Console Identity In The Age Of PlayStation 5 And Xbox Series

Consoles are obsolete the minute they are released. The onward march of silicon innovation ensures that consoles never are able to keep up with the times, but technical superiority rarely results in being remembered. That kind of legacy is defined by the experiences a device provides. A genre defining game, a revolutionary approach to media, or a beloved controller can be enough to sway popular opinion. But really…it all boils down to a box. All the spurious promises of world-class hardware specs, all the overly ambitious software ship dates, and even the questionable fast-food crossover promotions exist in service to the box. The boxes vying for attention in 2020 A.D. are the PlayStation 5 (PS5) and Xbox Series X/S/Seriessss (XSX or whatever the common nomenclature eventually shakes out to be). These boxes likely represent the minimum spec for the next decade in big-budget video games, however, it is the core identity of those consoles that will define the era.

” Xbox is everything The Rock is. Cutting-edge, powerful, exhilarating, and like The Rock it will be the most electrifying thing coming out this year.”

Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, CES 2001 Presenter

It Looks Like You’re Trying to Make A Console

It should come as no surprise that a console made by the folks that put out Windows would be PC-like in its presentation. The original Xbox was PC through-and-through. Equipped with an Intel CPU, NVIDIA GPU, its internals were laced with IDE and Molex cables tucked into the drive bays. Even the controller interfaces were merely USB with a new pinout. With all the PC derivative components it would be logical to assume that the Xbox became known for ports of games best played with mouse. But MMOs, CRPGs, and RTSs never proliferated on the Xbox platform. Rather it was multiplayer shooters drenched in early 2000s “tude” that consumed the Xbox.

Xbox Original and Xbox One X Wood Grain Consoles
The PC roots of the original Xbox (left) and Xbox One X (right) on display.

Halo, Brute Force, MechAssault, and Splinter Cell were the titles that made the biggest impact in Xbox cultivating an identity the machine’s brief four(ish) year existence, and it was predicated upon two buttons. Official Xbox documentation referred to the rear-mounted analog inputs on their controller as “triggers”. This decision, along with the inclusion of an ethernet port, saw online deathmatch sessions dominate the Xbox brand into the original console’s successor, the Xbox 360. It would lead to game franchises like Call of Duty being an annual institution, a tradition that continues today.

If the PC was Xbox’s past, the forthcoming XSX represents Microsoft’s greatest departure from that formula. Official exploded view images of Series X have been published, and internet hot takes have been liberally dispensed. Consensus has settled around describing the Series X as a monolithic slab of brutalist design as if it came straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Though the most interesting piece of design for the console is the split motherboard and southbridge PCBs (a feat not seen since the Sega 32X). Affixing the two to a wind tunnel-like support beneath the giant fan exhibits the literal embodiment of lateral thinking, and the future XSX experience will be sure to follow. Maybe heating won’t cause the Red Ring of Death.

“The PS3 isn’t designed to lean towards games. It’s not a computer for children. In the sense that our goal has been to create a computer that’s meant for entertainment.”

Ken Kutaragi, PlayStation System Architect

It Only Does Everything (The Sony Way)

The well-documented, tumultuous transition years between PlayStation 2 and PlayStation 3 proved to be a crisis moment for Sony. The Cell processor in every PS3 was not just too expensive, but more importantly too big. A breakthrough in shrinking the die for the Cell precipitated a complete redesign of the console at the time.

One of the main design goals of the PS3 was to become the networking hub of every user’s home, multiplexing the collective raw throughput of every other Cell processor in the home over ethernet. The Beowulf cluster of blenders with Cell processors never materialized, but the internet as software delivery vehicle definitely came of age.

During the latter portion of the PS3’s lifespan, Sony became known for courting indie game developers with artistic ambitions through their hardware design. Tucked away in every PS3 slim was an overly designed housing for its power supply. The scalloped plastic barrier, emblazoned with Sony PlayStation iconography resembled the engine cover of a sports car rather than what it actually was. Sony engineers had to know that less than one percent of users would ever see the power supply inside their console, but the artistic statement was made anyway. In the same vein, many of those artsy indie titles never sold in the millions on PS3, but rather it was the collective uniqueness of the software and hardware that Sony became known for.

