It’s traditional to farewell a console generation by acknowledging the various experiences, memories and moments we’ve had with said consoles, games and everything in between. And for Luke, his experience of the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X — the first time consoles have dabbled in mid-gen refreshes — soured what would have otherwise been a transformative experience.
I totally get that, and a lot of readers have also agreed with Luke’s take. But I want to offer a slightly different tack today, because I think we actually owe the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X an awful lot of gratitude.
There are plenty of reasons to hate mid-gen refreshes. Like the base PS4 and Xbox One consoles, the mid-gen refreshes ultimately ended up falling short of a lot of their promises. 4K ended up being “sort of 4K that’s not really 4K most of the time”. The experience on those base consoles slowly got worse over time, as developers looked ahead to the next generation and defaulted to the power on the top-tier console. Hell, some games even got delayed because of how difficult optimising for those base consoles was.
Let’s not forget how much this shafts those less fortunate, either. Making mid-gen refreshes a standard in gaming basically pushes the industry towards a world more akin to mobile phones, where handset upgrades every three or four years is expected, if not sooner. And that causes all kinds of nightmares on the development side, which makes games more expensive to develop as more engineering and QA is required.
And when you make transitions more frequent, you also reduce the longevity of each of those transitions. Take Xbox, for instance. They previously had the most powerful console on the market, but well before the Xbox Series X was released, Microsoft discontinued the Xbox One X completely.
What much of the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X did was technical, changes under the hood that brought gaming forward in ways that would take years to come to fruition.
The first change, and one that’s been almost completely overlooked in discussions about the last generation so far, is the addition of HDR. HDR is one of those things that’s genuinely transformative. You can see the difference immediately in games like Horizon: Zero Dawn or Spider-Man: the vibrancy of foliage, the details in dark caves, the way things like holograms completely popped, or how day-night had the kind of allure you’d expect from a global photography competition.
HDR wasn’t a factor at the beginning of the console generation, so it wasn’t like it was a feature on the table for the original Xbox One and PS4 and just ignored for convenience. It was something necessitated by the future of 4K TVs, so naturally the platform holders mandated that developers had to support HDR — and they had to do so without any hit to performance.
Implementing this, and making it a standard, wasn’t something that happened overnight. It was necessary to make games like Forza Horizon 3 look as outstanding as they do — the sky, after all, can occupy two-thirds of what you see on screen at any given time.
I’m still waiting for HDR to become a consistent standard on PC. Monitors are only just starting to get HDR 600 support now — and even then, it’s light years away from what TVs have supported. PC gaming has focused more on input lag and high refresh rates, and that’s great, especially for games like Counter-Strike or Rainbow 6: Siege. But the difference HDR transforms every game it’s in, almost immediately, and for a much more appreciable benefit than real-time ray tracing.
Something else we need to thank the next-gen for: dynamic resolutions.
When the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X arrived, developers had to find out how they could match the new console targets. No longer were they just developing for one set of system specifications. They had slightly more power on the CPU, way more power on the GPU, and a mandate that games had to be running at 4K, or something appreciably close to that.
As EA outlined in a technical talk on their Frostbite engine, games had been running at 900p or 1080p for not just the current console generation, but a good chunk of the last gen too. Without the push to 4K, there’s no impetus to really drive this technological change. And as developers quickly discovered, however, dynamic res was essential to getting there.
In a talk on Mass Effect: Andromeda and Battlefield 1 a few years ago, an EA rendering engineer explained how their dynamic resolution system helped resolve a ton of performance problems without a single complaint from users — even though the game was actually changing the resolution almost every single frame.
So there’s obvious performance benefits, but it’s not just the Sony and Microsoft consoles that benefited from this. Because dynamic resolution scaling became basically mandatory in every single console game, it also meant that dynamic resolution was automatically available when the Nintendo Switch was released.
So without that work being done prior, and without the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X effectively forcing developers and engine makers to come up with clever solutions to keep their games within their GPU budgets, getting modern games to run on the Switch becomes much, much harder. And that’s not just because the Switch has lower hardware, but also because games have to be compatible switching between docked and undocked modes whenever the user desires.
But it’s not just the Switch: that dynamic resolution was also crucial for any developers who wanted to get their existing games to run on PSVR. Just look at this slide from the makers of Thumper, highlighting the difference in pixel count between the original PS4 and the PSVR headset.
The PS4 Pro and Xbox One X also deserve another round of thanks for what they’ve done for the next-gen consoles, too. As a response to dealing with the increased power of the mid-gen refreshes, a lot of developers turned to unlocked frame rates, or implemented multiple modes for games so users could choose the experience they preferred. Some of those games were just running marginally better; others ran closer to 60 FPS albeit at a lower resolution.
How well this worked out in practice, of course, varied greatly. Games like Dark Souls and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice suffered atrocious frame pacing issues, meaning players got a juttery experience even with the supposed improved hardware.
But there was a welcome twist. Any game that was patched with unlocked frame rates — or at least a 60 FPS cap — or “performance modes” for the Xbox One X and PS4 Pro can simply be brute forced on the next-gen consoles. In practice, that means games like Monster Hunter: World run way better. Not just “oh this is a little bit nicer”, but more the “holy shit” kind of improvement that makes a lot of games worth revisiting.
Now while it’s not the same as having true next-gen games, it does mean the PS5 and Xbox Series X have a lot more games to play (or replay) than the Xbox One or PS4 ever did.
None of this ignores, of course, the fact that the mid-gen refreshes definitely set a troubling precedent. The uniformity of console gaming — the guarantee of being supported with your upfront investment — is absolutely challenged if consumers show they’re happy to upgrade every 3 or 4 years, instead of every 7 or 8.
That said, the Xbox One X and PS4 Pro were almost a necessity because the TV industry had moved towards new standards that the consoles had to meet. 4K output as a baseline. HDR. And technologies like VR were in the works. But it also helped consoles bridge the gap with PCs a little, which were massively outstripping consoles in terms of power at the time.
If frame rates aren’t your thing, however, and you want truly transformative experiences when going from one console generation to the next, then I can understand why the Xbox One X and PS4 Pro would be a disappointment. They basically turned consoles into smaller versions of PCs. And no matter how you slice it, spending $749 on a flash new box to replay an older game at a higher frame rate (and at the same resolution/fidelity) just isn’t that impressive. It’s definitely no transition from the PS2 to the PS3. Or going from Xbox 360 games to firing up Ryse or Rise of the Tomb Raider for the first time.
But those mid-gen consoles still had an undeniable impact on the industry, financially and technically. It wasn’t always immediately appreciable, the way you might glance at a next-gen game and go “wow”, but it definitely transformed the industry and the games we play, and absolutely for the better.