PC culture is out of control. The bug-ridden, spec-obsessed environment that dominates gaming on personal computers has now infected console gaming, and it has to be stopped.
The latest sign: As part of a multipronged effort to divert attention from Apple on Monday, Microsoft announced a new version of its Xbox One video game console at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3. Code-named “Project Scorpio,” the new console will feature expanded memory, an improved CPU, and a lightning-fast fast GPU processor. It’s still an Xbox One, the company says, but it’s better in every aspect. The system’s components are “technology we’ve yet to see fully revealed in the PC space,” according to Eurogamer.
Sony, meanwhile, confirmed last week the longstanding rumor that it’s building a souped-up PS4 currently dubbed “Neo.” Like the new Xbox, the PS4 Neo will feature massively improved specs, which should improve overall game performance, especially during virtual reality gameplay and on 4K displays.
This is new territory for the console industry, and it could end badly for consumers. For more than three decades, gamers and console manufacturers have entered into an honest pact: I buy your system for a few hundred bucks, and you, along with third-party developers, supply me with the best games you can make on that platform for five to seven years. This is how it’s always worked. As franchises such as Doom, Half-Life, and Far Cry pushed the graphical envelope on the PC, console gamers were content enjoying experiences that were less visually dazzling, but required less technical know-how (want to troubleshoot an NES game? Blow in the cartridge!). Maintaining a PC that can play the latest and greatest games gets wildly expensive, and gamers that refuse to upgrade risk being shut out from new releases after only a few years. Even if a newer title is compatible with older tech, it often suffers from a lower frame rate or generally poorer graphical performance.
Now, the gaming industry seems hellbent on bringing this frustrating experience to the console world. The shift began during the era of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, as PC game developers found wild success on consoles through previously computer-centric genres, like first-person shooters and the Western RPGs. These developers decided to treat consoles just like PCs, leveraging gaming systems’ always-on internet connections to issue patches to already released games.
In effect, this means any modern video game can become a TLOP-esque odyssey of endless updates and bug fixes. Some developers abuse this power. Microsoft released a bug-ridden Halo compilation in 2014 that wasn’t fixed for four months. Even last year’s consensus game of the year, The Witcher 3, had a game-breaking bug when it debuted on the Xbox One. This is the price of progress, technologists will declare. But games were actually cheaper, more stable, and more varied before the console-makers became desperate to imitate desktop computers.
These new midcycle consoles could exacerbate gaming’s problems. Both Sony and Microsoft promise (for now) that all PS4 and Xbox One games will be compatible with their old systems. But Microsoft has already implied some virtual reality titles could be exclusive to Scorpio. And the games that truly push the envelope on the high-spec consoles may struggle on the base platforms. Metal Gear Solid 5, one of the last AAA games to debut on current and last-gen systems, struggled to maintain a consistent framerate on PS3 and 360, even as it wowed visually on PS4 and Xbox One.
The lust for more power will also set smaller developers even further behind. Japanese publishers, who led innovation in console gaming for two decades, have been decimated by the shift to big-budget, high-definition development. Konami, publisher of the aforementioned (and wildly expensive) MGS5, has declared mobile is the future of gaming. Nintendo, bless their hearts, needed five years (and counting) to basically turn The Legend of Zelda into Skyrim. These companies are retreating from the forefront of the industry, which is bad for a gaming ecosystem already polarized between big-budget action games and retro indie titles.
And for what? There’s never been much evidence that cutting-edge graphics sell consoles for the living room. The most popular game of the PS2 era was a Grand Theft Auto installment, which, even at the time looked like a child’s rendition of a Picasso painting. The most popular game of the PS3–Xbox 360 era was Wii Fucking Sports. And with this gen, the combined sales of Sony’s and Microsoft’s consoles are already outpacing publisher expectations before muddling up the market with (sort of) new systems.
If Scorpio and Neo are hits, Sony and Microsoft will be galvanized to keep releasing iterative console updates more regularly. They want to treat a new console like a smartphone upgrade — difference is, I don’t look at my PS4 for three hours every day. Gaming consoles were better when we treated them like appliances — or, if you’re not ashamed to admit it, toys — rather than supercomputers that require constant maintenance and upgrading. Come back when you’ve got a proper new console ready in 2020, and let me enjoy my perfectly fine, current-gen games in peace.