We’ve now seen the first showcase of next-gen gameplay—at least some of it—from Microsoft and the Xbox Series X, and “whelmed” seems to be the word of the day. It’s all over social media at the moment, and it illustrates the general reaction to Microsoft’s livestream. It was fine, it had some good stuff, it wasn’t underwhelming, it wasn’t overwhelming. It was whelming. It did not have all that many shocking moments, a product of the format, streaming limitations, and some basic truths. But even though we’ve got bigger games yet to come—Halo: Infinite needs to do more than whelm, and PS5 should have some heavy hitters out there—it also raises a basic truth about the next-generation of consoles that’s going to be tough for the people selling them.
It’s all about diminishing returns: for years, manufacturers have relied on shiny new graphics to sell new consoles, but that’s been getting harder for years. Graphics will improve with the Xbox Series X and PS5, that much is true. But they’ll improve in ways that are easier to see in slowed-down side-by-side shots, and that’s a problem.
Diminishing returns have been with us for a couple of generations now. Arguably the most dramatic leap forward in graphics came with the PlayStation and Nintendo 64, with the dawn of the 3D era, though NES to SNES was darn impressive too. There was no question about what you were getting there: here was Mario, suddenly rendered in 3D, running in all directions. The PS2 was a little less dramatic, but still impressive: I still remember my mouth dropping when I first played Tekken Tag Tournament, which is still not such a bad-looking game.
From there, a familiar pattern emerges. The Xbox 360 and PS3 delivered noticeable, impressive improvements, but not such a big leap as what we saw from PS1 to PS2. Ditto with the Xbox One and PS4. At launch, the games looked good but not quite staggering. Ryse: Son of Rome delivered some impressive character models, for example, but it did so with some pretty intense gameplay limitations that made them harder to appreciate. Killzone: Shadow Fall, on the PS4, was a first-person shooter that was a little more impressive than the first-person shooters we had seen before.
And that brings us to the PS5 and Xbox Series X, of which we’ve now seen the first moments of gameplay. Sure, they’re impressive! But graphics had already improved so much over the course of the last generation that it can be tough to really peg just how impressive they are, especially with the presence of the Xbox One X and PS4 Pro. We’ve already had Red Dead Redemption 2, after all, and The Last of Us Part 2 is on its way. The colossal effort required to make a game look quite so beautiful means that few can reach quite so high.
You see this reflected elsewhere: years ago, every game had to chase ever-improving graphics because that was such a big part of the marketing landscape. Now, drop-dead graphics are really only a selling point for a small number of gigantic AAA games, and the biggest games in the world typically get there with more constrained visuals that allow them to play on a wider range of devices. Fortnite looks nice on a high-end PC, but for most players superior hardware for that game is more about better performance than better fidelity. Some of the most popular games in the world are 5+ years old or even older, and they clearly don’t look as technically impressive as their modern counterparts. People are fine with that.
The Xbox Series X and PS5 will be great for games in all sorts of ways, from loading times to performance, quality-of-life improvements and what looks like an experience with a lot of pain points smoothed out. Developers seem excited, and that’s exciting. Eventually, it sounds like they’ll also be able to make huge leaps forward in how they present seamless worlds, more complex simulations and all sorts of other benefits of more powerful hardware. But it’s all just harder to show, and that makes selling these things harder.
I get the feeling that both Sony and Microsoft are ready for this. They’re pushing ecosystem over individual machines, and they have a ton of ways of making money beyond hardware sales. But it’s going to make the launch of these new machines feel different than what we’ve had in the past, more similar to the launch of the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X than that have the Xbox 360 and PS3, say.
There’s still time to bring the heat, and rest assured the heat will be brought. But the specter of diminishing returns isn’t going away.
By Dave Thier