This week marks the start of the ninth console generation, eight years after the Wii U officially kicked off the eighth generation and seven years after the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 debuted. On Tuesday, Microsoft launched its fourth incarnation of the Xbox, the Xbox Series X/S; on Thursday, Sony will counter with the PlayStation 5. The two consoles come with an array of fancy features that distinguish them from their predecessors, including solid-state drives that enable dramatically reduced loading times and support for ray tracing, 3-D audio, and ultra-fast frame rates. The PS5’s DualSense controller incorporates vibration-based haptic feedback and adaptive triggers that make the more primitive “rumble” that’s been standard since the N64 obsolete, and the Xbox Series X/S upgrades the eighth generation’s quick-resume feature to permit instant switching between multiple games.
In other respects, though, this transition between generations is more iterative and less revolutionary than the jumps between earlier generations. Graphically, the advancements are subtle, both because the visual leaps from 2-D to 3-D in the mid-1990s and from SD to HD in the early 2000s were more mind-blowing than the step forward from high-def to higher-def, but also because mid-eighth-generation hardware revisions such as the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X already brought bells and whistles like 4K resolution and HDR lighting to the last gen. From their user interfaces to their mutual emphases on backwards compatibility, both the PS5 and the Xbox Series X/S seem designed to stress continuity with their precursors and make the construct of console generations more fluid than before.
Both systems are capable of applying many “next-gen” features—such as swifter loading times and improved resolutions and frame rates—to wide selections of compatible “last-gen” games, and some PS4 games have been patched to optimize their performance thanks to PS5-oriented programming tweaks. Sony’s PS5 Remote Play app even allows the PS5 to be played via the PS4, and Microsoft’s xCloud streaming service could bring Xbox Series X/S support to Xbox One. PS4 DualShock controllers can be used to play PS4 games on PS5, and Microsoft’s Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S controllers are cross-compatible. Even the names of Microsoft’s old and new consoles are almost interchangeable.
For decades, console gamers have marked time in terms of hardware generations, discrete periods in which pieces of static technology purchased and plopped into living rooms—led by the Magnavox Odyssey in 1972—defined what was possible for players. But in the era of mid-generation upgrades, cross-platform play, cloud gaming, digital downloads, and subscription services with large libraries and automatic enhancements provided via services such as Microsoft’s Smart Delivery, the distinctions between generations have begun to break down. And while the death knell for traditional consoles has sounded prematurely in the past, the conditions for a console singularity seem to be almost at hand. “The console as we know it historically, a single proprietary machine that plays content specific to it, is most definitely on its way out,” say Sean Smith and Jeffrey Lawler via email, codirectors of Center for the History of Video Games and Critical Play at California State University, Long Beach.
According to many industry observers at the dawn of the PS4/Xbox One era, the life expectancy of traditional consoles was limited. “There’s a reason why this is widely predicted to be the last console generation,” wrote Polygon’s Colin Campbell in October 2013. “Cloud gaming, holographic and VR technology are coming through. Smart TVs are getting smarter and tablets are becoming more powerful. From the perspective of 2013, it’s hard to see how sexy these [consoles] are going to look in 2018, let alone 2023.” Not everyone thought consoles were on their last legs, but that prognosis was close to a consensus.
Yet fears that console sales could crater proved baseless. The PS4 and Xbox One have combined to sell approximately as many units as the PS3 and Xbox 360 did. (Xbox One sales fell far short of Xbox 360 sales, but the PS4 easily outsold the PS3.) Nintendo has moved almost 70 million units of the Switch, which came out in 2017 and may receive a souped-up model next year. The Switch has surpassed the Xbox One’s sales and lapped the sales of Nintendo’s disappointing predecessor, the Wii U, while roughly keeping pace with the company’s seventh-generation smash hit, the Wii. And so, several years after a wave of pessimistic forecasts for traditional consoles appeared, Sony and Microsoft are rolling out new boxes to barely squeeze inside consumers’ entertainment centers this autumn, just as they did in 2013, in the mid-2000s, and at the turn of the 21st century. And judging by preorders, there’s still plenty of demand.
