How a Console Looks: It Really Does Matter

When you walk into an electronics store, you probably see demo stations of gaming consoles ready to play. When you first see the consoles themselves, you’re probably not thinking about how big the in-game worlds are or how good the networking capabilities are. The instinct behind a product’s first impression as a potential purchase is normally the subconscious thought of its looks. Despite our best efforts as human beings, we’re prone to judging books by their covers, and how a device looks has an effect on how we perceive its power or functionality.

Gaming consoles are no different. How a console looks isn’t just a way of determining its best-seen place in the living room, but it’s also a significant factor from manufacturers to express their visions for the system’s future on the market. Console designs are rarely discussed with such depth and seriousness, since how the system looks doesn’t really affect its processing power of graphics rendering capabilities, but at the same time gamer’s frequently give in to a system’s aesthetic presentation. Most advertisements use subtle product or message placement, giving the item an appealing window into the viewer’s head.

The systems themselves are usually connoted very strictly within their fundamental use and place in the home. A device that’s smaller isn’t likely to invest much emphasis on horsepower, while the intimate touches of smaller, more approachable games won’t be the focus of a giant plastic monster. The way a console looks is not some aesthetic afterthought; it’s actually a big part of marketing, production and how the console will progress down the line.

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While multiple consoles appeared on the market simultaneously before, the Super Nintendo/Sega Genesis debate remains the fondest of the console war memoriam. In between the “Mario vs. Sonic” arguments on the playground and the now-infamous “blast processing” concept, how the consoles looked was a simple way to strengthen your argument without providing any significant technical insight. The Super Nintendo’s matte gray was bizarrely conflicting with the grape-purple switches on its shell, while the Sega Genesis offered a glossy black finish, looking like something straight out of an 80’s action flick.

The Genesis was Sega’s method of promoting a sense of slickness and coolness, something that worked hand-in-hand with their edgy new mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog; a “way-past-cool” hero that was more acrobatic and mobile than Nintendo’s fat plumber protagonist. While it appeared completely coincidental at the time, it wasn’t. Sega intentionally took note of the NES’s younger fan-base, and molded the Sega Genesis into a striking alternative with a darker, edgier and more futuristic presentation.

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But standing out isn’t necessarily a guaranteed success. The sixth generation brought the Sony Playstation 2, Microsoft Xbox and the Nintendo Gamecube. While the PS2 and Xbox released with the same dark and futuristic aesthetic as the Genesis, Nintendo stood out with an indigo lunchbox (the thing had a handle and was even advertised in magazine pictures as being easy to carry around). It was compact and constantly emitted a vision of smaller scale. Combined with the lower price, the Gamecube was no stalwart guard like the PS2, nor was it the monolithic black/green alien console of the Xbox.

Nintendo was able to stand out, but its signature size and color made it look less imposing and less confident. Indigo was a very odd choice, especially against the sturdy black of its competitors. The system was also available in black at launch, which makes Nintendo’s choice to promote the system with the indigo model in advertising a real mystery. In response, the system was eventually released in a chrome-ish platinum color, a striking, brilliant and much more captivating color.

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The seventh generation opened with the Xbox 360, which released in matte white (possibly to follow the pure and minimalist vision set by Apple’s iPod in the early 2000’s). It was clean, with a curvy concave design that could be set upright or on its side. The Playstation 3 released in the form of an unbending beast, similar in its bearings to the original Xbox. With Blu-ray technology, Sony touted the system’s power with a tremendous design, one with very few buttons on its case. This gave the system an even bigger appearance, showing its prominence in horsepower, but also its premium price.

Nintendo went their own direction with the humble and inexpensive Wii system, a small console with a glossy white finish. Despite the success of the system, Nintendo’s console rarely felt like the ruler of the living room. Meanwhile, the PS3 showed off plenty of multimedia features. It was clear that Sony wanted the system to be a strong centerpiece to rule the living room, providing every bit of entertainment you could ever want. Nintendo’s smaller system didn’t shove its way into the household ecosystem; it was small, and focused a majority of its effort into providing simple and easy-to-play games. The compact design represented Nintendo’s quieter approach to gaming, one free of young multimedia formats and extraneous features.

Nintendo didn’t want the system to feel as weighted as its competitors. Oddly enough, all three systems eventually garnered a black color later on in the generation. While the Xbox 360 and Wii both followed the pure aesthetic of Apple’s iPods at launch, both systems and the PS3 third seemed to distance themselves from that idea, perhaps as an effort to distinguish their industry ideologies away from Apple’s smartphone focused gaming philosophy.

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And while we’re no longer kids arguing about these trivialities on the playground, how a console presents itself still largely determines how we approach potential purchases in the market, and the console manufacturers know that. Microsoft’s Xbox One, the company’s effort to centralize their entertainment services in the living room, is a bigger box than its competitors. Microsoft touted the Xbox One as this unified device to provide movies, music, TV, internet and games in a single box, so its larger size demonstrates its dominance and implied rule over the living room ecosystem.

The Playstation 4’s design, however, is more enigmatic. Its angled design seems to signify a flexible architecture, but its size is more in common with the Playstation 3, albeit without the straightforward design in buttons and disc entry. The Playstation 4’s on-console buttons are also embedded deep in the system; they’re not easy to see or access. Sony’s plan seems to show something more uniquely crafted compared to its predecessor, while still holding its “stay-the-course” ideology in size and color.

The angular design is still a mystery, though, making the system look less fluid and integrated than the PS3 did. Nintendo’s Wii U system is probably the most true to its predecessor, with a basic disc slot and buttons. Nintendo added some curves to the architecture, but its basic construction is extremely similar to that of the Wii (though the Wii U still looks best on its side rather than upright).

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While the outer appearance of consoles may not affect their performance on the inside, it does boast the vision behind each of the companies’ products. Microsoft’s large expansion into centered multimedia, Sony’s quirky approach to staying their course, and Nintendo’s slightly more fluid existence in the living room all illustrate their respective companies’ philosophies going into the latest generation of gaming consoles.

These philosophies still shape the consumer market, silently explaining themselves to customers in how the console looks and how intuitive its functions are. The first thing consumers see in stores is not the interface, the resolution or even the games: they see a device’s purest exterior, the console itself, and how the console looks usually determines how it will be used in the home and what kind of connotation the consumer will allow. Will it be the central entertainment station, or the more humble, organic gaming machine? Just take a look at it and find out.

So, do console designs mean a lot to you? Share your console design observations in the comments!