As I’m given to understand it, Sony announced the other day that the astonishing perfection of the CD-based Playstation, which had been superseded by the even more astonishing perfection of the DVD-based Playstation 2, which had then been rendered obsolete by the Blu-Ray vision that was the Playstation 3, had in turn become an outmoded and worthless piece of crap compared to the forthcoming Playstation 4. The reaction I’ve heard (which is, admittedly, reading a bit of Penny Arcade and Kotaku, because I didn’t even bother with the PS3 let alone caring deeply about a hypothetical game console that they wouldn’t even show people at the press conference) is a resounding “meh”. Why might that be? Apart, of course, from the fact that they wouldn’t even show people the console at the unveiling press conference.
I’m starting to form a radical theory about why the latest generation of game consoles (Wii U, PS4, and whatever Microsoft is going to unveil in a wek or two) have gotten such lukewarm receptions. It’s probably going to be controversial…heck, I’d say there’s no more than a 50/50 chance that it’s right…but I think that there’s not actually as much incentive as the game companies think there is to improve the performance of their consoles. In short, I’m starting to believe that the age of video game hardware improvements is coming, slowly but surely, to a close.
This isn’t to say that they can’t do any better. I’m sure that processing power is improving on a very impressive curve, if only because the experience of my entire life has been one of computers getting constantly better (when I was born, the brand-new state of the art personal computers had 16K of RAM.) While there does at some point have to be a plateau for the improvement of the computer, we’ve not found it yet and we don’t even really know where it might be. So this isn’t a “man will never reach the moon” type rant about how they’ve reached the limits of how good a gaming console can get.
It is, however, true that there is a point of diminishing returns in terms of how well these improvements in processing power will translate into practical, measurable gains in the finished product. The previous jumps in technology have been immediately obvious to the average consumer; someone playing an Atari 2600 would see the NES as a clear improvement over their machine, just as the Super Nintendo was obviously better than the NES, the Playstation was immediately better than the Super Nintendo, and the PS2 was eye-poppingly better than the PS1. But with the PS3, there wasn’t the same level of “eye candy”. It was better–of course it was better–but it wasn’t a quantum leap the way the PS2 had been over its predecessor. That was the opening that let the not-quite-as-powerful but much cheaper Wii in to lead the market; it wasn’t as good as the PS3 or the XBox 360, but it was good enough and it was about $350 cheaper.
And while the PS4 is bound to be an improvement over the PS3, developers already have enough processing power to make astonishing games that are beyond our expectations. Slight improvements in skin texturing and particle physics isn’t going to make the next Batman game better than ‘Arkham Asylum’; clever game design and innovations in playability will. Being able to represent more figures onscreen at any given time, doing different things isn’t what makes a game great; if it was, ‘State of Emergency’ wouldn’t have been as dull as dishwater. We have reached a point where it’s not how much power your machine packs, it’s what you do with it.
The question is, what does this mean for the industry? Because it’s clear that Sony/Nintendo/Microsoft have a marketing strategy that involves avoiding market saturation for their product by putting out a “new, improved” version every six or seven years and coercing the software companies into supporting only the latest toys. But if the buying public doesn’t make the jump, what does that do to the company that just spent hundreds of millions of dollars on R&D? Can software companies afford to gamble that there’s no need to design games for the next-gen platforms? Or is the system simply “too big to fail”? Will the buying public just continue to buy next-gen consoles simply because the assumption that they must be better has become too ingrained? Something tells me there has to be a reckoning at some point for the continuing push for an ever-better system at all costs, but I can’t predict when it would be.
If you think you can, feel free to share it here! I’ll buy stock based on your recommendations, but hey, no pressure.