Will Consoles Adopt Smartphone-Like Hardware Generations?

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New Hardware Generation

Microsoft’s Phil Spencer has the Internet speculating over the future of the Xbox One with his announcements today.

His comments lend to the theory that Microsoft will update the console hardware of the Xbox One further instead of launching a new generation or an ‘Xbox 4’,

“When you look at the console space, I believe we will see more hardware innovation in the console space than we’ve ever seen. You’ll actually see us come out with new hardware capability during a generation allowing the same games to run backward and forward compatible because we have a Universal Windows Application running on top of the Universal Windows Platform that allows us to focus more and more on hardware innovation without invalidating the games that run on that platform.”

Phil Spencer Head of Xbox
Phil Spencer – Head of Xbox

In August last year, Microsoft announced the Xbox One Elite, which includes a 1TB solid-state hard-drive.

Upgrades to extend a console’s life-cycle are nothing new; however it may become more of a focus for the big three console developers: Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony.

In 2014/2015, Nintendo launched the New Nintendo 3DS, an upgrade in features and control options along with more processing power. The result of this was new 3DS games that are exclusive to the New Nintendo 3DS units without breaking backwards compatibility.

Sony has toyed with the idea of introducing an incremental upgrade as well. Last year, Sony discussed the possibility of introducing a more powerful PlayStation 4. Pointing out that the PS4’s x86 architecture allows for iterative upgrades

Microsoft is in a unique position where it is able to tie its games to the Windows 10 Microsoft Store with its ‘Universal Windows Platform’ and may try to leverage the cross-platform ability to encourage more gamers into the Microsoft ecosystem. As Microsoft’s Head of Xbox, Phil Spencer alluded to their plan,

“We can effectively feel a little bit more like we see on PC, where I can still go back and run my old Doom and Quake games that I used to play years ago but I can still see the best 4K games come out and my library is always with me. Hardware innovation continues while the software innovation is able to take advantage and I don’t have to jump a generation and lose everything that I played on before.”

What form this hardware innovation will look like is anyone’s guess. However, if it requires the purchase of a brand new console such as the New Nintendo 3DS end users may not see a difference to a new console generation.

Installable upgrades such as the RAM expansion for the Nintendo 64 have been tried in the past with mixed results, perhaps early adopters will be able to upgrade without purchasing a new console in the same generation. This is unlikely though, The Wii U, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are very much focused on keeping tinkerers out of the system. They’ve built their casings in such a way that many warranties are violated for changing more than a face-plate.

More likely we will see a gradual increase in power like the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. All running the same operating system and compatible with most (if not all) applications designed for earlier iterations.

As Microsoft and Sony already have premium subscription options for their online gaming services, how much of a leap would it be to offer a tier that includes a hardware upgrade every two years such as a mobile phone plan? I’m sure there are problems with this idea I haven’t considered, but with the push to Windows 10 and the ongoing subscription (and unlimited updates) model of Office 365 I can see Microsoft going down this path.

Looking at current iPhone 6 prices in Australia $A929 and $1,079 for the iPhone 6 Plus, it would be trivial for Microsoft to offer 2 year contracts to lock gamers into an upgrade cycle on a $499 AUD console. Their best bet would be to offer the consoles to be bought outright for an upfront cost, and an alternative offer of an Xbox Gold subscription that includes paying off the console.

Xbox Live
Get the latest console for an extra $30/month?

I can already see this being unpopular with gamers and Microsoft has mistepped before, gamers may well remember the ‘Always Connected’ Xbox One. But it would be naive to assume Microsoft isn’t looking to see the success of the Apple system when it comes to hardware upgrades.

New hardware from the ground up is too expensive for Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft to do every 5-6 years and its clear from Phil Spencer’s comments that Microsoft is aware of the PC and console gap getting wider every year they delay. Incremental upgrades every one or two years would see console fans staying a bit closer in step with their PC brethren

And while we will never see the end of the #PCMasterRace movement, we could see a reduction in games ‘held back’ to console standard when the hardware is constantly evolving.

What do you think of console generations being done away with? Would you pay for an Xbox One like a phone contract? I’d love to flesh out some of these ideas in the comments.

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