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.
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.
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.