[Originally published May 27, 2016]
Over the past decade, we’ve enjoyed the drastically lengthened lifespans of the last console generation. It was unprecedented, and great for our wallets. Unfortunately, it wasn’t great for the wallets of the companies that make these consoles, as console sales are a huge boon to profit. So what did they do? They pushed for console upgrades. The Xbox 360 slim was released in 2010, five years after the birth of the 360. Then, in 2013, Microsoft also put out the 360 E. It worked – console sales increased, as did Microsoft capital. Say what you will about Microsoft, those folks do capitalism better than anyone else.
Just a few days ago, Microsoft announced their new iterations of the Xbox One. One is simply a ‘slim’ version, and the other – nicknamed ‘Scorpio’ – features improved hardware. This announcement was, of course, in response to Sony’s similar announcement of their updated PS4, codenamed ‘Neo.’ Now, once is a mistake. Twice is a coincidence. But three times is a pattern, and patterns are important. Sure, there are claims – that are, I’m sure, true – that the ‘Neo’ exists to improve the experience of VR on the PS4, but to see two of the major console manufacturers adopting this style of console upgrades means that there’s more to it than tech. If this continues to be profitable, I wouldn’t be surprised if we start to see this happen with increasing frequency. It makes sense. It compensates for the increased length of console lifespans, while ‘forwarding’ the product. It’s not necessarily a bad pattern, but it’s something we should keep an eye on. Everything has the potential to sour – just look at microtransactions – and this is no different.
On a final note, all this has me a little worried about Nintendo. They’ve never been great about releasing new consoles – look at the Gamecube and the Wii U – and the NX has me on edge. Unlike the ‘Neo’ or Microsoft’s ‘Scorpio,’ the NX is – presumably – an entirely new console. Microsoft and Sony’s iterations definitely differentiate themselves from the original release consoles, but they don’t alienate the gamers that own them. That’s why this upgrade system works, and doesn’t hurt their reputation. We know that these updates will continue the lifecycles of the PS4 and the Xbox One, but we can’t say the same for the NX. It seems unlikely that it will run Wii U games – they’ve delayed the upcoming Legend of Zelda title to concurrently develop an NX version, which suggests a lack of backwards compatibility. After the middling release of the Wii U – another console plagued by a vague pre-release identity – Nintendo can’t afford to botch another console launch. Sure, they may be able to literally afford it – those folks clearly have a lot of money to burn – but coming back from the weak release of two consoles in a row means climbing a pretty difficult PR hill. Hopefully, my speculations are wrong.