PlayStation 3 Slim Power Supply Design
The PlayStation 3 slim model power supply design resembled a sports car engine cover.

Nowadays Sony has found themselves as the market leader once more. PlayStation 4 initially established its popularity due to its lower price and higher average resolution: more P’s is more gooder. With PS5, price and performance are no longer advantages. Sony’s strength lies with their exclusive games, and the design of the PS5 suggests that will continue unabated. The physical size and shape of the device, with those asymmetrical undulating waves, ensures that no other console will ever share a shelf with it. Internally the PS5 employs the use of a proprietary liquid metal thermal interface that they make a big deal about. Clearly PS5 will define itself by being exceptional.

Console launches are a unique time. Players, developers, and even multinational corporations all get to hit reset and cultivate a new identity going forward. The choice this year for console buyers between a beefy American slab of XSX, an anime parade float in the PS5, or merely sticking with a Nintendo Switch will further the narrative of videogame history. Years beyond when these devices serve any practical computing use, their software will draw players back to a time when games and game consoles were simpler. Because the PC may exist to be modified, but a console is forever.

22 thoughts on “Console Identity In The Age Of PlayStation 5 And Xbox Series

  1. I will admit that the ps5 is an interesting combination of design choices, but the onboard SSD is a really tough sell for me.
    New generation games cannot run from external storage (yet) so the first generation consoles are effectively sold with a countdown clock until the ssd starts to fail.

    I expect that overprovisioning will help abate this for some time, but I am hoping that the redesign of the console in a few years will move to a replaceable storage medium.

    I honestly don’t even care if I can only buy it from Sony and it is expensive, I just want the option to treat my console like a console expecting to use it for 10 years and not like a macbook, looking at failures and shrugging, ‘guess i’ll buy a new one.”

    1. Hmmm, that’s kind of wild to look at the persistent storage on a computer as a wear item ;-)

      I would think the life of an SSD in a console would be much much better than in a computer. How often is data being written to that that drive? I would think the bulk of the use would be game saves and when first installing new games or updating those you already have. Perhaps they are also writing log files, but I would think the designers would have considered the limits of the SSD and set up the OS to play nicely.

      1. One would’ve thought the same about Tesla’s earlier use of flash storage in an *automotive* environment… yet they were eventually bitten by accidentally writing log files to the same device as the OS. ;-)

    2. I will support Mike here.
      I really don’t see a problem here. If you pick an MLC or TLC SSD with some onboard RAM, you should not have to worry one bit. Those are more durable than the HDD we have right now.

    3. Since the consoles have become internet connected, there is a more immediate problem in terms of loosing content than a soldered on SSD. That is the game servers needed to run multiplayer games and the CDNs to distribute additional game content.
      Despite Halo 2 having LAN support, consider the big event of players trying to keep a game alive after MS shut down the servers.
      Then there are is the DLC that can be made unavailable. Imagining discovering a game years later that you either didn’t have the budget for, or that just wasn’t on your radar. Now imagine playing the game, enjoying it, and wanting to check out the expansions that look really interesting only to find there is no way to ever experience it.

      I hope the EMU authors and console hackers find work-arounds in the future but it’s one of my biggest gripes about consoles. And now that I find myself raising a little one, I find it sad I may not be able to share some of my favorite experiences with them because it’s not profitable to offer a way to buy and download content that is ‘too old’.

  2. “Consoles are obsolete the minute they are released.” eh, not really. They tend to have better performance for the money than a comparable PC. Even if one build’s the PC oneself. Though, this is only true for the first year or so… Then the march of technology has generally surpassed the console.

