The idea of an indefinite console generation
This console generation could technically go on forever if executed correctly. Here’s the set up:
The primary consoles, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Wii U (to a lesser extent), are finally based on standard hardware architectures. The Xbox and PS4 have hardware based off standard PC components, and the Wii U uses IBM’s PowerPC architecture. If they continue to embrace this standard architecture, we would no longer have to endure discrete console generations, forcing a migration of the market and rendering old games unplayable.
Rather than launching new hardware which is not backwards compatible, the console makers can continue to use the same architecture with improved performance, which is similar to what Nintendo has had the foresight to do. Regardless of the Wii U is struggling right now, Nintendo has been using the same system architecture since the GameCube. The Wii was essentially an overclocked GameCube, and the Wii U increases clock speeds and adds more cores (among other enhancements). What this amounts to is that Nintendo’s consoles are the only ones that are truly backwards compatible with older games. Right now, the Wii U is compatible with Wii games, and they would be silly not to add GameCube games later on via digital distribution.
Let’s say that 8 years from now (give or take), Sony and Microsoft could simply release new consoles that are beefed up versions of the current architecture. Thus, developers could release a game with scalable graphics and assets, much like PC games. If you have a PS4, the game runs. If you have a PS5 the game runs and looks better. Eventually, older systems can be phased out. Some PS5 games may be too demanding to run on the lowly PS4, thus compatibility could be dropped. However, the PS6, keeping architecture compatibility, should be able to run PS4 games just fine, and that’s the important part.
It is ridiculous that we are forced to re-buy our old games on new consoles. It is ridiculous that our old games can’t be played any more because our console or controllers stopped working and they are no longer being manufactured. By constantly evolving the platform based on a standard architecture, a game can continue to be played indefinitely without being tied to hardware. Given that manufacturers usually lose money on new console launches, this indefinite prolongation of consoles allows them to release a console when it is profitable (also they wouldn’t have to waste R&D resources on engineering an entirely new system architecture each generation). The standardization also helps developers; their mastery of a platform not becoming irrelevant with every generation.
In essence, I have described the PC market. The difference is that user hardware is a controlled platform. There are discrete console setups that developers develop for which makes it easier to keep compatibility (coding for 2 or 3 hardware configurations as opposed to thousands). Looking further, it actually has clear parallels with Apple’s iOS ecosystem. Hardware is continually upgraded across device generations, yet apps keep the same standard platform and compatibility. I really hope this discussion has already taken place in the Microsoft and Sony offices as a long-term plan. I would be really disappointed if the industry continues its current idiocy of breaking compatibility every time by building custom architectures.
Side note: Ironically, Microsoft already had the original Xbox running on off the shelf PC parts back in 2001. I wonder why they moved away from that and into custom territory (poorly designed at that, given the Red Ring of Death fiasco).