One more day. One more day and we’ll be fully entrenched in the next generation of video game consoles as Microsoft’s Xbox One comes out, following a week of Sony’s PlayStation 4 and over a year of Nintendo’s Wii U. All three come after the longest console cycle since forever.
Or at least it feels like forever. It’s been eight years since the release of the Xbox 360. Before that, it was seven years, and before that, it was a paltry four years. And each one of those was largely defined by consoles doubling processing capabilities with Nintendo going so far as naming the Nintendo 64 after its CPU word size.
Since then, that little number stopped mattering as much. Not only because as computing power started to factor in parallelism and multiple cores and GPUs and components that used to be considerations only of PC gamers, but also because many realized that didn’t make games egregiously better or worse. Consoles soon became defined by their heavy hitter franchises instead of bowing to the 8-bit or 16-bit era banners.
That is a hard sell, though, when it comes to new hardware. Games are subjective and ever-changing but when you can pin an upgrade on a bigger number, new generations are easier to pitch to consumers. Controllers, of course, were a consistent solution. They’re a necessary component and they can always be improved from a visual, tangible perspective.
Nintendo, in a way, saw this and put their full stock behind the idea with the Wii. It was a hard swing and got a lot of attention by being so alarmingly different in an objective, fundamental way. The great thing then was that Nintendo backed it up with quality games like Wii Sports, Super Mario Galaxy, and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.
Regardless of Nintendo’s varying success with its continuing tactic of drastic differentiation, it sparked something in Sony and Microsoft. Attaching something bombastic and, more importantly, physical to a console’s marketing works like gangbusters. This introduced the Kinect five years into the Xbox 360’s lifecycle and the Move only one week prior for the PlayStation 3.
One of those succeeded and has since lingered with the new generation in the Xbox One with an upgraded Kinect. Sony ditched the Move, kept motion controls in the controller, and aped a great deal of functionality from the Kinect with a new PlayStation Camera. Most impressively, these contribute some of the most meaningful upgrades to the consoles.
The new Kinect functions wonderfully as an input for both audio and visual needs (e.g. Skype, game chat, etc.) but also innovates by enabling battery-saving tactics. The system will track when you set down the controller and then put it in a low power state, so even though there isn’t a rechargeable battery pack option for the new Xbox One controllers, a single pair of AA batteries will last over a week of nonstop gaming.
The PlayStation Camera is a generation behind the Kinect and similarly a generation behind capabilities, but does enable facial recognition log in, albeit at a pace slower than pressing buttons on a controller. But at least now Sony gamers have an excuse to yell at their consoles, too. For the PlayStation 4, much more lies within the controller.
The DualShock 4 is a much better design than the DualShock 3, an iteration on the long-standing design that was the pinnacle of controllers before the Xbox 360’s game pad, as it no longer hurts to hold one for more than 30 minutes at a time. But it also contains a small speaker, for which a very compelling argument was made with Resogun. This means the controller itself has audio processing capabilities, something Sony has tapped into by allowing all system audio to go through a headphone jack in the DualShock 4. Both of these are small but extremely useful and substantial additions.
Speaking of controllers, consider that the Xbox One’s controllers now have localized rumble in each of its triggers. Even in this rather mediocre launch lineup, this strange development has added a new layer of physical feedback to games. At such a nascent stage, the potential is already noticeably high, almost inspiring the same aspirations as when rumble was still relegated to a detached plug-in pack.
These mostly seem like minute, throwaway additions. Who cares if your triggers rumble? Who gives a flip if there’s a camera saving your controller’s battery? The answer should be everybody when you consider that games, for the most part, are hitting an all-time high of cross platform accessibility. Look at your launch titles: Battlefield 4, Call of Duty: Ghosts, Assassin’s Creed IV, Need for Speed: Rivals, etc.
And now services are reaching parity as well with subscription-based freebies and multiplayer, robust digital storefronts, and so on. That or the things we were promised aren’t as grand as they were originally pitched. Or they simply don’t exist yet. Streaming? Cloud-based gaming? There’s either going to be a lot of apologies or a lot of patches coming in the next few months.
It’s becoming apparent that the war, as it were, is going to be won with these tiny details. All these minuscule innovations are going to add up and eventually we’ll see something totaling up into a giant step forward. It’s no longer about a single number or some drastic, waggling swing for the motion control fences. It’s about the details. After all, what’s left but details?