about half a year pretending the system was dead with little-to-no first party releases, much less third party ones. PS4 is launching stronger than the Wii U(or any other console, ever), it has a nice price point, has a much clearer message to the consumers, and has waaaaaaaaaaay more developer support with more consistent releases coming in 2014 and beyond.

    Sony has spent the past 7 years rebuilding for this, and although I'm noy buying one any time soon, I think its gonna be a product that appeals to more than just the hardcore who still remember Jeremy Parish as that irrational Treasure hater guy and post on his articles.
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  • Avatar for MojoBox #5 MojoBox 4 years ago
    This is the least excited I've ever been for new generation of game consoles since I've paid attention to the industry, starting with the 32bit generation.

    Every prior generation had clear technological advancements that had obvious potential for changes in game design. The 32 bit consoles offered ubiquitous 3D game design. The Playstation 2 era systems with more advanced processing power allowed for new game designs. Dynasty Warriors may be a joke now but at the time who wasn't impressed by that many on screen characters? That was new, that was exciting.

    The major problem keeping me from being excited about this round of consoles is none of the technological innovation shows any promise of altering the game design landscape as we know it. Most of the NEW is focused on diversionary, peripheral stuff: social media features, media streaming, applications. Okay I get it, that stuff is not going anywhere and a lot of people seem to like it. But it's hard to get hyped for a $500 box that will let me stream video when the games are the same stuff with slight visual improvements.

    I've never been more pessimistic about videogames. Game developers have seemed to work themselves into a creative Cul-de-sac. I hoped a new round of hardware might get their creative juices flowing, but the major developers seem content to ride their AAA franchises out for as long as possible.

    How many new franchises were you excited for in the first year of the 360 and PS3? Assassin's Creed, Uncharted, Gears of War, Mass Effect? The list of NEW was long and enticing.

    Well I hope you're still excited about those franchises, because you can expect sequels to all of them on your new consoles. Yay.
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  • Avatar for Thusian #6 Thusian 4 years ago
    Who knows maybe they'll keep up gang busters business or maybe this is just a pent up niche group mixed with Christmas over indulgence in the face of recession. If stuff falls off a cliff after Christmas then you'll have a good indicator.

    People say its a different launch than Wii U I don't see it that differently except for the numbers. A couple of stand out launch titles (I liked Zombie U, NSMBU has mass appeal), a few fun DL titles like Little Inferno and games that are available on existing hardware with a few new features. Sounds pretty similar. Then after Christmas, nothing really until March with a few good, but not stellar titles. As of August they hit a stride with Pikmin, then Rayman to Wonderful 101 then Zelda and heading into Mario. I think the PS4 titles kick in again around Feb with Infamous, but honestly I'm not the guy to ask. So that will keep interest maybe where the Wii U lost it.

    So I hope it succeeds after X-Mas, although I would like to see something rip through the industry to shake up the 3rd parties to make them branch out a bit. I am so exhausted by the shooters and Assassin's Creed alikes I feel like my tastes must not matter(maybe they don't) but if it weren't for that little failure WiiU I wouldn't have played anything off my TV this year. If their platform isn't viable I doubt I'll see much I like in the console space.
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  • Avatar for Captain-Gonru #7 Captain-Gonru 4 years ago
    While we're talking about the future of what is now the "current" Gen (XB1, PS4, Wii U), has anyone been to a Target lately? Somehow, with seemingly no one noticing, almost all of the Wii U's new games are only available online.
    AC IV and Batman: Arkham Origins first tipped me to this. Then, while double-checking the release date for SM3DW (still can't believe they're going against XB1 launch, but whatever), I see that it will also be online only. Thinking that this must be a mistake, I called, and sure enough, guy at the store confirmed it.
    I'm left to wonder if this is the beginning of the end for in-store buying, brought down by digital distribution.
    For those who may think that maybe its just a Wii U thing, consider this. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is, you guessed it, online only. No sane person can try to claim that the 3DS isn't pulling down HUGE numbers. So what other conclusion could be drawn?
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  • Avatar for Funny_Colour_Blue #8 Funny_Colour_Blue 4 years ago
    "...and unfortunately, developers have largely hit a wall on just how good they can make things look without breaking the bank. "

    ...Everyone pay attention to this, please. Think about this particular point very carefully and what it actually means. Because this is a HUGE problem.

    If nothing else, this is what you should actually be worried about.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #9 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    @Funny_Colour_Blue Yeah, I've speculated before that a lot of the gains this coming generation will come from technical trickery that makes lower-quality assets seem more impressive:

    Because lord help us all if that's not the case.
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  • Avatar for B0b #10 B0b 4 years ago
    So ideally no one will make consoles anymore?
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  • Avatar for deesmith #11 deesmith 4 years ago
    This very well could be the last gen of consoles maybe, but a lot of the issue with marketing these new units is how to honestly distinguish them from their predecessors. This is where I think the Xbox one make a more compelling argument and divisive as the TV pass through is, it does add an extra feature that simply cannot be emulated by the PS4.

