Since 2001, the gaming industry has been shaped by the big three console manufacturers: Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo. The current generation, the eighth, has reached its climax with the releases of the PlayStation 4 Pro, the Nintendo Switch, and the Xbox One X(Releasing November 7th). Microsoft and Sony continue to dominate the power game, while Nintendo continues to prove that unconventional approaches can work with the games to back them up.
Going off of past cycles and current trends, I’m of the opinion that the ninth generation will officially begin between 2020 and 2022. The mid-gen refresh consoles have extended the current generations lifespan, but they still run on the same old architecture which comes with its own set of limitations. Just because the generation was refreshed, doesn’t mean it will last another ten years, perhaps 4 more years at most. So where will the big three go in the future? I have my own thoughts on the matter and I wish to share them with you, starting with Sony.
Sony is winning this generation and I doubt that will change even with the release of Microsoft’s more powerful Xbox One X. That being said, Sony has apparently allowed its head to swell to astronomical sizes as of late due to its success. Allowing cross-system play would allow third party games to have larger and more thriving playerbases, there’s no negative to this, yet Sony seems intent on not playing nice for the sake of gamers. The same can be said of backwards compatibility. Microsoft has practically opened up the majority of its back-catalog and included third party titles in its backwards compatibility push, allowing older games to have a second lease on life and for gamers to play their old favorites without dusting off aging systems that might not even work on modern televisions without third party accessories. There might not be a ton of money to be made off of making old games work like new again, but it’s essentially fanservice. Gamers will love you for it, especially if they can continue to bring these games forward with them. Even Nintendo brings its back catalog to each system since the Wii, with the Switch confirmed to get backwards compatible games, albeit sometime in the future and in an unknown form. And what has Sony done? Told gamers to go back to their PS1 if they want to plays games they can’t on newer systems, and the games they do offer are cherry-picked, with PS3 games being locked behind the PS Now service.
Taking Sony’s current mindset into consideration, the PlayStation 5 is likely to not be all that different from the PlayStation 4. PSVR will be carried forward and its power will leap over the Xbox One X thanks to newer tech. It will be a true advancement over the PlayStation 4, but not an evolution. Sony’s stance on backwards compatibility is unlikely to change at this point as well, though the pool of cherry-picked games will likely be larger since PS4 games will be easier to port to PS5, unlike with PS3 titles which were developed on a proprietary tech.
I can’t exactly comment on future cross-platform play as discussions are still ongoing and Microsoft is adamant about getting Sony to work with them and Nintendo on unifying gamers. Not only that, but it wouldn’t really effect how they approach their next system.
Long story short, I expect the PlayStation 5 to be more of the same. A powerful system with quality first party titles, but only PS5 titles, and whatever older games Sony decides to allow on the platform.
When the original Xbox released in 2001, it was a powerhouse that surpassed both the PS2 and the GameCube. It was a time of great technological progress. Later in its life, the Xbox became home to the fledgling Xbox Live platform. When the Xbox 360 was released, rather than go in some wild direction, Microsoft doubled down on the platform they had constructed. Xbox Live was built into something far better than its original version and ushered in the age of online console gaming.
Fast forward to 2013 and the release of Xbox One, and things took a sharp downturn. The Xbox One, while more powerful than the Wii U, fell behind the PlayStation 4 in terms of power, and because Microsoft doubled down on the system being about more than just video games, both its marketing and final image suffered. Microsoft had to backtrack a LOT and has since been trying to recover. Sales of the Xbox One will likely never catch up to the PlayStation 4, even with the Xbox One X on the horizon, but if anything this generation was more of a wake up call to Microsoft, and the Xbox One X is the conclusion they came too.
While not a true next generation console, the Xbox One X is very powerful. It’s a machine dedicated entirely to gaming and it shows in its performance. This is as good as it gets at a somewhat affordable price point for a console. And since Microsoft has decided to forego console generations, they could release a new iteration of the Xbox at any time. However, because it takes years to develop a console, the next Xbox likely won’t appear for at least three years. When it does however, it won’t be the same as the Xbox One X. Rather than build on the same old architecture, Microsoft will upgrade every single part of the console to the state of the art equivalent because they have the money to throw at it. Microsoft will become the new “enthusiast” console manufacturer. They will strive to create the best console they can create and knock the competition out of the park each time. And if the pre-orders of the Xbox One X are any indication, it’s that a large chunk of gamers don’t think $500 is too much for power and potential. And with the expanded scope of their backwards compatibility program, and good relations with at least Nintendo, Microsoft has garnered nothing, but good will from gamers. Their only real misstep is similar to one Nintendo made during the Wii U’s lifespan: Long droughts in-between first party releases. And that is in addition to the fact that most, if not all, of their exclusives are now shared with PC gamers, meaning there is less incentive to buy a Microsoft console if you can afford to beef up your PC. They showed they can still manufacture the best console around, but can they sustain a sizeable install base? Or will they rely on the PC crowd to support them?
Long story short, Microsoft will continue to play the power game and build on the trust and goodwill they’ve been able to win back over the last couple of years. However, due to putting their exclusives on the PC as well, it’s up for debate as to what their long term strategy really is, as it has the potential to really tear into their console business.
While it’s technically the first ninth generation console, it is not officially viewed as such due to being similar in terms of power to its predecessor, the Wii U. The Nintendo Switch contains DNA from all of Nintendo’s past consoles and is the child born from the merger of Nintendo’s handheld and home console divisions. Throw in the technology of NVIDIA, and you have a system that has been a long time coming.
