I think a real discussion needs to take place on the subject of consoles and how we relate to them. For the most part we are used to a console being a closed-system. Once the console has been designed and finished that is pretty much it in terms of what we get. There may be firmware updates here and there that help increase performance but nothing substantial. There has been exceptions to the rule though with consoles being “upgradable.”
The greatest example would be the Sega Mega Drive (or Sega Genesis) released back in 1989. The Genesis was a 16-bit console that battled the Super Nintendo Entertainment System for supremacy in the early 1990s. With the Genesis we got the Sega CD attachment which allowed us to play games with CD quality sound and more storage capacity. Later on we got the Sega 32X which was an upgrade to boost performance of the Genesis to either match or come close to matching arcade graphics at the time which was something that was promised at the very beginning by Sega in their “Genesis Does” ad campaign.
The SNES was SUPPOSED to get a CD attachment, but due to a massive troll-move by Nintendo (that is too lengthy to elaborate here) on Sony that never happened. That CD attachment wound up becoming the framework of the Sony PlayStation.
In the 5th gen we saw the Atari Jaguar get a CD attachment.
Most notably we saw the Nintendo64 have the upgrade of the 64DD or “Bulky Drive” attachment that allowed for the N64 to connect online as well as more storage capacity on the discs. The most impressive and innovative upgrade of the N64 and in my opinion to this day of any console was the Memory Expansion Pak.
Since then there have not been many if at all physical upgrades to consoles. Now, we are hearing that there is a strong possibility of the XBOX One being a upgradable console. When you look at how the XB1 is designed it seems like Microsoft had this in mind all along. In effect, being able to turn a console into a PC to leverage all the benefits of having a gaming-rig PC, but not losing the advantages of having a dedicated console. When you look at all of the Windows 10 integration with XB1 it’s pretty clear to see where Microsoft is going. I don’t think hardware has ever been profitable for Microsoft in the console market. If there has been I would imagine any profit being infinitesimal. Microsoft is a software company. That is their strength. So it would make sense for Microsoft to try and steer away from the focus being a powerful, money-draining hardware and focus on their software. Making components to increase the power of your hardware would be much easier and cost effective IMO for the console manufacturers than to keep following the current format forging all your bets on a powerful machine that on the drawing-board was impressive but by the time it has been developed, manufactured, processed, and hit store shelves it will be underpowered. What’s happened with the PS4 is an anomaly. It is not normal for a console to be the most powerful, yet be able to sell at a profit from day one. It would not be a good idea to rely on that strategy.
Less of a sure thing is Nintendo with their next-gen console code-named ‘NX.’ We have seen from the patents filed by Nintendo that NX could be a VERY upgradable console in terms of memory, storage capacity, and performance through the SCD (Supplemental Computing Device.) Now, it is important to keep in mind that the reason why companies file patents is to make sure that if they have an idea they retain exclusive rights to that idea. So if another company releases a product that has the same attributes as the designs, descriptions, or schematics in the patents then legally they can challenge that and ask for compensation. It does NOT guarantee that a company is working on devices in those patents or even WILL do it. So even though it seems likely that NX will be an upgradable console, we have not heard anything outside of the patents to suggest as such.
Let’s just say for the sake of argument that NX will be upgradable as well as XB1. Let’s also say that Sony gets into the act as well. Remember, last year (ironically around the same time that it was posted in the Wall Street Journal report that NX SDK software was too powerful to run on current-gen consoles) that Sony was mulling over the idea of releasing a “more powerful” version of the PS4. They didn’t elaborate on that however. Also around that same time Sony reduced the price of the PS4 by $50 dollars. Now the PS4 is selling like water in the Sahara Desert. It’s phenomenal how well it is selling. Why would you LOWER the price of the PS4 just before the holiday season when the sales are through the roof? People don’t need to be enticed to to buy the PS4. The object is to make as much money as possible and with Sony’s financial troubles you would think they would leverage every advantage they have to make every dime they can.
All companies have paid moles, trolls, and snitches to see what each other is doing and Sony already knows what Microsoft and Nintendo are planning even if we don’t. This is a game of chess and Sony made a strategic move to prepare for an inevitable eventuality. Lowering the price of the PS4 in stages is at lot easier to explain to investors than a huge price drop of over $150 dollars or more to match the possible price of NX when it launches. That would look like a panic move and you can’t do that in business. To add to that, if Sony also has plans to make the PS4 upgradable as well, starting to lower the price now would be a good way to say out in front of things so if here is some attachment or SCD they have of their own, the combined price would not put you too far away from the original price of the PS4.
The financial climate is not the same as it was and I think that in order for companies to survive this is going to be necessary. For developers, it allows for them to only have to make one build of a game. For us as consumers, we will have to ability to determine how little or how much power we feel is necessary. Those who don’t think it’s all that serious or have limited budgets can still play against people who fiend off of top-of-the-line performance or have unlimited budgets to work with. Everybody gets what they want IMO.
People will look at the failure of the Sega Mega Drive and 64DD and use those as templates to say upgradable consoles are a bad idea. However some of those same people are also those who complain about consoles not being “powerful enough.” So make up your mind. What do you want? I don’t think the situations are comparable. Sega overextended themselves financially with all their upgrades. Between 1989 and 1998 Sega released 6 consoles/attachments.
Mega Drive (Genesis)
That’s just too much hardware and no reason for it. The Memory Expansion Pak for the N64 actually worked out well with memorable games like Donkey Kong 64, Perfect Dark, and The Legend Of Zelda: Majora’s Mask using it. The Memory Pak also allowed for Rare to fix a game-breaking bug in Donkey Kong 64. The Bulky Drive was never released in the west so there is no telling whether or not it could have been a success.
At the end of the day IMO I think it is inevitable that console gaming is about to go through a fundamental-shift. Console gaming as we know it is about to change. Time will tell if it is for the better.