In recent years, the line between console generations has become increasingly blurred with the increase of games running at different resolutions between platforms, dynamic resolutions, different upscaling approaches & now with the current product cycle of partial upgrades in the PlayStation 4 Pro & Xbox One X. Sony opted for a modest power increase to support their VR headset & be the first to market with a mid-cycle console product, while Microsoft spent an extra year to benefit from faster/cheaper harder along with an emphasis on 4K resolution as their distinguishing value proposition.
Why does 4K matter? This increased resolution of 3840 x 2160 pixels (also known as Ultra HD, 4x the resolution of HD) is slowly but surely gaining traction as one of the major quality tiers for interactive media. High Dynamic Range colours (HDR) and/or 60 frames per second (FPS) are also meaningful capability/performance achievements, but the ability to consistently deliver a 4K resolution is the main advantage of Microsoft’s newest console over the PlayStation 4 Pro for the next generation of games.
The Xbox One X is the first console targeting 4K as a baseline for new releases as well as select catalogue titles that can automatically take advantage of the improved hardware or become patched to do so. If it can consistently deliver on this publicly announced goal, the X offers a significant leap over the sporadic 4K availability of the PlayStation 4 Pro and the 4K upscaling of Xbox One S among intermediate or in-between generation products.
The new console also arrives on the market at an opportune time: 4K televisions have dramatically increased in popularity & decreased in price throughout 2017 while content providers from sports channels to Netflix have begun creating a steady supply of 4K content. The demise of 3D televisions paired with the lukewarm reception to dedicated VR headsets have established 4K as the natural successor to traditional HD screens, where the inclusion of a 4K Blu-ray player in the X but not the Pro may also prove enticing to high resolution enthusiasts.
The ball is now squarely in Sony’s court as they determine the timeline for a PlayStation 4 Pro successor, which may be accelerated in response to Microsoft’s latest offering. The X is an expensive premium product that is unlikely to ever take over as the highest selling Xbox One console variant, but it marks an important step in driving the industry towards consistently higher quality visual experiences & creates a competitive challenge to Sony that should benefit all console gamers in the long run.
At the launch of the Xbox One, backlash against the original plan to launch with mandatory license checks was still raging online after Microsoft had reversed course. The idea that games would be so pervasively tied to digital licenses, paid subscription programs and require an online connection (even periodically) was anathema to a vocal part of the gaming community.
A few years later, Xbox has returned to much of its original vision with a combination of Games With Gold (free games every month for Gold members), EA Access (early access, 10% off digital purchases & a digital vault) and aggressively marketing digital pre-orders for upcoming games. The controlled rollout of Xbox Play Anywhere with console + PC availability for selected digital games further commits Microsoft to the games as a service approach to Netflix has popularized with video and Spotify with music.
Their latest foray in the Xbox Game Pass is another complementary service that provides a rotating library of Xbox One and 360 games (all backwards compatible) for a monthly fee, starting with a heavy emphasis on first party games but with the promise of expanding to additional publishers over time. We’re starting to see that already with the arrival of Resident Evil 6 in the last title update, a promising sign that recent AAA games will be an important part of the Game Pass.
Games are added to your system quickly, a setup process that mirrors Games With Gold and continues the focus of local installation in sharp contrast to Sony’s streaming service in PlayStation Now. They play exactly as regularly purchased games do with no restrictions on earning achievements or connecting online. The benefit isn’t limited to trying new or library games; existing installs of games purchased on disc will seamlessly recognize the digital entitlement and load upon request. Games that have faded in online player base over time may also experience a small uptick in available players, adding a shot in the arm to previously dormant multiplayer games.
Xbox Game Pass matters because it offers a large library of games at a small fixed price, offering value as either a standalone service or as a complement to Games With Gold, EA Access and the assortment of free to play titles on Xbox One. For about $25 per month, gamers can access a library of over 100 games with regular additions on a nearly weekly basis. It’s a paradigm shift in how we acquire and experience interactive entertainment, one that I’m excited about as a gamer who appreciates both value and the preservation of communities on lesser known titles.
Big game reveals (and media announcements in general) have undergone a radical shift in the modern era as social media and live streaming have become prevalent. The cost/benefit analysis for attending a major event in person compared to an HD live stream in the comfort of your own home is hard to argue, especially when gaining access at all for events such as PAX is nearly impossible due to extreme demand. Combined with major publishers such as Electronic Arts and Nintendo moving to separate events and a pre-recorded presentation respectively, the importance of a big stage event such as E3 is increasingly challenged.
That said, I strongly believe that major events like E3 still matter for gamers and the entertainment industry overall. Holding an event equivalent to the industry’s Super Bowl attracts significant attention to new and exciting developments such as virtual & augmented reality, new console hardware, 4K gaming and AAA games that energizes gamers and industry professionals alike.
E3’s tradition of major press briefings also brings an intense focus on participating developers & publishers that motivate them to bring hardware, software and services to their presentations that live up to the expectations of the annual event. Reveals such as Xbox 360 backwards compatibility on the Xbox One would have been big news under any circumstance, but unveiling it as the hammer for Microsoft’s E3 2015 briefing brought a huge amount of attention and public interest to the announcement.
Twitch, Mixer, Twitter, YouTube and other online services will continue to grow in importance in breaking and sharing news about the video game industry, but the sheer spectacle of E3 and other events such as PAX and The Game Awards will continue to serve as yearly industry milestones that take full advantage of the big stage for the largest possible audience.