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Tuesday August 22, 2017
A brave new world: Welcome to the PC-ification of consoles
by James Pinnell | Jun 14, 2017 | Comment Now
The world of consoles is changing - mostly for the better...
A brave new world: Welcome to the PC-ification of consoles

At its E3 conference on Monday, Microsoft announced the latest iteration of its “most powerful console ever” – the 6 Teraflop generating, 12gb hauling, vapor cooled behemoth it calls the Xbox One X. This was originally Project Scorpio, the worst secret in gaming, and follows the iterative upgrade by its major competitor, Sony, when it launched the PS4 Pro earlier this year.

Sure, this isn’t the first time a console has been reworked within its “generation” – there’s always been slimmed down, slightly more powerful iterations of consoles with bigger hard drives or form factors – but the difference this time is that both console makes are dramatically upgrading the hardware inside the box. And with it, they’re also looking to radically change how the console model works for the first time since the 1980s.

Right now, this isn’t much of a problem. There aren’t any PS4 Pro or Xbox One X exclusives – games are instead developed with two profiles, one for the “lesser, older” model, and another for the beefier, new model. This could just be a graphical upgrade, 4K for example, or a larger world, enhanced capabilities or other bonuses. The issues here are a risk of fragmentation – that console makers used to stick to a single development environment for several years before transitioning to a new one. This allowed developers to plan game releases for a platform without any changes.

It also allowed certainty for consumers – they knew that buying a PS4 or XB1 would mean at least 4-6 years of releases without being expected to fork out for another model. Unlike PCs, consoles aren’t modular – you can’t simply upgrade a component inside the box – you must get a brand-new model. Iterative releases are confusing because it’s not a surety how long a console will be out until its replaced. It’s the same for developers - will there be a Pro 2 in a few years’ time? Or will that just be the PS5? Should I start developing a PS4/PS4 Pro game or consider the possibility that a PS5 will be announced instead?

Unlike PCs or mobile devices, consoles don’t keep development environments. If you write apps for Apple, Google or Microsoft (Windows), you know you’re likely to be sitting in the same seat for the next five years. While those operating systems are upgraded, their underlying kernels and libraries stay largely the same. iOS is iOS, Android is Android, Windows is Windows. Each version is largely backwards compatible to a point where legacy applications can still be used with zero to minor changes years later.

The original Xbox, the Xbox360 and Xbox One are three completely different development environments. The same goes for the PS1, PS2, PS3 and PS4. The PS5 and whatever the “next” generation of consoles is will likely feature a different development environment again – although as the internal architectures have now officially just become X64 (like a PC), it’s possible that the operating system changes may start to flatten out and, subsequently, new consoles become naturally backwards compatible.

Unlike PCs or mobile devices, consoles don’t keep development environments.

Another issue is that splitting hardware profiles can cause developers to widen development periods, making games needlessly expensive. Additionally, the certainty that hardware will stay static is much of the reason console games tend to be more stable and polished than PC games – because developers can spend months optimising against a single hardware profile. They can perfect it and squeeze every drop of power out of them – as Kojima did with Metal Gear Solid across all four consoles. Iterations threaten this stability, risking a sloppy internal port as the “original” or “enhanced” versions are prioritised.

What has been created is a strange sort of hybrid solution – where the new iterations are basically masquerading as next gen, but sharing the same operating environment. What will be telling is where things move next – if Sony and Microsoft don’t make a new generation console, but instead keep producing iterative upgrades, making modest changes to the operating system, phasing out “older” models naturally over time in the same way Apple or Google will stop providing system updates to older mobile devices.

This is the most optimal plan – it will not only provide certainty for developers in that they no longer must learn a brand-new environment every few years, but also that it will be simpler to build and adapt engines, and become more comfortable within the OS. This is especially potent with Xbox One – the console’s OS is a cut down version of Windows 10, allowing for relatively simple ports and cross-platform play between the two. It’s probably not wrong to assume that future consoles will abandon this platform after so much has been done to provide synergy between the two.

It also means games no longer become useless – your old library isn’t relegated to the tip or cash converters but becomes like Steam or GOG – a place you can revisit simply and easily when you want to play a classic title without the worry that it’s not on some special list, needs a (paid) plugin or uses a different type of media. As the operating system stays the same, your titles no longer become “PS4” games but simply remain “Playstation” games – no expensive cloud video service required.

But this may rub against traditional business models a little too much – console makers and developers make decent money from re-releases and visual upgrades. Why simply allow backwards compatibility when you can release a new digital version for full price? Additionally, operating systems for consoles tend to be fixated tightly against defined feature sets – adding new features and interfaces are selling points just as much as new hardware is. Developers will follow either way – they have little choice.

Then there are the possibility that, while both console makers claim otherwise, exclusive titles may release for different iterations. Right now, both Sony and Microsoft are adamant that this won’t be the case for the current models, but what stops this happening in future?

Not much. If anything, these are interesting times – especially as the line between platform hardware blurs, software becomes the only thing separating the players. The battleground in console land is now for the IP.

See more about:  microsoft, ps4, ps4 pro, ps5, xbox one x
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