Letters From the Console Warfront: The First Year

Welcome to Letters From the Console Warfront, a new feature here on MoarPowah in which we attempt to break down and analyze the current generation of consoles, from how the big 3 differ and interact to what directions they seem to be heading. We won’t bother telling you which to buy at any given point (we trust you’re all competent enough to decide that on your own), so think of us as sideline commenters, rooting for no side but the game in which they play.

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As of this week, the PS4 and Xbox One have been on the market in the US for a year. The first year of a console’s lifespan is usually a tumultuous time period, often tainted by long waits between major releases, numerous kinks to be fixed, and the absence of a definite flavor or identity. By the end of the PS3 and Xbox 360’s lifespan, we had a firm grasp of what each console offered, and what kind of person they catered to.

Team Xbox was championing an all-encompassing vision that, while a bit confused by its final years, was able to offer its fanbase a steady stream of major blockbuster titles and a hardware infrastructure that usually allowed for better graphical presentation, even if the competition was technically more powerful. The console’s weakness, however, was in its directional shift. After a stellar first half of the generation, the Xbox 360 began to cater to a different crowd, attempting to appeal to those introduced to gaming via the Wii. We saw fewer and fewer must-have exclusives getting released, and a the number of multiplatform titles that performed better on Xbox began to shrink (and in some cases, such as with Bioshock: Infinite, they looked worse). But even despite its shrinking edge over the competition and lingering frustration over hardware failures earlier in the generation, the Xbox 360, at least in the US, still came with an impression of being the console, the standard console that you’d buy if you didn’t care which side of the fence you played on.

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To buy a PS3 in the US, then, seemed like it took a little bit more thought. You were less likely to have friends to play online with, and there were fewer games that seemed to linger in the public eye. Now of course PS3 had plenty of quality exclusives, perhaps too many to keep track of. But none felt quite as… big as a Halo release, regardless of quality or critical acclaim. But that doesn’t mean that the PS3 wasn’t ultimately a joy to own. Just as the Xbox 360’s consistent powerhouse quality began to taper, the PS3’s fate was turned through one of the largest, most successful marketing shifts in video game history. And through the skin of its teeth, the PS3 managed to close the gap and make this generation one of the closest ever, with both consoles being nearly on par in terms of quality and quantity of titles available.

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And so with both consoles sitting at almost equal footing, with no clear, dominating “winner,” the decision to buy comes down to personal choice and resonance with console strength. Are we destined for a similar situation in this generation? Well let’s examine the facts first:

Fact: The PS4 has a bigger install base
This one’s pretty obvious, but judging from stats and whatnot, the number of PS4s in consumer hands (not amount “shipped” as PR releases tend to say) is roughly double that of Xbox Ones. At least globally (the race is a bit tighter here in the US), you’re more likely to know people who own PS4s.
Pros: More potential PSN friends and possible preference from publishers. Also, Microsoft is getting aggressive in its desire to close the gap, meaning we’ll likely see better deals and stronger exclusive pushes (maybe).
Cons: Sony could start playing safe, or worse, cocky.

Fact: Consoles aren’t relavent in Japan anymore
Having just spent a year in Japan, and from looking at sales data, Japan’s gaming priorities have clearly shifted, and not in favor of the major console manufacturers. While Nintendo has achieved an inkling of success with the Wii U, it’s safe to say that the Japanese mass public sees little need for the newest consoles. While it’s obvious that the Xbox One was bound to struggle, it’s surprising that even the PS4 is failing to achieve strong numbers. Handheld games are much stronger, but the true threat to consoles is mobile, as iphone and android games have completely taken over, especially in the hardcore group. Mobile games have become quite sophisticated in Japan as of recently, and many of the deep RPG experiences now thrive on those platforms, away from the consoles they used to service.
Pros: Nothing I can think of
Cons: Fewer Japanese titles this generation. The games we do get will likely be engineered to cater to foreign audiences.

Fact: Neither console has a true killer app
While this is a slightly more subjective “fact” than the other two, it’s pretty safe to say that while both consoles have compelling software, nothing’s come with quite the same fanfare and public awareness as something like Bioshock, Mass Effect, Halo 3, Metal Gear Solid IV, or Gears of War. Groundbreaking exclusive catalogues (even with games that are temporarily exclusive) just aren’t here yet. With some more time they probably will, but at the moment the consoles are mostly playing off the strength of their multiplatform releases. Certain titles that were expected to carry that level of importance haven’t lingered as well as many were expecting or hoping (while by no means weak titles, Titanfall and Infamous: Second Son come to mind). The consoles’ offerings are still fairly uniform.
Pros: None, besides the vague promise of a future with better content.
Cons: Still difficult to make an easy decision based on exclusive strength.

