The coming video game identity crisis

ps4 xbox one controller

By Ryan Shepard

From the dawn of video games until now there has been many consoles that have come and gone, all of them distinct from each other in one way or another. But as time moves forward, those differences appear to be growing fewer and fewer, especially with the newest generation of video game consoles. So, the question I pose is this, are we reaching an inevitable identity crisis?

When it comes to video games, the most existential question you will probably ever ask yourself is, “What exactly is a PlayStation, Xbox or Wii?” What sets them apart? The simple answer is that they are specialized computers and operating systems. The hardware differs from one device to another, but now they are closer than ever.

To elaborate on this, let’s look at the hardware of the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One. Both the Xbox One and PS4 feature AMD processors, both are 8 cores, both feature AMD GPUs as well (with some difference in video RAM), but overall the hardware is extraordinarily similar. Another important detail is that both chipsets are x86, like PCs, making ports between them more easy to code than ever.

Frankly, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are very nearly PCs themselves, dressed in all the trappings of a video game console. They are so similar to PCs now that it is easier to emulate an Xbox One or PlayStation 4 on a PC than the Xbox 360 or PS3 (though no such emulator exists yet).

Another aspect setting consoles apart has been exclusives. We associate some our favorite game characters and franchises to the consoles they came on. Mario for Nintendo Master Chief for Xbox, Kratos for PlayStation and so on. But third-party exclusives are becoming more and more rare. Convincing publishers to cut millions of potential customers out of their market is a tougher buy than ever, and again if we can emulate the consoles, this ceases to be a concern.

With less and less setting them apart, what is it then that gives them their identity? Is it the controller, or maybe is it the operating system? If we do see these emulators become a reality, that won’t matter much. Or, much more simply, is it just brand loyalty? We have strong ideas in our heads of what an Xbox is and what a PlayStation is and so on. But will that last?

Technology across the board tends to converge. Everything has to do everything, and everything does do everything. Why buy a Blu-ray player when you can watch Blu-rays and play games with one machine? The prospect of selling any device that doesn’t provide the features of an array of devices now is a tougher sell than ever.

Streaming just complicates things further. It isn’t unusual at all to have an entertainment center that has three devices connected that all stream Netflix, or other services. The easiness of streaming content from one device to another will inevitably blur the lines between the devices themselves. Add in services like Gamefly, PlayStation Now, and Nvidia’s Grid and it gets more complicated. Cloud gaming may grow to be a threat to video game consoles alone.

Ultimately, as our technology works together more and more and cross-platforming and getting content from the cloud are made easier, these distinct identities will bleed together. Thinking in terms of a stand-alone device will seem archaic.

Technology is now mainstream. Our understanding and how we think about that technology is changing. And with this I wonder, will we always be willing to buy into a restricted console in an unlocked world?

You can follow Ryan Shepard at @Under_Inspired

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