    As an early adopter of both at launch other than games that is all the difference to me. Are games like Killzone extra sexy - sure, but MY PC has been pelting that level of graphics out across 3 1080p monitors at the same time for at least a year - so the wow factor is not there for me.

    Still they both have compelling games, but to the casual user - HD looks like HD and from what they know we been playing HD for 7 years now - so where is the selling point? Services will drive this generation of consoles and if they both want to survive they will need to offer features that clearly people want.

    I personally would like to see them both do well as I still love console gaming and it is still a different beast from PC, Handheld and Mobile gaming.
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  • Avatar for StingingVelvet #12 StingingVelvet 4 years ago
    Early hype and people telling other people which one to get can definitely heavily influence a next-gen race before it even begins. That said, this can be overcome if quality titles are released quickly. We shall see what happens.
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  • Avatar for StingingVelvet #13 StingingVelvet 4 years ago
    @deesmith I'm a PC gamer as well and Killzone is definitely wowing me. Looks better than any PC game on max that I've played, for sure.
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  • Avatar for StingingVelvet #14 StingingVelvet 4 years ago
    @Captain Gonru I assume by online only you mean only through their website? I know you don't mean there is no physical version of Zelda, because there surely is.

    Target has limited space and aren't going to stock everything. Makes sense they're keeping a lot of WiiU games in warehouses, the system and games just aren't selling. Zelda is surprising though, for sure.
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  • Avatar for StingingVelvet #15 StingingVelvet 4 years ago
    @jeremy.parish Nice article. I think the way to go is higher resolution, more AA and AF, but keeping general detail and assets largely the same as last-gen. Those enhancements along with larger levels and longer view distances afforded by the larger amount of RAM should make games look amazing while still largely being rooted in the same costs and time as last-gen.

    Killzone Shadow Fall looks amazing because of large areas, crisp graphics and nice lighting effects. If you stop and look the basic design and detail work is largely the same as in Killzone 2 or 3.
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  • Avatar for #16 4 years ago
    They'll be fine. I love the PS4. Sony has the best 1st party games (in my opinion) and the system is simple.
    Turns on and you do what you want in a couple clicks. PC gaming is still more effort than I want to put in, be it upgrading parts and games crashing.
    The new controller is the best and most importantly, Sony treats it's customers well, be it the perks in Plus or sales on games.
    PC gaming is there for those that want it, but it's still a hardcore hobby. Consoles are here to stay for a while longer.
    Wii U is failing because it's not a good system and has very few games anyone over the age of 15 wants.
    Make a good console, people will buy it. Simple as that. and the PS4 is great. I bought two. (one for the wife)
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  • Avatar for Kirinn #17 Kirinn 4 years ago
    @jeremy.parish@Funny_Colour_Blue Agreed, and I think Ghost's Sub-D rendering technique is just scratching the surface of what's going to have to be a huge list of advances in procedurally-generated modelling that the next gen and beyond will need to come up with detailed HD environments without breaking the bank. A lot of games have dabbled in this sort of thing before, but I think they're going to have to get better and better at letting algorithms do a lot of the low-level work of creating worlds. You'll still want a human hand guiding the big picture to make the level design interesting, but for the details you'll want to do more things along the lines of letting vegetation grow itself following loose rules, and so on.

    The real world isn't intelligently designed, but it sure is complex, and as games try to approach closer and closer to it they're going to have to adopt more of it's methods, because the alternative of crafting everything by hand just isn't possible.
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  • Avatar for docexe #18 docexe 4 years ago
    I think it’s too early to tell how these machines will fare in the long run. But while certainly there are many unhealthy trends in the gaming industry right now that could undermine the console sector, when you consider the numbers that GTAV pulled off recently, and the fact that the PS4 achieving a million of sales in such a short time sets actually a historical precedent… well, the truth of the matter is that this part of the industry still has a rather big audience that is not going anywhere anytime soon.
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  • Avatar for abuele #19 abuele 4 years ago
    Remarkable insight, Jeremy. Would you consider that since Sony or Microsoft didn't invested directly in developing hardware to be included in their consoles, they will need to drop cash in developing and sustaining the infrastructure needed to keep the promises given by their consoles to the end user.

    I feel jarred that I haven't found system seller games from this two highlights so far, I don't really care about this social media hype, I just want a game to convince me this is for me, maybe I'm a consumer en route to extinction.
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