Fact: The consoles don’t require online, but they might as well
Remember two years ago when there was all this buzz around online requirements that many feared would alienate those with weak connections? The Xbox One carried the greatest resistance before launch, forcing Microsoft into a landslide policy change. While Sony was never directly in the public ire, it’s safe to say they shaped their console’s vision around the response to the Xbox One’s initial direction. I fully believe Sony intended to implement similar restrictions to their console, but cut it from the plans when it became obvious no one was interested. The thing is, even though these consoles don’t technically require internet connections to function, the publishers seemed to have gone ahead and make it a requirement anyway. With games that make multiplayer features the primary appeal to a recent pile of games launched so broken they require a myriad of hefty patches to function, we’re living in a world where not having a console hooked up to the internet essentially nullifies much of our games’ appeal, and even proper ability to work.
Pros: For those who like multiplayer games, we’re getting a whole lot of them.
Cons: Publishers are more likely than ever to release games that require quick patches to fix major issues, and we’re slowly losing out on quality single player experiences from AAA studios.

While much of those observations are negative, I still believe that we’re in a better position now than we’ve been in after the first year of many generations. Last generation, the Xbox 360 had an abysmal hardware failure rate and the PS3 was a ghost town, after all. There are plenty of quality titles to choose from at this point of writing, and there are many more in the near future. But we’ve yet to see these consoles mature and grow, and with any luck we’ll see most of the problems resolved with time. With even more luck, we’ll even start to see these consoles differentiate themselves in meaningful ways.

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The Past and The Future

With that prerequisite time, many things are sure to change. I fully expect this to be a great generation, even if it’s a bit difficult to see just yet. Looking back historically, our current console trends more or less stem from the Post-1982 crash era, headed by the fight between the NES and the Sega Master System. The 8-bit era was a proving ground for innovative ideas, and the common 2D game theories stemmed from this fascinating time span. Jump forward a few years, however, and those ideas were given the chance to refine and develop with the power of the SNES and Genesis. Indeed, many consider this to be the greatest generation of all, as the 2D games from that era were impeccably crafted and visually beautiful. Developers mastered the second dimension and gave us some the greats of history.

The PS1/N64/Dreamcast era was essentially a reset. Everyone had to change their ideas, reinvent core concepts, and evolve. While these consoles offered some truly phenomenal games, this is perhaps the hardest generation to return to now that 3D design is far more evolved, as almost everything from this period feels muddy and blocky, a far cry from the SNES and Genesis masterworks. Games on the N64 and PS1 felt slow, and blurry. Environments were fogged and textures were mudded. Regardless of quality, beloved games this generation don’t feel quite as timeless as Secret of Mana or A Link to the Past.

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But again, with time, developers learned to improve their craft in the new dimension, and by the Gamecube/Xbox/PS2 era, games had become quick, smooth, attractive, and plentiful. If there was ever a generation whose quality could compete with that of the SNES/Genesis era, it was this. The PS2 alone is a beacon of quality, offering more killer-app titles from every genre than any other system ever, to speak nothing of the boundless quality of titles released on Gamecube and Xbox. Halo restored faith in the console FPS. Grand Theft Auto III prologued an era of high-quality open world games long before most major releases featured such design. It was another golden age.

And then the third major shift occurred. While not as immediately striking as the transition from 2D to 3D, SD to HD ultimately proved to be incredibly challenging for many developers. And visuals weren’t the only major change. Online multiplayer became a sweeping standard. The Wii was a wildcard success that the other console manufacturers struggled to emulate. With the generation over, it’s hard to say if we topped the sweeping quality of the generation proceeding it, as many developers found HD design difficult and expensive. Many of the generation’s biggest games began to feel same-y and brownish-gray.

Perhaps, just as with the NES/Master System and PS1/N64 eras, the PS3/Xbox 360/Wii generation was a period of strenuous change and innovation, building up for true greatness in the next generation. If that’s the case, we could eventually have a generation with a comparable prestige to those golden eras in games. Perhaps I’m a simple optimist, but if history repeats itself, I won’t be the least surprised.

Next week we’ll look into the Wii U, a console I didn’t talk much about because it doesn’t seem to directly compete with the other consoles much anymore and it barely needs analysis for a proper recommendation. Just buy one already.

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