Nintendo is no stranger to both successes and failures. For each success, there is at least one failure. The NES and SNES were successes, but the N64 and GameCube were considered commercial failures despite being practically worshipped by those who invested in them(You can count me among that number.). The Wii was a runaway success, rivaling Nintendo’s DS in terms of sheer sales over its lifespan. Its successor, the Wii U, was a failure, due in no small part to really bad marketing and its reuse of previous peripherals, making it seem like an extension of the Wii.
The Nintendo Switch, in its first 6 months of life, has proved that there is still a place for Nintendo in the gaming market. It’s sales have outpaced the Wii U in the same span of time, and have even outpaced the PS4 in the same span of time, which is impressive for such an experimental concept. Being a hybrid device, the Switch is Nintendo’s attempt to merge their two markets into one system, even if they deny it for the time being(The DS was not the successor to the GameBoy, but after impressive sales, Nintendo changed their mind and canned the GameBoy’s in development successor. The Switch is likewise no different. Nintendo likely has concepts for the next DS system, but they’re biding their time to see how the Switch does.). Having bought one myself, I can safely say that it was worth the $300, at least to me.
I digress, Nintendo has once again carved itself a slice of the gaming market with a concept the other two haven’t touched, so where do they go from here? The answer is... nowhere. Why? Because they’ve partnered with NVIDIA for the next two decades, and NVIDIA has zero interest in building dedicated home consoles which have long been the domain of its primary competitor AMD. So the logical conclusion is that Nintendo will continue to iterate on the Switch like a cellphone or tablet. Except rather than a new device every year, it’ll be every two or three. Nintendo will work on improving the design of the Switch, which obviously has some issues it needs to work out such as warping, while NVIDIA works on making more powerful Tegra chips that can still fit inside of a handheld device. If we’re talking a Switch 2.0 three years down the line, we’re potentially looking at a Tegra Volta chip. I can’t say for certain what kind of power it’ll be able to give to a Switch 2.0, or if it’ll even come remotely close to the ninth generation systems that will likely appear around the same time, but Nintendo is playing the long game this time, and it’s hard for me to see too many negatives.
That being said, Nintendo needs to learn to listen to its fans. A smartphone app wasn’t entirely a bad idea, after all, most people in this day and age keep their phone on them at all times. However, it creates a mess of cables between a headset, phone, and Switch that does not make it nearly as convenient as Nintendo seems to think. The Switch should be more than capable of outputting audio and receiving voice at the same time. There are some things they still need to modernize.
Long story short, as long as the Switch’s sales don’t suddenly fall off a cliff and never recover, it is the future of Nintendo and will be for a long time. Their upgrade plans also have no bounds. They can either refresh the Switch itself every few years with more powerful parts and sell at the same $300 price point, or components could even be added to the Switch Dock in order to get a beefier home console experience while docked.
So What About the Handheld Space?
It’s no secret that Nintendo has, essentially, dominated the handheld market ever since it was born. Sony’s offerings weren’t bad, but it’s plain to see that Sony has stepped back from the handheld market for the time being. And on Nintendo’s side of things, the 3DS is a success without question, but the future of the DS is, in fact, in question. Nintendo calls the Switch a home console, but many gamers, developers included, view it as more of a handheld, and it was created after Nintendo merged its handheld and home console divisions, meaning the Switch is all they’ve been working on for the last few years. It’s codename, NX, stands for Nintendo Cross, as in, a cross between handheld and home console. It occupies both markets and as a result makes a dedicated home console and a dedicated handheld redundant. Should the Switch prove to be Nintendo’s future, the 3DS will likely be the last of its lineage. Nintendo will prolong its life to keep the money coming in, but within three to four years, the 3DS will be quietly put to bed and never seen again.
Recent comments from Sony have also laid to rest any rumors of a successor to the Vita. They’re doubling down on their home console business and leaving the handheld space entirely to Nintendo. There will be no competition for the Switch from Sony and Microsoft is even less likely to join that battle. Comments from Phil Spencer suggest that a handheld Xbox had once upon a time been prototyped, but scrapped in favor of the home consoles.
In other words, neither Sony nor Microsoft have any intention of fighting Nintendo in the handheld space, and as a result Nintendo will dominate it for the forseeable future, regardless of whether or not the Switch takes the 3DS’ place.
What about other competitors?
Once upon a time there were other console manufacturers aside from Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft. SEGA once went toe to toe with Nintendo while various other manufacturers faded into and out of existence. Over the years, smaller companies have tried to create new spaces in the console market, such as the Ouya, a mini-console, which failed spectacularly, and the Steam Machines, home console-sized PC’s that hooked into your TV and you could swap out your parts. The most recent attempt, the Ataribox, is similar in concept to a Steam Machine. It’s a PC in a console shell and you can swap out the parts. But I have to ask, what is the point? Steam Machines essentially failed hard, and I foresee the Ataribox meeting the same fate unless Atari has something up their sleeve to help it sell.
And What of VR?
Virtual Reality is here to stay, whether you think it’s a gimmick or not. It may not have the sales numbers of the home consoles, but it’s also a market in its infancy. The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive set the stage and PSVR helped VR reach the masses. Soon, the Rift and Vive will likely receive revisions that cut the bothersome cords and potentially slash the prices to something more reasonable. Meanwhile, Microsoft has its own set of VR headsets coming to market in 2018, and while they’re marketed at PC users, the Xbox One X is capable of using them(And I imagine other VR headsets, not just Microsoft brand ones specifically.). There’s even an 8K VR headset in development which promises to alleviate a lot of the issues found in current models(Probably at a hefty price though.).
And while the tech in the headsets themselves advances, so too will the games that use them. Developers won’t truly know how to utilize new tech like this right off the bat. Crafting an experience that fully utilizes the tech takes time and practice. We’ll see more AAA titles for VR or with VR support in the future, count on it.