The Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 both launched roughly a year ago. Both have enjoyed success; reports from late October, if accurate, claimed eight million sales for Microsoft’s Series S|X family and 13.4 million for both flavors of the Sony PlayStation 5.
The fact that the newest consoles from Microsoft and Sony have sold well is not unusual in and of itself. The fact that they have sold as well as they have despite a near-complete lack of what we would nominally call launch titles, however, is a little more interesting. There are no truly “next-generation” exclusives (as the term is typically defined) available for the Xbox Series S|X yet, and only two for the PlayStation 5: Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart and Returnal. This implies that one of the handful of remaining distinctions between PCs and consoles is becoming obsolete.
PCs and consoles have been growing more alike for at least the past 25 years, but one of the few remaining technical differences between the two platforms has been the concept of a console generation. It’s not accurate to say the PC gaming industry never suffered from an analogous problem — gamers who lived through the plethora of PC hardware standards available in the 1980s and early 1990s, or who remember the floppy / CD transition will remember what I mean — but the advent of WinTel and standardized 3D graphics APIs largely solved it. PC gaming performance has moved smoothly upwards over time as new hardware launches, not increased every 4-7 years with the availability of a new hardware configuration.
The PC industry emphasized backwards compatibility because business customers and consumers demanded it in this space. DirectX compatibility levels and support for specific versions of Windows have served as weak gate keepers, but not in the same way as console platform compatibility.
Up until 2020, each console generation has debuted with a suite of next-generation launch titles ostensibly tuned to show off the features and capabilities of the new hardware. Some platforms have launched with stronger lineups than others, but even consoles that highlighted their backward-compatible capabilities like the PlayStation 3 and Wii U emphasized new gaming experiences first and foremost. The PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X were initially marketed on their ray tracing capabilities and next-generation storage performance, but the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed software developers around the world, leaving both platforms almost entirely reliant on the experience they offer in what would normally be called “last-generation” games as opposed to the cutting edge visuals and frame rates available in new titles.
Surprisingly, this has not dented sales for either platform. By all accounts, Sony and Microsoft are selling every console they can build. This suggests that gamers no longer necessarily expect hardware and software refresh cycles to move in sync with each other. By decoupling them, the console market has become much more like the PC space it is typically contrasted with.
The PC Model Wins Again
The console industry took several significant steps towards what I’m loosely calling the “PC model” during the Xbox One / PlayStation 4 cycle. First and most obviously, Sony and Microsoft adopted the x86 CPU architecture. Second, both companies launched mid-generation hardware updates with upgraded CPU and GPU capabilities that retained backwards compatibility in a more PC-like fashion. Third, digital distribution became more popular.
The pandemic makes this a special case, to some extent, but I don’t think it completely explains the phenomena. PC gamers don’t just upgrade for better performance in cutting edge titles they intend to play in the future. Performance in old favorites matters, too. One of the best parts of a GPU swap is testing performance in titles and settings that used to bring your system to its knees. Both Sony and Microsoft gamers are taking advantage of a feature that the PC world has long enjoyed — and, in the process, proving that consoles don’t necessarily need an enormous slate of launch titles to be successful.
I don’t think console games are going to abandon the concept of launch titles, if only because a launch event gives both console manufacturers an unparalleled opportunity to show off what a new platform is capable of at a time when player interest is at its highest. But it’s another example of how PC and console ecosystems have become more similar over time.
There will always be some degree of difference between PCs and consoles in terms of preferred input methods and the particular features of their various ecosystems. PCs will always be useful for a wider range of activities than consoles are, and consoles are more likely to serve as living room entertainment systems. But the differences between the two respective gaming markets continue to narrow with every passing generation.
Consoles have influenced PC gaming, too — low-level APIs like DirectX 12 were a console feature first — but on the whole, I’d argue that consoles have become more like PCs than PCs have become like consoles. It’s no longer accurate to say that consoles are just for playing games. While this remains their primary function, and PCs remain far more flexible overall, modern consoles are capable of surfing the internet and streaming content from many services too.
Backwards Compatibility is Here to Stay
Backwards compatibility has never been as robust on consoles as it has on PCs, but it’s impossible to imagine the capability going away after the success of the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5. Backwards compatibility is what allowed both Sony and Microsoft to launch their hardware in 2020 in the first place.
Console buyers are now accustomed to mid-generation upgrade cycles and to the idea that hardware and software launches aren’t necessarily connected to each other. The concept of a “console generation” is now fuzzier than ever, even before we talk about projects like Xbox Cloud Gaming.
Consoles are never going to be subsumed into the PC gaming sphere. Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft have built enormous businesses and brands around their respective hardware and the experience they sell is distinct from that of gaming on a PC. But while Microsoft and Sony may call what they sell a “console,” that’s a marketing term, not a technical one.
Architecturally, what both companies sell is a PC running custom software on a customized SoC. The success of the Xbox Series S|X and the PlayStation 5, absent much in the way of launch titles, is proof that a PC-like software / hardware launch cycle can work on the console side of the business as well. That’s not enough reason for Sony or Microsoft to kill the idea of launch titles outright, but it shows how the console business continues to evolve to resemble its PC counterpart.
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