But just because the previous pronouncements of a reckoning for consoles didn’t pan out doesn’t mean the soothsayers were wrong. Maybe they were just a generation too early. We can say with near certainty that this is the last console generation to include disk drives: The less expensive digital edition of the PS5 and the Xbox Series S are already shipping without disk drives, reflecting the ongoing shift among gamers toward digital purchases. Propelled in part by the pandemic, digital sales eclipsed physical sales this summer. As disk drives are phased out, consoles are increasingly resembling streaming devices.
“Our phones, TVs, PCs, tablets, and devices like Apple TV, Google Chromecast, and Amazon’s Fire TV will be the consoles of the future,” Smith and Lawler say. “There Microsoft, Nintendo, Sony, game developers, and now Apple, Google, and Amazon will compete to put their content onto those devices. The console wars will just shift to new platforms.”
Google’s Stadia streaming service launched in November 2019, and many major new multiplatform releases, including Watch Dogs: Legion and Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, are now accessible via Stadia at the same time as on Sony’s and Microsoft’s consoles. Amazon’s rival cloud gaming service, Luna, launched in early access in October. Although Stadia users can either pay full price for individual games—which they then own—or access a pool of “free” games for a monthly charge, Amazon, which also owns Twitch, will deliver buffet-style access to a suite of games for a lower monthly charge and no additional costs per title, as well as selling access to cable-style channels of curated content. The other tech giants have also dipped their toes into gaming streaming wars with Apple Arcade and Facebook Gaming, and even individual video game publishers have entered the streaming arena via offerings such as EA Play and Ubisoft+ that may be bundled with larger services. And you thought the TV streaming wars were complicated.
Stadia and Luna, like “Netflix for games” competitors such as Nvidia’s GeForce Now, Sony’s PlayStation Now, and Microsoft’s xCloud, all offer the same appealing prospect: the capacity to play cutting-edge games on various devices without the need to purchase expensive hardware, waste time on massive downloads, or worry about managing hard drive space. The user simply streams games from the company’s cloud servers and plays them on PCs, smart TVs, or mobile devices with gamepads or touchscreen controls, rendering home consoles redundant. In a world where that’s the norm, Sony and Microsoft would have less incentive to design, manufacture, and sell successors to the consoles they’re shipping this week.
Whether and when streaming becomes standard is still up in the air. Last month, Microsoft EVP of gaming Phil Spencer refused to stick a fork in consoles, telling Yahoo! Finance, “In terms of future hardware, absolutely I think we’re going to see more console hardware down the road. Just like in video, just like in music, it’s not that streaming has cut off device innovation. I think we’ll continue to see that, and that’s absolutely what we’re planning for.”
Of course, by decoupling our consumption of video and music from physical media, streaming has hastened the demise of certain dedicated devices, including DVD and Blu-ray players and CD and MP3 players. There’s less need to own a device that does one thing when a phone or computer can do it all. And although gaming consoles, which double as multimedia streamers, are much more versatile than CD players, they’ll have a hard time justifying their expensive presence in a market stuffed with smart TVs and streaming sticks if they aren’t required to play games.
Although it hasn’t declared the Xbox Series X/S the last of their line, Microsoft is wholeheartedly embracing a platform-agnostic future. Spencer conceded that Microsoft is switching from a “device-focused to player-focused” strategy, saying, “Let’s meet them where they are, whether that’s on our current console, our next console, on the PC, or even on their phone, let’s allow them to play Xbox wherever they are.” Spencer reiterated Microsoft’s commitment to that all-inclusive approach in an interview with ESPN this week, stating that “consoles [are] already a small part of the overall gaming business” and emphasizing that the company’s goal is to reach as many players as possible, whether they’re PC-playing Game Pass subscribers, Android-dependent xCloud subscribers, or even Nintendo diehards playing one of the first-party games Microsoft ported to Switch.
Although Sony has dabbled in porting first-party titles to PC and launched PlayStation Now almost three years before Microsoft’s Game Pass (which now boasts more than 15 million subscribers) premiered, the electronics-focused company has consistently outsold Microsoft in the hardware realm and, in contrast to Microsoft, remains committed to publishing exclusive, system-selling software. Sony hopes that singular features such as the DualSense’s haptic feedback will elevate its system over alternative platforms. Even so, the PlayStation’s future is far from assured.
