The long battle between gaming PCs and game consoles is over, and the PCs won.
At least they won the philosophical battle, with console giants Sony and Microsoft adopting major ideas from PC gaming into the formerly intractable console model. With the new slim PS4 and the upcoming PS4 Pro, as well as the Xbox One S and next year’s Xbox Project Scorpio, console makers are suddenly looking very much like they’re playing catchup with features and ideas PC gamers have enjoyed for years.
Why this change of heart? The long-standing console tradition was previously built around completely static hardware platforms that lived well past their prime, usually for five to seven years or more. That’s an idea that dates all the way back to the original console days of the 1970s, as far back as the Atari 2600.
Back then, and up until the beginning of the 21st century, you could conceivably get away with putting a sealed box on a shelf in a store and essentially selling the same package over and over again for years (with a handful of once-in-a-blue-moon experimental add-ons, such as the Sega CDor the Xbox 360 HD-DVD drive). But today, in the wider electronics world outside of the game console market, everyone from makers of CPUs (the brains of the hardware) to GPUs (the all-important graphics processors) to Apple and Samsung is on a continual treadmill of incremental advances, churning out new hardware and supporting new features at an accelerated pace.
I’ve previously referred to this as the trap of the annual upgrade cycle. And while it does have its own set of problems (see the minimal differences between the last three iPhone models as an example), it’s vastly preferable to the problem the last couple of game console generations had. New game console hardware already felt outdated compared to midlevel gaming PCs on Day 1, and then felt even more painfully outdated as the years wore on. It got to the point a couple of years ago where a $500 entry-level gaming PC such as the Alienware Alpha, with a very mainstream Nvidia GPU inside, could play new games at higher resolutions with better detail than the then-new Xbox One and PlayStation 4consoles.
Scale it up, scale it down
PC gamers have always been able to scale their games and gaming budgets easily. An older computer can still play newer games, and a new computer can play games up to a decade or more old easily, and through lightly patched versions from Gog.com and others, access decades’ worth of old PC games. If you had an older graphics card or processor, the resolution and detail settings would scale down. If you had newer hardware, games could ramp up to 4K resolution, or insane levels of detail — and no one felt this was unique enough to host a special press conference about it.
What we have now, with the new Xbox and PlayStation models, is a blurring of the lines between the glacial pace of console hardware evolution and the swap-any-new-part-in-anytime model of desktop gaming PCs. (Gaming laptops are also largely locked into their hardware, but the newest laptops have desktop-level, VR-ready graphics, plus there’s a promising new generation of external graphics add-on hardware that makes some gaming laptops more upgradable than ever.)
No more disposable game collections
The genius of this new console model is that the base platform remains the same. Before, trading up from an Xbox 360 to an Xbox One literally meant tossing your entire game collection, and even your controllers. (Microsoft, to its credit, later began adding Xbox One compatibility to some, but not all, Xbox 360 games via free software patches.)
Now, for example, the same game disc or download will run on an “old” PlayStation 4, a new PS4 Slim and a new PS4 Pro. Sony says all PS4 models will be getting compatibility with HDR, the “super contrast” mode available on many newer 4K TVs (albeit, as usual, only with supported content). But those same 4K TV owners can get better resolution from supported PS4 games from that new PS4 Pro, too. In other words, games scale to your hardware and budget, just as they have for PC gamers for decades.
Sony and Microsoft have finally figured out that the “throw everything away every five years” model is not going to work any longer, especially when people want to maintain some sense of platform continuity. No matter who makes my gaming PC and the components inside, if I’ve upgraded it 10 times, or if I initially spent $600 or $6,000 on it, I can still download the same game code from Steam or another online store and and play essentially the same game on the common Windows platform. Sony and Microsoft promise at least some of the same interoperability going forward, with both requiring game makers to make their new games work across all their current and coming-soon consoles.
Console gamers who can now choose between a $299 slim PS4 or Xbox One S, a more powerful $399 PS4 Pro, and next year’s Project Scorpio, now have more options than ever before. It’s still nowhere close to the variety, flexibility and interoperability we seen every day in the CNET PC Testing Lab, but it’s a good first taste, and I suspect console fans will find they want even more.