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QOTW: Are upgradeable games consoles a good idea?

by Parm Mann on 4 March 2016, 16:31

Tags: Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), Sony (NYSE:SNE), Nintendo (TYO:7974)

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You have to be careful what you say if you work in the gaming industry, as die-hard fans are always listening in search of the latest bit of gossip.

Phil Spencer, head of all things Xbox, obviously knows the lay of the land and this weekend stoked the flames by suggesting that optional hardware upgrades could play a key role in the development of current-generation consoles.

A riveting suggestion when you consider that games consoles have historically served as a known quantity, but what did he actually say? Here's the transcript of Spencer's comments from a Polygon interview:

We look at these other ecosystems out there like mobile, tablet and PC and we see that they have a very continuous evolution cycle in hardware, whereas between console generations most of the evolution is making it cheaper and potentially making it smaller.

Both are meaningful but don't make the games play any better. If you look at PC specifically and see the evolution that happens there, there's no reason why console can't ride that same curve.

I look at the ecosystem that a console sits in and I think that it should have the capability of more iteration on hardware capability. Sony is doing this with VR and adding VR capabilities mid-cycle to the PlayStation 4 and they are doing that by adding another box. I don't mean that as a negative. But it's not changing what the core console is about.

For consoles in general it's more important now than it's ever been, because you have so many of these other platforms that are around. It used to be that when you bought your console you were way ahead of the price performance curve by so much, relative to a PC. But now PCs are inexpensive and your phones are getting more and more capable.

I still think a console is the best price to performance deal that is out there but when you look at the evolution ... I'm not going to announce our road map for hardware ... but what I wanted to say on stage for people when they see this vision of ours and question our commitment to console I want to make sure that people see that what we are doing enables us to be more committed to what consoles are about than we've ever been and innovate more consistently than we ever have. That's the key for me.

There are no definitive statements, but there are some fascinating hints. And he has a point, games consoles do risk becoming stale given the rate at which technology now evolves.

With PCs already championing 4K resolutions, what sort of life span can the likes of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 expect when they're barely managing 1080p? And how long will it be before their capabilities are overtaken by a smartphone?

But more importantly, if incremental upgrades are the answer, how would they work? Do you envisage standardised external GPUs, or much like the iPhone, a yearly model refresh with new underlying hardware? And in either case, what might it mean for game fragmentation?

It's an intriguing proposition, so let's open the floor to you, the gamers. Are upgradeable games consoles a good idea? Share your thoughts on the subject using the comments facility below.

HEXUS Forums :: 42 Comments

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Nothing wrong with dropping an expansion card into an N64 to make Perfect Dark run a bit smoother on 4 player split screen with bots…
No. The whole point of a closed ecosystem like an Xbox360 is that you can target a static platform. Devs know exactly what hardware they have and exactly how far they can push the envelope. More combinations of hardware also leads to worse stability.
The issue with mid-cycle upgrades is that you screw the people that bought early into your ecosystem.

So even with a reasonable upgrade plan with backward compatibility, the original buyers are stuck playing at 900p30 whilst more recent buyers get 1080p60 - because the games start targeting the new hardware and just ‘supporting’ the old hardware.

But I think there is a reasonable argument for the XBox One to do it - it's losing massively. If they could double the GPU power whilst keeping everything else the same, then they could claw back lost marketshare through having a more compelling product. So you could see a 14nm XBox One with the same 8 CPUs (running ~2.5GHz now though) and maybe 1536-2048 shaders at 1.2GHz (3.6 - 4.8 GFLOPS) - very compelling.
I think upgradable storage is fine but becoming almost redundant with cloud solutions.

As a PC gamer I like upgradability and games which can scale with hardware but i think that's antithetical to a console platform. People buy consoles because they dont want to have to think about compatability etc
Personally I think consoles should stay as they are, a known quantity. Devs know exactly what hardware they are dealing with and so can extensively test and refine for that hardware.

The issue at hand is still entirely valid though, consoles are consistently far behind the curve, and often closer towards the ends of the console's life span that has a significant knock on effect on AAA pc releases, as we don't always see the proper PC refinement that should be there.

The real trouble though is that theres no real middle ground I feel. If you have upgradeable GPUs for example on a console, suddenly, unless its under very highly controlled instances (1 upgrade per CPU/GPU architecture say), console mid-life upgrades would be troublesome for developers. On the other hand, we can't just roll out a new console every 2 years. The current lifespan of consoles would be alright if they were running top end hardware for 5 years or whatever, but that isnt viable. Meanwhile the lower/midrange parts used in consoles don't tend to hold up 5 years, especially when console marketing is so heavily graphics based. But is it fair to release a new console every 1/2 years in the same way apple releases iPhones? I don't think so, at that point PC pays off even more so than it does not.

I think, atleast for now, its just one of those accepted tradeoffs. There isn't currently a viable way to boost it without disrupting the static platform. That may change in future, and we may see external GPU's for consoles if they are only done as a mid-life boost, but I don't think full upgradability will work on consoles, may as well buy a PC at that point.