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Next-Gen Consoles Aren’t Worth Their Price

I’ve seen the current state of next-gen. I’ve seen it running on all three platforms – Wii U, PlayStation 4, and now Xbox One. I’ve held the controllers in my hands. I’ve played the games. And you know what? I’m not yet convinced that next generation is worth a $400-500 upgrade (or $300, in the case of Wii U).

I just know I’m going to get crucified for that statement, but it’s true. I toured both Microsoft and Sony’s booths at E3 this year, and had I not known that the games they were showing off were designed for next-gen consoles, you probably could have fooled me into thinking they could belong on current ones.

As such, I think next-gen consoles are going to have a serious challenge: proving to the average consumer that they’re worth their high cost.

Really high prices for game consoles aren’t exactly a new phenomenon. The Commodore 64 was $599.99 when it debuted in 1982; Neo Geo launched at $399.99 back in 1991; 3DO was a whopping $699.99 back in 1993; Sega Saturn launched at $399.99 a year later. And I think everyone remembers PlayStation 3′s $599 USD moment from E3 2006. There are a few other examples, but most of them have been forgotten and lost to history.

But here’s the thing: no game console has ever been a true success at those high prices. Neo Geo, 3DO, and Sega Saturn were all more or less irrelevant for the industry during their respective periods, and it was only once the PS3 and Xbox 360 prices dropped that those platforms started to see serious momentum.

Apart from these blips, virtually every relevant game console has started off at a price point of $299.99 or less. And that’s in spite of some pretty impressive advances. The jump to HD was pricey, but it was still definitely a jump to HD. The jump to the next generation of consoles doesn’t really have that. Heck, from my experiences at E3 it doesn’t even really feel like a jump at all.

If that’s the case, why should I care enough to pay $400 or more?

This is a dilemma I already discussed with respect to Wii U. Even considering the rather distinctive leap from SD to HD for Nintendo’s first-party franchises, I don’t think Nintendo fans see HD or even the GamePad as adding enough value to justify paying $100 more than they did last generation for the new console. Wii U is too expensive for what it is: a machine people use to play video games.

Any additional “value” is just cursory: players may not care about the features, and might prefer that they didn’t even exist. For many consumers, these features represent a costly hurdle, not a selling point. After all, the “value” of “a box that plays video games” doesn’t change dramatically just because of production values, online connectivity (which has separate associated costs), or the stuff crammed in the box.

In the past, generational leaps meant bold new possibilities for gaming. They meant the birth of new genres like 3D platformers, online RPGs, and first-person shooters. They meant the delivery of more colorful and less blocky visuals. They meant the way game worlds were constructed would dramatically change. And with the odd exception of last-gen these leaps always came with a reasonable price tag of $299.99 or less.

But last generation was about HD, which was such a dramatic difference cost-wise in terms of both software and hardware that higher costs were somewhat expected and definitely understood. This generation, I don’t sense anything worth writing home about. I see more of the same – and that goes for all three next-gen platforms. Is that really worth another $400+ upgrade, particularly in light of dramatically different economic circumstances for the average consumer?

Personally, I’m not so sure. If I weren’t the editor-in-chief of an up-and-coming gaming blog, I don’t think I’d be thinking so hard about buying even a PS4. I might not have even gone for Wii U at launch. I noted just after E3 that I don’t think Nintendo’s lineup carries enough next-gen oomph to push lots of people to buy a $350 console, but that goes double for Sony and Microsoft. At least Nintendo fans haven’t gotten much new content on home consoles in almost two years; PS3 and Xbox 360 still have tons of great content coming out, and the launch lineups of Xbox One and PS4 are largely made up of cross-gen titles. They’re going to face a number of the same issues that Wii U has.

The terrifying thing is that this generation marks the decline of the $300-or-less gaming box. Now, at a time when consumers are more strapped for cash than ever, all three major first-party companies decided to push forward with the “expensive gaming box” business model rather than strapping down on extras and ensuring the affordability of gaming for the consumer, as the best game consoles of the past have always done.

Former Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi once said: “The console is just a box you buy to get to Mario.” He meant that the real value of a game console comes from its games, and that as a result efforts should be made to make game consoles as cheap as possible. Sadly, the industry doesn’t seem to believe in this ideal any more. They believe in pushing the value of a box and delivering the games later.