When Nintendo launched the Game Boy in 1989 it stuck with that core model for a surprising amount of time, not unleashing the Game Boy Pocket until 1996, and the Game Boy Color arrived as a new generation in 1998. The big N would gradually speed up its policy of iterating portables in years to come, adding improved screens or new form-factors, though it was the DSi that arguably shook things up further. It gave access to the DSiWare store, for one thing, and was a mid-generation enhancement that did more than normal to encourage DS fans to double dip. That trend has continued with the New 3DS and its improvements, though it's struggled to truly take off for various reasons.
With home consoles, though, life has generally been simpler. You buy a system and, normally, it'll give you 5-7 years of entertainment. Unlike the portable space where Nintendo's maintained an iron grip - though the PSP put up a particularly valiant fight - the home console arena is different, with multiple parties duking it out.
Typically, core home systems have gone head-to-head without constant iterations. In fact, when SEGA started playing the iteration game with the Genesis / Mega Drive through the 32X and SEGA CD, it arguably kicked off its pattern of decline. Flooding the market with pricey tweaks and exclusive capabilities simply turned a lot of people off, segmented the market and probably cost SEGA a lot of money. Its hardware strategy was chaotic and, eventually, it exited the market. Consoles have always had relatively minor accessories and optional add-ons, but mid-generation 'new' systems - even if they did bolt onto older models - didn't fly in the '90s.
In the past few generations we've seen solid, uninterrupted periods where systems compete largely unchanged at the market. Slim and budget model revisions have been a norm, but ultimately the guts of machines have gone unchanged. Nintendo never got its 64DD out of Japan, for example, and generations have become easily discernible and simple. They last 5-7 years, and then the manufacturers do it all again.
It's now getting messier, however. For one thing, the struggles of the Wii U in particular - and perhaps the declining momentum of the 3DS, should Nintendo be working on a hybrid - mean that most bets are on Nintendo releasing its NX hardware either this Holiday season or in early 2017. We've already written about how there could be a clash - in terms of press attention and retailer space - with PlayStation VR, but it seems Sony will be disrupting matters further.
After doing the rounds in rumours for the past month or so, multiple and notable sources are pinning near 100% certainty on specifications for the so-called PS4K, codenamed Neo. There are boosts in CPU, GPU and memory, with talk of support for playing 4K media and improved game performance. Dev kits are apparently on their way out, though any game that runs on the new system should also run on a PS4; ultimately the new system should offer a mix of improved framerates, visual effects and upscaling for high-resolution TVs. Developers will apparently have to ensure their games support both versions of the system.
It sounds like a home console equivalent to the New 3DS - not in specifications, obviously, but in general concept. Unlike the New 3DS the PS4K will actually be utilised, we suspect, as developers often develop on hardware way beyond the PS4 / Xbox One, so scaling up and improving games with updated PS4K devkits is unlikely to be met with much protest. It's the first mid-generation home console iteration in quite some time, however, so has to be considered a gamble for Sony, albeit one from a position of strength.
It's the latest development in breaking down the conventional 'generation' model. The year-early arrival of Wii U and its poor sales mean Nintendo is jumping in mid-generation with its step-up, and some (not all) sources have claimed it's more powerful than current generation rivals. PS4K, perhaps, will shut down any advantage the NX may have had on that score, though that's speculative. It's a strange scenario though - a significant revision from Sony, a new 'generation' from Nintendo, and Microsoft yet to say or do anything much in response, though it's put a lot of recent focus into strengthening the Xbox's bond with PC gaming.
It's an interesting development, especially with PS4K, and it's hard to tell whether it's all going to go the way of the 32X or sell like hotcakes. Of course if it lands in the same window as the NX, which isn't beyond the realm of possibility, it could be a major headache for both Nintendo and Sony.
On the broader issues, it'll be intriguing to see how gamers and consumers react. Some comment around Sony's planned revision has been negative, with some saying they'd game on PCs if they wanted to revise their hardware every 2-3 years. Yet of course plenty of fans are also excited, and Sony appears to have dodged a potential PR disaster with the requirement that every game release support both the PS4 and its upcoming mid-gen successor.
Then we have the near-end of a patent application from Nintendo that dragged on for nearly two years. The 'Supplemental Computing Device' patent has cleared issues and is now a fee payment away from being passed, and it's an intriguing idea. As the name suggests it's a piece of hardware that can help a console to perform better - in the patent such a device would have on board processing capabilities, but also make use of Cloud processing. Utilising the Cloud this way isn't new, though doing so effectively would give Nintendo a potential breakthrough to bring it screaming back into the technology arms race, which it effectively abandoned (in terms of graphical power) with the Wii and Wii U.
A patent, of course, doesn't mean a product will emerge. Yet Nintendo has been persistent in getting it through, and the application even referenced rewards for sharing resources through the cloud that certainly seem to be in My Nintendo territory. If such a device could be produced to enhance a system's capabilities, it could be Nintendo's own version of a mid-generation boost for hardware.
So, why is this suddenly on the agenda? Why are console generations suddenly being broken up? One argument could be that technology is advancing quickly and consoles are struggling to keep up. There's merit to this perspective, but it doesn't really stack up fully.
The answer may be in the fact that PS4 and Xbox One arguably didn't provide the generational leap that was expected - again, from a graphical standpoint. While PS3 and Xbox 360 delivered HD gaming while plenty of people still had Standard Definition TVs, thus generating a perception of 'next-gen' power, this writer would argue that the current generation failed to provide the same leap. Of course, the hardware is more powerful, yet when 1080p isn't even hit as standard - such as the much argued-over '900p' on some Xbox One games - and framerates and gameplay aren't always smooth, the generational shift can seem underwhelming. Rather than basking in 1080p and 60fps gaming, as it seemed we were being promised in 2013, a number of larger and more ambitious titles are ultimately exercises in compromise and making do with hardware limitations.
With 4K, Ultra HD and similar terms now creeping into popular discourse, the pressure is on for gaming hardware to live up to new standards. We're not sure PC gaming is even that influential in this - it's always been a law unto itself with keen PC gamers overclocking and achieving ludicrously tasty results. No, the issue is likely more about being perceivably cutting edge to the mainstream audience.
Will PS4K pay off? Will Nintendo hit the jackpot with its NX concept, whatever it is? Will Microsoft react? All are unknowns, but we're certainly heading into a crowded and messy period for home console gaming. Figuring out the point at which there are too many systems and variations for the public to support is tricky, and whether current PS4 owners switch to the new model in big numbers is also tough to predict. By the end of this year store shelves could be groaning under the weight of new gaming offerings, and consumers will be left to sift through them all and make their purchasing decisions.
In any case, the home console market is set to get a whole lot more complicated.