Is it the right time for new video game consoles?

A lot of things in the world are a mess right now, upended by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. In addition to the tragic loss of life we’ve seen lockdowns, job losses, and economic chaos on a level unseen for a long time. And tech companies – including Sony and Microsoft – have suffered as a result of major disruption to supply chains and manufacturing facilities. Yet despite all that, both companies are pressing ahead with their new video game consoles, scheduled for release in November. But is that the right decision? Or might it have been better to wait a year or two?

One of the things that struck me most when looking at all the gameplay and footage released by both companies is how absolutely minuscule the so-called “upgrades” are, at least in terms of the way games will look on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. Both companies use graphics as one of their major selling points, yet when you stack up a current-gen and next-gen version of the same title side by side, it’s hard to really see a difference.

Perhaps some consumers who have an incredibly fancy (and incredibly expensive) television – or superhuman eyesight – will notice a big change. But I didn’t, and from what I can tell by reading and listening to the reaction from players, a lot of other folks can’t either. There is more to a good game than graphics, but when it’s a key selling point I think it’s not unfair to say that players expect something more than either new console is able to offer.

The trouble is that even on the oldest version of current-gen systems – those consoles released in 2013 – games look pretty good. Players have been enjoying the visual style of titles like The Witcher 3 for years, and even some launch titles from 2013, like Ryse: Son of Rome, look fantastic. Any upgrade was always going to be minor, and things like slightly more realistic controller rumble or faster loading times are difficult things to market to the average player. The result? It’s hard to escape the feeling that the two new consoles already feel like a minor upgrade at best… and a waste of time and money at worst.

That’s before we account for the fact that disruption across all areas of the industry has massively complicated matters.

The Xbox Series X is going to be released without its key launch titleHalo Infinite. This game should have been one of the console’s selling points – despite its simultaneous launch on Xbox One. Without it, the Xbox Series X will be released with some cross-platform games and not a lot else.

However, things are even worse for Sony. The company recently announced that they were producing several million fewer PlayStation 5 consoles than expected. As a result there has been pre-order chaos. Initial plans to hold a “lottery” to determine who could pre-order a machine didn’t pan out, and the console sold out within minutes of being made available. Reportedly, some shops have either cancelled pre-orders outright, or informed irate gamers that they may not receive their console on launch day despite thinking they’d secured a pre-order.

We’ve seen consoles launch without sufficient stock numerous times. Here in the UK, getting a Nintendo Wii was nigh-on impossible in 2006 and throughout most of 2007, such was the lack of stock. Even with that in mind, though, this feels worse. Reducing the number of units available worldwide is clearly indicative of a company struggling with production, yet rather than delay or take steps to rectify the situation, Sony has been quite happy to make the PlayStation 5 impossible to get hold of – something which will only be to the benefit of shady resellers who’ll happily sell the console for double its asking price in the run-up to Christmas.

All of this comes at a time when many people are in financial difficulty or face an uncertain financial future. As the pandemic drags on and the idea of “getting back to normal” seems further away than ever, companies are closing left and right, and as temporary schemes like the furloughing of employees come to an end, many people will be out of work. A £450/$500 outlay in that environment is an impossible ask, and feels decidedly anti-consumer. This is made worse by price rises of games themselves, many of which look set to retail for £65/$70 when the new generation arrives.

As we approach what could be a bleak and lonely Christmas for many people, players and parents are looking at these companies and asking themselves how they could possibly have the audacity and lack of awareness to go ahead with something like this. The minor upgrade that most people perceive is incredibly overpriced at £450, and even the Xbox Series S with its lower price will still be out of reach of many in 2020.

I look at these consoles, and the footage the companies selling them have released, and I’m asking myself who would be interested? At least Microsoft can say that their policy of releasing games on Xbox One for the next couple of years – bizarre though that is in many ways – means that players can stick with their current systems and don’t need to shell out a ton of money for this minor upgrade. But Sony still plans on having exclusive games, and are in effect gating off those titles behind a very expensive paywall, one which will prove insurmountable for many players in 2020.

“Big companies do something anti-consumer” is not a surprising headline, either in the games industry or beyond. And as someone who worked for a large games company in the past, I understand that there are many factors at play, including research, development, and manufacturing contracts that were almost certainly too far along to be undone at the time the pandemic hit. Even so, I’m struggling to see how releasing these machines now is a good idea. A one year delay would allow both companies to resolve manufacturing issues, produce far more stock, and allow more development time for launch titles in order to overcome pandemic-created problems. We might even see marginally better graphics as a result. And a delay of a single year wouldn’t mean the internal components of either machine would feel out of date – they would still be cutting-edge devices even if they weren’t launched until November 2021.

Regardless of what some of us may think, the console launches are going ahead. Manufacturing is well underway, and with mere weeks to go until launch day it would be very difficult – if not outright impossible – to slam the brakes on at this late stage. Despite my misgivings both machines will still sell, and will be picked up by enthusiasts with enough disposable income. The beginning of a new console generation always leaves behind those who can’t afford to make the switch; this time around there’s just more people in that position. Hopefully things really will get back to normal soon so everyone can enjoy the next generation of consoles… and the minor changes they have to offer.

The Xbox brand – including the Xbox Series X – is the copyright of Microsoft. The PlayStation brand – including the PlayStation 5 – is the copyright of Sony. Both the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 will be released in November 2020. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.