The Console War Won’t Be Decided By Raw Power

Confirming multiple rumors, Infinity Ward stated this week that Call of Duty Ghosts would run natively in 720p on the Xbox One and at 1080p on the Playstation 4. A fervor naturally erupted across the internet, with fanboys on both sides of the console divide slinging insults and vitriol at one another. For many, this was some sort of confirmation that the Playstation 4 is the greatest thing ever created and the Xbox One is a pile of trash. Despite being a game that had previously been dismissed as yet another derivative entry in the long running Call of Duty franchise, CoD Ghosts was now being held up as a demonstration of everything that was perceived to be wrong with the Xbox One.

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Of course, in the land of the sane console agnostic (ie. non-fanboy) crowd, this news means very little in the grand scheme of things. Even if PS4 ends up being more powerful, being the most powerful console of a particular generation doesn’t mean a whole lot when it comes to success when you look at things from a historical perspective. Let’s take a look at past generations and see just how much raw power contributes to success.

We’ll start with the beginning of the modern era of games: the third generation. The two main competitors in that generation were Nintendo with the NES and Sega with the Master System. The Master System was the clear winner in terms of raw power. It had a CPU about twice as fast the NES, it had four times as much RAM, eight times as much VRAM, a more expansive color palette and more simultaneous colors. From a technical standpoint, the NES was outmatched in pretty much every area, yet the NES was far and away the more successful console, selling nearly six times as many units as the Master System.

In the next generation, it was once again Sega and Nintendo as the top two competitors, but this time their roles were reversed, with the SNES being slightly more powerful than the Genesis/Mega Drive. The Genesis had the edge in CPU speed, which is where the term “blast processing” came from, but the SNES had the edge in most other areas. The SNES ran at a higher resolution, could render more sprites on screen at a time, had a color palette about 60 times more diverse than the Genesis (512 vs. 32,768), had twice as much RAM, and one of the most noticeable differences, a vastly superior sound chip. Interestingly, this is one of the few console generations where the console with the clear edge in power was also the more successful. While the SNES did edge out the Genesis in overall sales, it was one of the closer console races, with the final tally being 49 million to 40 million in favor of the SNES.

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In the fifth generation, the Sony Playstation, despite being a less capable machine than the Nintendo 64, was the runaway winner, finishing with a sales total 102 million compared to the 33 million of the N64. Sony once again put out the weakest console in generation six, with the Playstation 2 being significantly less powerful than the Nintendo Gamecube and especially the Microsoft Xbox. However, once again Sony’s less powerful machine absolutely dominated, finishing with over 150 million units sold vs. 24 million for the Xbox and 22 million for the Gamecube. Finally, in the generation about to come to a close, it was the standard definition Wii that wound up as the big winner, with over 100 million units sold. The HD twins of Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 held their own, with over 75 million sold for each of them, but neither could catch the Wii despite the huge power advantage.

The system with the most raw power “won” only a single time over the past five console generations. While it is very interesting, this information shouldn’t be misinterpreted. The reason these less powerful systems came out on top was not because they were less powerful, but because they weren’t relying only on power. The most important contributor to success for a console is the unique experiences it can offer, whether that be quality exclusive games or some interesting feature that sets it apart from its competition. If you look back at every generation, except this past generation, the console that came out on top had the best game library. The NES, SNES, PS1, and PS2 have some of the best libraries of exclusive games in gaming history. That’s not to say their competition didn’t have great games as well, but the quantity, quality and quantity of quality on these systems is unmatched.

This past generation is one of the rare cases where a superior game library wasn’t the biggest factor in the console race. Sure, the Wii has its share of excellent exclusives, but the HD systems had a much wider array of quality multiplatform games available. The real determining factor for the Wii’s success was the unique new way to interact with games that really won people over. The Wii offered an experience neither of its competitors could and that’s why it won.

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So what does any of this mean for the upcoming generation? For one it means the Playstation 4 won’t be the automatic winner if it turns out to be the more powerful system. That’s not to say that the raw power is irrelevant, in fact it may be more of a factor now than in the past due to the higher number of multiplatform games being released today. As an example why, let’s look at generation six. The PS2 was the clear winner in large part due the huge number of excellent exclusives on that system, but owners of both machines could see a clear difference in the quality of multiplatform titles; games available on both systems by and large looked and ran better on the Xbox. The early indication seems to be that PS4 will perform better with multiplatform titles than the Xbox One, and with a much higher percentage of multiplatform games being made today compared to generation six, this may be a bigger factor when people make a decision about what console to buy.

Saying the power gap may be a factor is a far cry from saying the notion of a game being identical on each platform aside from a different resolution is somehow a major concern. Seeing so many people put so much emphasis on the resolution of COD Ghosts just makes me shake my head. Trying to make conclusion about two systems based on early generation optimization issues isn’t the most sound of practices, and arguing about the resolutions and raw power of consoles is always a pointless exercise. When it comes right down to it, the PC always has been and always will be the most powerful option in terms of gaming at any given time. It’s certainly not the cheapest option and it won’t get any of the first party or console only games, but if resolution is that important to you, just build a PC and run every game at 2K. The strength of consoles is the ease of use and the exclusive games and experiences you can’t get anywhere else. If the only you care about are the number of pixels and the graphical fidelity, you shouldn’t be a console gamer.

I think the biggest thing to remember about the upcoming console race is that the launch doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Just because one system has a better launch doesn’t mean things can’t change. Remember the running joke about the PS3 having no games for the first few years of the generation? It seems ridiculous to think that was ever the case considering how much Sony thoroughly walloped Microsoft in the exclusive games department as the generation went on, but the Xbox 360 had a huge edge in terms of exclusives early on. In generation six, the PS2 was originally being purchased primarily because it was the cheapest dvd player on the market for a about year before the great games really started coming out in force, and now many people consider the PS2 library one of the best of all time.

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As for how I think the next generation will turn out, I think we’re going to see another close race between Sony and Microsoft while Nintendo continues to do their own thing. However, Nintendo’s own thing will be far less successful thing time around than it was last time. As for the big two, I think many factors will contribute to Sony coming out on top when it’s all said and done. The biggest edge Sony has in my mind is the great stable of first party developers that Microsoft simply can’t match. It also helps that the PS4 is coming in $100 cheaper than the Xbox One while having that slight edge in raw power. Some minor factors will also be things like PS+ being a service that rewards vs. Xbox Live being a service that withholds, the fact that hardcore gamers by and large want nothing to do with Kinect and lastly the public perception of each company after this past E3 being in favor of Sony. It’s unclear whether or not all of these will be a big factor in the upcoming console race, but a cross generational launch game running in a lower resolution on one system than it does the other will mean absolutely nothing in the long run.