Console gaming is about to become a bit more complex. Over the past few months, Sony and Microsoft have defied tradition by announcing the Playstation 4 Pro and Project Scorpio, two “half step” upgrades that promise to bring 4K resolution, HDR support and other visual bells and whistles to the console space. You might expect gamers to be excited about these promises of powerful new tech, but the response has been surprisingly muted. The gaming community seems to be, at best, cautiously optimistic, and, at worst, downright cranky about these new machines.
4K HDR? Yawn. Call me when games look good enough to fill the soul-crushing emptiness.— Walt Williams (@waltdwilliams) September 7, 2016
Some of the pessimism can be chalked up to it simply being too soon for new consoles — the PS4 and Xbox One have yet to turn even 3 years old — but there’s something more at play here. With the PS4 Pro and Project Scorpio, Sony and Microsoft have signaled a shift in focus toward high-end, technically savvy gamers at the expense of the mainstream consumers they’ve traditionally catered to. It’s a bold, slightly puzzling move, which could come back to haunt the two tech giants. In the end, the Nintendo NX may be the biggest beneficiary of the PS4 Pro/Project Scorpio experiment.
If motherboard shots don’t turn you on, Project Scorpio might not be your thing.
The fact is, tech heads have never had much effect on the console race. It’s the gamer who maybe buys a game every month or two, is still playing on a 5-year-old TV, and only picks up a console once it drops below $300 who decides the winners and losers. During the 32-bit era, these mainstream gamers sided with Sony’s inexpensive PSOne and its massive selection of games, and stuck with the PS2 when it offered more of the same. While Nintendo chased casuals with the Wii, and Sony went upscale with the $600 PS3, most mainstream American consumers compromised with the Xbox 360. With this generation they’ve (thus far) embraced the powerful, versatile, yet reasonably-priced PS4. The mainstream consumer cares about their wallet first and foremost, and has no particular interest in brand loyalty.
The PS4 Pro and Project Scorpio is a poison pill for these consumers. The PS4 Pro costs $400 and Project Scorpio will probably cost the same, and that’s just the beginning. At the moment a decent gaming-friendly, 4K and HDR-capable TV costs at least $1,300 on the low end, and up to $4,000 on the high end. Right now the vast majority of people do not own 4K TVs — optimistic industry estimates predict 10 to 15 percent of households will have one by the end of 2016. For most mainstream consumers, Sony and Microsoft are asking for a minimum $1,700 investment to get the most out of their new machines.
“See Honey? It was worth it! Who needs two kidneys, anyway?”
But won’t people be able to play everything on the basic versions of the PS4 and Xbox One? Well, mostly — Sony said the PS4 Pro won’t have exclusives, while Microsoft has admitted some VR games will be exclusive to Project Scorpio. That said, both Sony and Microsoft have clearly sketched out a future where almost every major game will look and play better on their beefed-up consoles, and given the video game industry’s often shady history, it’s not hard to imagine a future where the “basic” model of most titles ends up feeling intentionally hobbled. This not only leaves the mainstream consumer feeling out of the loop, but also introduces an element of confusion. Your average console gamer doesn’t want to keep track of multiple versions of the same game.
Last generation, the PS3 and Xbox 360 sold around 170 million units combined, while the PS4 and Xbox One have only solid around 65 million units so far. It’s simple math — there are still many (over 100 million) stubborn gamers who have yet to upgrade their consoles, and to these folks, the PS4 Pro and Project Scorpio are expensive, perplexing and obviously not made with them in mind. Enter the Nintendo NX.
Nintendo has yet to officially unveil their next console, but an ever-increasing number of reliable reports and rumors have provided us with a general outline. It seems likely the Nintendo NX will be a powerful tablet-like portable system with detachable controllers, which you can connect to your TV with some sort of docking station. Here’s a basic mock-up from Eurogamer, who have been responsible for breaking many of the Nintendo NX reports and rumors…
If the reports about the NX prove true (we’ll find out for sure in the next few weeks), Nintendo may be poised to snap up the mainstream gamers Sony and Microsoft seem to be abandoning. Rather than complicating console gaming, Nintendo is consolidating — they’re bringing handheld and console gaming together in one package. No longer will you need different machines to play games on your bus to work, at the cabin, and at home. That’s the kind of simplicity and utility that the weekend gamer can appreciate.
Now, let’s talk price. The Nintendo NX won’t require a $2,000 4K TV — in fact, it won’t require a TV at all. You’ll be able to play the latest console-quality Zelda or Mario game with the NX in your lap, or set up on a surface tablet-style. While a certain segment of society is into buying ever-larger, flashier TVs, another, possibly larger, segment hasn’t bought a TV in years. They may not even have one in their house. They watch their media and play games on computer screens, tablets and dusty old 720p plasma TVs. The Nintendo NX appeals directly to these people. The cost of the NX itself is literally all you need to spend to get your game on.
Don’t underestimate the power of Zelda.
Don’t get me wrong, the NX is far from a guaranteed slam-dunk. Nintendo needs to bring the games, not overindulge in gimmicks, and keep the price reasonable (no more than $300). The games are the most important thing, and I have faith Nintendo will deliver — they’ll have both their handheld and console divisions working on NX, so we won’t have the software droughts we saw on the Wii U. If worse comes to worse, Nintendo has a huge catalog of games that people are hungry to devour (just look at the enthusiastic response to the NES Classic Edition). If Nintendo introduced a Netflix-like retro gaming service exclusive to the NX, it would be a huge selling point. Of course, even if the NX delivers on all fronts, it will be up to Nintendo’s marketing department to properly communicate its value, which is something they failed at miserably with the Wii U.
After Apple and Google invaded the casual gaming market created by the Wii and 3DS, Nintendo found itself adrift. With the NX they have a chance to right the ship. Nintendo hasn’t won over the middle-of-the-road, mainstream gamer since the SNES era, but the NX looks like the right product at the right time, and Sony and Microsoft may be too blinded by techno lust to respond. The warp pipe to success has been left unguarded — let’s see if Nintendo can make the NX the next big thing.
The Playstation 4 Pro arrives Nov. 10, while the Nintendo NX and Project Scorpio are scheduled for early and late 2017 respectively.