This really shouldn’t be a controversial opinion, but I imagine it will be. Here we go: we are far past the point where graphics matter as a sole or singular selling point. This applies to both, games – hardly anyone is purchasing a game simply on the merit of graphics at this point, and the days of people getting Crysis to see how cool it looks are long behind us – and hardware, because otherwise the Xbox One X would be the bestselling console on the market, and games would sell the most for it.
Don’t take this as an attack. I’m not saying we have maxed out graphics, and that they can never get better. Of course they can, and they will continue to. I am, however, saying that for the bulk of the people who buy and play games, where graphics currently are is good enough. It’s no longer like the PS2 era, where we very obviously knew games could look better. At this point, even when computing hardware gets exponentially better, graphics only get marginally so- because we are past what we call the point of diminishing marginal returns, settled into a comfortable plateau of “more than good enough”.
For a lot of people, their PS4 Pro and Xbox One X are more than good enough. For most people on the market, even a standard PS4 or Xbox One are good enough, to be honest. In fact, for many people, even Nintendo Switch games look good enough. Maybe not to you, as an enthusiast who obsesses over the pixel count in every frame a game outputs in a single second, but for most mainstream audiences, games on the PS4, Xbox One, and yes, the Switch, look great. Hell, to a lot of them, phone games probably are at the upper end of what they desire graphically speaking, otherwise they would be looking elsewhere for their gaming needs.
Where am I going with this? Why bring it up at all? It’s because this represents a startling paradigm change in how the next generation of game hardware will have to be marketed. For the longest time, new hardware has been marketed on the basis of very clearly better graphics than what we have had before. The 16-bit Genesis was an upgrade over the NES, the CD-ROM powered PlayStation and 64-bit Nintendo 64 were superior to the SNES and Genesis, the Dreamcast, GameCube, Xbox, and PS2 were all marketed on the basis of their graphical prowess, the HD generation of consoles was a very stark improvement on what had come before, and the PS4 and Xbox One were put out as a clear response to the graphical limitations of the Xbox 360 and PS3. Even consoles like Wii or Wii U represent a graphical improvement over their immediate predecessors, even when they are not as powerful as their contemporaries from other companies.
But with the PS5 and the Xbox Scarlett, you can’t just market the new machines on the promise of better graphics. This isn’t like the Nintendo 64, where it was evident there was something far better possible, nor is it like the Xbox 360, which was very clearly reaching its limits in terms of potential by 2012. The Xbox One and PS4 both feel like consoles that could go on for another few years, without anyone blinking an eye. Just saying “PS5 will let you play God of War but prettier” isn’t going to be enough. Yes, it’s great that it will be prettier, and we should all expect and demand the best for our money- but very few people will buy the new machines only because they graphical improvements over the current ones, when the current ones already seem more than good enough.
The new consoles have to be marketed on more fronts than just better graphics. This is a point I have been arguing for a very long time now. Whether it’s ecosystem lock-in or the battle for content and exclusives, the next generation of consoles will be sold on things other than just “it looks better”. Nintendo, to their credit, understood this, which is why they positioned the Switch as the perfect gaming device for the millenial lifestyle, allowing you to play anywhere and any time at your own terms. But Nintendo has always been willing to try and pitch their products on propositions other than just hard technology, anyway. I’m saying that the rest of the industry is now about to get there too.
You don’t actually have to believe me. You can look at the point that both, Microsoft and Sony emphasized the most in their respective first looks at their next generation consoles. They both talked a bit about the kinds of specs they were aiming for, sure, but what they focused on the most was the SSD that their next consoles would have. The SSD, that would allow for seamless and instantaneous loading, and less strain on the CPU and GPU, allowing for more freed resources for both of them, and more sophisticated games in terms of AI and systems. The pitch isn’t prettier games, the pitch is better games, and there’s a difference. We’re no longer being sold hardware on the basis of how many dots and lines there will be on the screen, we’re now being sold hardware on the basis of what it can do.
Of course, graphics will continue to matter, and I’m sure both Sony and Microsoft will start emphasizing those more and more once they reveal their respective systems in full. I’m sure you will have a new generation of games and gamers pit against each other on sites like Digital Foundry or GamingBolt, as games are run through the gamut to see which version looks better, and discussions about whether or not dynamic 4K is better than a steady 4K but with lowered performance become the norm. That will happen.
But for the larger market, those points may as well be irrelevant. There was a time, not even two decades ago, when the PlayStation 2 was sold on the basis of its future-age graphics, and the Xbox 360 was pitched for its HD capabilities. Everyone bought into those systems on the basis of their graphical promise. With the PS5 and Xbox Scarlett, that won’t be the case. While some, including I imagine most of those who read this article, will probably get them to have the most capable hardware and the prettiest games on hand, most people will just get them for their exclusive games, or the promise of their subscription services, or some combination of both.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.