As we approach the two-year anniversary (YES, 2 years!) of the PS5 and Xbox Series X/S’s releases, now feels like the perfect time to come together and talk about how this generation of gaming has gotten off to a historically disappointing start.
Look, all you have to do is mention the year “2020” to start to understand why this generation of gaming has been so underwhelming in so many ways. Two major next-generation consoles launched at the height of a global pandemic that (among many other, significantly more important things) destroyed game development timelines, interrupted all supply chains, and hindered or removed many people’s ability to spend several hundred dollars on new video game consoles.
At the time that the PS5 and Xbox Series X/S were released, most people couldn’t even go to a store to buy those consoles or the games to go with them. That those lucky enough to be able to afford those consoles at that time were left to fight off scalpers for the privilege of ever owning one. It’s a fight many people are still losing to this day.
That’s why Xbox (and, to a slightly lesser extent, PlayStation) really pushed the idea that previous-gen hardware owners shouldn’t be left out of the fun. Many major titles released between 2020 and now have been released simultaneously for two generations of hardware. There have been very few true next-gen exclusives thus far, and the games that do fall into that category (most notably, Returnal, Demon’s Souls, and Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart) haven’t come close to demonstrating the full power of that next-gen hardware. We’ll have more to say about this in the near future, but even God of War Ragnarök‘s performance is only slightly (relatively speaking) improved by the PS5, and that’s arguably PlayStation’s biggest exclusive of the PS5 era so far.
Still, it’s pretty easy for any rational person to keep things in perspective. Sony and Microsoft were right to take the steps needed to ensure that the next generation of gaming wouldn’t be forced on those (a group that includes developers and consumers) who weren’t ready to adopt it quite so quickly due to circumstances beyond their control. It’s been a disappointingly slow start for this generation of console gaming, and we’re really still waiting to see even previews of games that make most of us say “Yes, that is something that could only exist on next-gen hardware and it makes me excited to own or buy a PS5/Xbox Series X.” Even still, I’ll take major companies being somewhat reasonable over the greedy alternatives we’re all too familiar with.
The problem is that some of those major companies are starting to act less than reasonably. Sony has already raised the price of the PS5 in many major markets. Xbox representatives suggest they could raise some of their prices, even as they admit that their own next-gen output has been lacking so far. All the while, more and more major new releases are embracing a $70 MSRP despite the fact that the improvements that were supposed to justify those extra $10 have been marginal, or even absent, so far.
Yes, the start of this console generation has been slow and disappointing, but it’s the future that is starting to look especially bleak. It’s nearly unprecedented for console prices to suddenly go up during the middle of a hardware generation (even during previous times of extreme global economic struggles), but for next-gen hardware prices to go up while true next-gen software remains so elusive? At best, buying a new console now means investing in the idea that things are going to get better. Some of those who couldn’t invest during tough times now face the lingering prospect of paying even more, though.
Besides, what have we seen that should convince us the next generation of gaming is going to start feeling like the next generation of gaming anytime soon? 2023 is shaping up to be an exceptional year for new releases, but so many of the true next-gen exclusives coming out next year feel like they’re being gated behind next-gen hardware because it’s finally time to start pushing people to buy those consoles rather than because they represent the third year of that hardware’s potential.
In that sense, Sony and Microsoft didn’t necessarily spare us from that awkward time when we’re forced to buy next-gen hardware to play games that only utilize a fraction of that hardware’s potential; they simply delayed that always frustrating process.
Again, incredible circumstances obviously impacted the typical evolution of next-gen hardware and next-gen games until this point. The natural evolution of a next-gen life cycle has been thrown out of whack and will likely never get back on track. That’s certainly disappointing, but, like so many other aspects of post-lockdown life, what’s really disappointing is the idea that the rush to get us back to “normal” is going to be more important than taking what we should have learned from recent events to push for necessary changes.
What does gaming look like if we’re not tied to regularly releasing increasingly expensive hardware that initially only offers marginal improvements? What does gaming look like if we all acknowledge that Triple-A game development has become too expensive, too bloated, and too dependent on unrealistic time frames that put too much strain on the people that make them? There was a time when it felt like this generation’s historically rough start was going to force more companies to start answering those questions.
Instead, it now feels like we’re trending toward a console generation that is at least two years behind where it’s supposed to be and may never truly catch up. Yes, we will eventually see games that utilize the full potential (or close to full potential) of PS5 and Xbox Series X hardware. Yes, next-generation games are always more impressive towards the end of a generation than at the beginning. Unless some truly surprising things happen, though, we’re still at least a couple of years away from seeing the kinds of next-gen games we would usually see at this point in a next-generation hardware cycle.
Ideally, that would mean this generation of hardware will simply be extended. However, history tells us that console manufacturers have never been afraid to release new hardware at a time when the previous hardware is just reaching its technological peak. That’s to say nothing of the almost inevitable “PS5 Pro” and “Xbox Series X Pro,” which, at this point, may just feel closer to this generation’s true next-gen consoles.
It’s not all bad news, though. The Nintendo Switch is still an incredible piece of hardware that may rightfully become the best-selling console ever. The Xbox Series S offers a budget next-gen entry point that may forever change how “secondary” consoles are approached for the better. The PS5 and Xbox Series X both offer incredible quality-of-life features that should soon become standard. Game Pass and cloud gaming technology are showing us that there may be worthwhile alternatives to increasingly outdated gaming traditions. Of course, there are still too many great games released in a given year for most people to ever find the time for. This isn’t a complete doom and gloom situation.
Yet, there’s a joy and thrill that usually comes with the release of the next generation of gaming hardware that has eluded us so far. There may come a day when gaming isn’t as tied to the typical hardware release cycle as it has been in the past. For now, though, it’s pretty clear that the console industry is still tied to the idea of “generations,” and this console generation has certainly been one to forget.