As technology advances, next-gen console makers must find new ways to keep up.
No matter which next-gen console you’re rooting for, Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony all face the unrealistic challenge of creating a piece of hardware that will remain viable for the next seven to ten years. To put that in perspective, seven years ago Twitter didn’t even exist and pocket-sized touch screens sounded like something out of a Back to the Future movie.
Where will technology take us over the next decade? Not even console makers can say for sure, but all three are hoping they can stay current with just one piece of technology. It’s an unenviable, if not unreasonable task.
So, if consoles become dated before new ones arrive, what can companies do? Sure, they can release add-ons such as Kinect and Wii Motion Plus, but the core hardware of current consoles is still ancient by today’s standards.
One idea that might help consoles remain current over their lifespan could be to take a hint from PCs, which are always on the cutting edge of gaming technology. Perhaps future consoles could be outfitted to receive substantial yet simple, user-installed hardware upgrades. This would allow users to purchase new components such as an updated GPU without buying an entirely new console. After all, why should an Xbox 720 use the same graphics hardware over its entire lifespan? Unfortunately, for this to work the cost will have to be incredibly low and the installation process unfathomably simple. It could also create headaches for developers as they would be forced to keep several console versions in mind when creating a game.
So if not that, then what?
Why not play follow the leader? Right now, the largest tech company in the world, Apple, has had enormous success by deploying a product lifecycle that is drastically different and faster-paced than that of current consoles. Rather than offer new products every five to seven years, Apple releases substantially modified products about once a year. Counter to what one might expect when compared to consoles, both consumers and developers jump on board every single time. As a result, the iPhone has had a longer lifespan than just about any mobile phone, and the iPad is likely to do the same as a tablet. That’s rather astonishing.
Is this a feasible option for Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft? Is it possible that two years after the PS4 is released, we see a PS4.5? You could argue this is already the case as companies release slimmer consoles with bigger hard drives, but these upgrades are minuscule when compared to the innovations Apple seems to employ with impunity.
So, Apple sets a good example, but that’s just in theory, and creating consoles is far different than making phones and tablets. For one, Apple makes a small profit on the hardware they sell, whereas console makers typically lose money on new hardware. This means that once a console is released, manufacturers are less likely to invest in further R&D and more likely to spend money developing more profitable add-ons and software. Second, Apple has the benefit of subsidizing some of its costs through partnerships with wireless vendors such as AT&T and Verizon.
Still, the fact remains that Apple has become the world’s most successful tech company, and releasing new hardware every year is a big part of that. Perhaps console makers should be paying attention. After all, Sony and Nintendo both had a terrible 2011 while Apple’s profits soared.
No matter how practical or impractical any of these ideas seem, it’s ultimately up to the experts to decide what’s best. That said, there is one thing that companies can without a doubt learn from Apple: how to relentlessly create products people want. It can’t be denied that a lot of people truly love their iMacs, iPhones and iPads, sometimes to a point of idolization. Perhaps this is because the company’s executives, particularly the late Steve Jobs, had the foresight, guts, and even stubbornness to build products people wanted without even asking whether they wanted them. In other words, they were, and are, ahead of the curve.
This is the type of vision and courage that Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony can put on display with the creation of their upcoming hardware. Yes, it’s a risk to implement big new ideas, but it’s better than playing catch-up with PCs, mobile technology, and the internet, which has often been the case with consoles. Two exceptions are Nintendo’s motion controls on the Wii and Sony’s inclusion of a DVD player on the PlayStation 2. Both sold a ton of units, but a couple of groundbreaking innovations every 12 years isn’t going to cut it. Instead, console makers should be constantly striving to create the next big thing gamers, not to mention people in general, never knew they couldn’t live without.