In February 2019, Sony CFO Hiroki Totoki warned of “potential volatility in profitability” for PlayStation “due to the console cycle going forward.” Totoki estimated that it would take more than five years for cloud gaming to jeopardize the traditional console model, but that timeline wouldn’t preclude the PS5 from being the last of its kind. This past September, PlayStation CEO Jim Ryan expressed further uncertainty about the future of PlayStation consoles, telling the Financial Times, “Seven years ago everybody was saying, ‘PS4 is going to be the last one, it’s all going to be tablets and mobile phones,’ and [more recently] it’s been, ‘everything will be in the cloud,’ so nobody knows. The truth is, I don’t know and nobody does know.”
In the same Financial Times piece, Citigroup analyst Kota Ezawa said, “We do think the PS5 will be the last console. Games will likely be played entirely online for PS6.” If there is a PS6, that is. Sony is preparing for any eventuality: Last month, 14 years after trademarking “PS5,” the company trademarked PS6 through PS10. Eliminating the home PlayStation system would be a big adjustment to Sony’s perennially profitable gaming business, but removing consoles from the equation would also cut costs. The PS4 became profitable on a per-unit basis not long after launch, but console manufacturers (including Sony) have historically treated consoles as loss leaders and made much of their money on software and services. As the PS4 approached the end of its life cycle, hardware revenue ebbed, but Sony still raked in billions on digital downloads and subscriptions.
Yet a number of obstacles stand in the way of a console-free future, aside from gamers’ attachment to the ritual of buying a box to play games. Unlike most major TV streaming services, gaming streaming services aren’t available on every platform; Apple, for instance, has imposed strict restrictions on the app approval process that have thus far barred Stadia and xCloud from coming to iOS. Not all developers consent to their titles appearing on services (such as GeForce Now) that allow players to stream games they already own. Consumers may worry about losing their progress if games cycle out of the service. And some game streaming services still lack the original exclusives that help convince people to pay for Netflix and its ilk, although there may be bidding wars ahead. Google has begun to secure a smattering of exclusives and to develop its own first-party games for Stadia. And when Microsoft bought Bethesda Softworks parent company Zenimax Media for $7.5 billion in September, it did so to enrich the Game Pass library with the back catalogs of Bethesda and its subsidiaries, not to ensure that future releases would be Xbox-only IP.
Cloud gaming also faces serious structural problems that may slow its growth. Many gamers—especially in the broadband-challenged U.S.—lack internet connections of sufficient speed to stream games without suffering lag or blowing up their bandwidth allowances. The ongoing rollout of 5G service or a national investment in expanding broadband infrastructure could address those problems, but not necessarily in time to forestall a PS6 or an Xbox Series Something or Other. On top of that, game streaming may be much worse for the environment than downloading games or playing them from a disc. For some of those reasons, Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick cast doubt on cloud gaming’s short-term future in September, likening streaming excitement to the overblown buzz surrounding VR and saying, “I suspect it will not be transformative.”
The end of consoles, if and when it comes, would also put an end to the frenzy of console launch weeks and the childhood thrill of unwrapping a video game system on a birthday or holiday and screaming like Nintendo 64 kid. But regardless of what happens to consoles, gaming isn’t going away. Just as the approaching price hike for games that have cost $60 for decades is coinciding with a proliferation of cheaper ways to play (such as subscription services and free-to-play titles), the dissolution of the console-industrial complex would likely only lower gaming’s barriers to entry. Non-gamers who wouldn’t drop $499 on a PS5 or Xbox Series X, or even $299 on an Xbox Series S, might spring for the price of a subscription to try out the next-gen experience on their TV or phone.
This week, Google is giving free Stadia kits to existing YouTube Premium subscribers in a bid to rope in potential players who might consider consoles too intimidating or expensive. Millions of console stalwarts will pass up Stadia in favor of a shiny new system from Sony or Microsoft, but perhaps those products will start to seem more extraneous sometimes during this decade. If so, the industry would welcome an influx of spending by a new cohort of non-console-equipped players looking to entertain themselves at home or game on the go. “This may be the last in the line of consoles marketed to a male techno-geek fantasy, and we may be seeing an era in which the cultural definition of gaming and gamer are once again redefined,” say Smith and Lawler. The console wars as we once knew them are effectively over. Before long, consoles could be too.
This post originally misstated Stadia users must pay additional fees for individual games. Users can either pay full price for those games, or access a pool of “free” games for a monthly charge.