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Commentary Consoles

New Xbox and PlayStation hardware hint at the future of gaming, six years late

With the growth of streaming game services and a shift to downloads over physical media, reality is starting to catch up to my 2013 expectations.

Microsoft

Both Sony and Microsoft are setting expectations for their future game consoles, revealing information this week about new hardware within 24 hours of each other. 

Sony revealed that its next-gen console -- almost certainly called the PlayStation 5 but unnamed for now -- would be AMD-based, support high-end graphics features like ray tracing and 8K output, and switch to high-speed SSD storage. Microsoft followed with the announcement of the Xbox One S All-Digital Edition, a late-in-life addition to the Xbox One line that finally ditches the optical drive.

The next PlayStation and the next Xbox (the future model beyond the One S) are both expected next year. One reading of the tea leaves is that one or both may drop the long-standing optical disc drives and traditional platter hard drives for some combination of cloud-streaming and download-only games.

As of right now, Sony's Mark Cerny tells Wired that the next-gen PlayStation will still be able to use physical media. That might mean optical discs, but could also be some kind of removable flash drive (or maybe optical discs only for playing older, backward-compatible game discs). But there's a long time between now and the 2020 holiday season.

If all this sounds familiar, there are a couple of reasons. Nearly every other consumer entertainment device long ago ditched optical drives and non-SSD storage, and cloud-based gaming is finally having its moment in the sun, after years of false starts, thanks to Google's Stadia project, Microsoft's Project xCloud, Nvidia's GeForce Now and other streaming options.

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Does a game console still need an optical drive?

Ashley Esqueda/CNET

It also sounds a lot like the console revolution I called for back in 2013, just before the launch of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. In an article, I boldly suggested: "Why Xbox One and PS4 may be the final generation of consoles."

Even back then, media delivery was moving online and away from physical product. Of the PS4 and Xbox One, I said:

"Both new consoles appear to be lumbering dinosaurs, throwbacks to an era when your technology hardware, software and processing power were all housed onsite, in one localized package. But, since the launch of the previous generation of living room game consoles more than half a decade ago, we've moved toward a far more connected way to access content, largely through cloud services that can stream both video and game content, as well as live interactive experiences such as shopping and social networking."

My aim was to express disappointment that these devices weren't more forward-looking. Microsoft even played with the idea back then of combining physical disc and digital games into a single user license for easy portability, but relented when gamers cried foul over the inability to resell used game discs. That portability is essentially what you have now when buying a game through Steam or via a console's built-in digital storefront.

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But some percentage of games are still on physical discs, which are fragile, easy to lose and require a lot of complex moving mechanical hardware parts to use, at a time when almost every other consumer electronics hardware, from streaming media boxes to iPads, have virtually no moving parts inside.

I thought the new consoles of 2013 should be built the same way. But even if they weren't, I was convinced the next round would be.

"The end result: the PlayStation 5 and Xbox, uh, Two (?) are more likely to look like a Roku or Apple TV than a hulking squared-off gaming PC ... Think I'm crazy? Let's tune back in four to six years from now and we'll see what the next wave of living room game devices and services look like. If we're looking at more big, black boxes brimming with silicon, I'll be happy to eat my words."

Well, it's six years later. And while it's not a sure thing, the first hints about the next generation of consoles are looking promising, at least in theory. But, I've been wrong before.

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Microsoft Xbox One S (1TB)
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