    Consoles are also a lot cheaper built than a PC, typically only having 1-2 boards for everything, and only using 1 cooling solution, and fewer screws than an RTX2080 from Nvida. Then there is typically a lack of extra connectors, cables, and expansion in general. If one is lucky, one can add more storage….

    Not to mention that a lot of consoles sells at a loss to the manufacturer, since they recoup most of the cost through the sale of games.

    Other than that, consoles also tends to be a proving ground for new technology.
    Like the PS5 for an example directly load graphics assets and also has a dedicated hardware decompressor for the task as to not bother the CPU with it, a novel idea that is though frankly already on the market if one asks Nvida who has put a similar technology into their newest GPUs… (Though, ask IBM and they likely did it back in the 90’s on their multi million dollar mainframes… But the PS5 costs a fraction of that amount.)

    Though, how useful it is to let a random application use the GPU for loading files directly from storage is a better question. Considering that most modern PCs tends to have the PCIe bridge integrated in the CPU in the first place, so it will still likely be effected to some degree, all though, it is better to send compressed assets to the GPU than uncompressed ones regardless. It is also of interest if direct access to storage has any security vulnerabilities, I would suspect this to be the case.

    Xbox were though a proving ground for the DirectX graphics library. (Where the “X” in X-box comes from. Sad that they didn’t call it directXbox.)

    Though, consoles have long had the upper hand as far as user friendliness is concerned. Since they have for a long time been a clear example of plug and play. All though, that seems to be a bit on the way out considering all the accounts and registration needed these days….

    In the end, are consoles worth it?
    Depends on who one is, what one has access to, and what one needs.

    1. Consoles are better suited for the less tech savvy gamer and any individual who seeks easily accessible gaming (especially if its online multi-player) at an affordable price and whom favors the controller over the keyboard & mouse. You can still use a controller with PC and you can build a good PC for a lot less then pre-built if you know what you’re doing but most gamers just want something they can plug and play and as long as they’re good with the controller then consoles are a great solution for them. There’s far less hassle with console as you don’t have to deal with driver updates and or many various settings available in PC games. Consoles are just easier and in many ways more affordable. Over the long haul the PC is the better option (console exclusives aside) if you can handle its more technical requirements.

      1. One thing a console does well is the UI/UX for a living room. They minimize the time needed with a keyboard and get to an interface that works well with the controller.

        A PC can be made to do the same but the time, effort, and knowledge are all barriers to that just like they are to people using Windows over Linux.

        The PC approach to reverse compatibility, content availability, scalability, etc do make it a superior game platform in a lot of ways but its not “plug and play” in the same way as a console, at least not at console prices.

  3. “These boxes likely represent the minimum spec for the next decade in big-budget video games”.

    Actually they set the maximum spec for games and not the minimum. A number of multi-system titles like Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon series a Tom Clancy’s The Division, both of which have seen 2 titles within their respective IP’s, debut on current generation consoles suffer in game limitations that are defined by Vanilla XBox One which is the lowest common denominator between PS, Xbox and PC. Anything that will not work on XBox One Vanilla doesn’t make it into the game on any system. You will find graphical upgrade/enhancements especially on PC but the game itself will not include some system/mechanic on PS4 or PC that can’t also work on Vanilla Xbox One.

    It’s a great sounding line but the truth is that consoles set the max not the minimum.

    1. Crazy. I most have imagined the advanced graphics settings and 4K texture DLCs in my PC games. I had no idea games weren’t allowed to have higher quality on PC than console.

  4. Microsoft: A company that has lost all of its engineering, programming, and other creative talent – A result of which is Windows 10, which is only marginally secure IF you accept the continuous updates. Meanwhile, users of the ancient Windows 7, stripped of its Windows Server features that have vulnerabilities, continue to use it with no updates and very few problems, if any.

    Why is anyone taking this company and their products seriously anymore? The only way they are surviving now is with subscription-based products like Office365 which are inferior compared to their offline predecessors. More people are becoming wise to this scam every day and switching to alternatives.

    Dump Microsoft. They jumped the shark a LONG time ago.

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