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Useful Notes / The Eighth Generation of Console Video Games

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The Console Wars resumed quietly not with home consoles, but with the newest dedicated handhelds: the Nintendo 3DS and Play Station Vita. Nintendo's new handheld debuted near the start of 2011, retained the dual-screen format but adding glasses-free 3D to mix, jumping onboard the resurgence of the 3D gimmick that occurred at the start of The New '10s. After a rough start, though the 3DS wouldn't see the heights of Nintendo DS before it (nor that of Nintendo's other handhelds), the system still held its ground throughout its nine-year lifespan against the growing smartphone gaming market to sell 76 million units. Meanwhile, Sony continued its mission to give gamers console-quality graphics on-the-go with the Vita. While the 3DS was still successful despite not living up to the success of its predecessor, the Vita couldn't say the same when placed against the PSP. While it found some success in Japan, the system was a flop internationally, selling an estimated 18 million units before being discontinued. Sony would quickly declare that they'd never release another dedicated handheld ever again. The discontinuation of the 3DS in late 2020, shortly after the end of the eighth generation as a whole, saw the end of this generation coincide with the end of the dedicated handheld market, unless one counts the handheld-only "Lite" variant of the Nintendo Switch as a dedicated handheld.

The main event began in earnest when Nintendo released the Wii U near the tail-end of 2012; the follow-up to the Wii, its gimmick was a large controller with a built-in 6.2" LCD screen. Unfortunately for Nintendo, whereas the Wii had been a breakthrough hit thanks to its easy-to-understand motion controls, the benefits of the Wii U GamePad were much harder to communicate. This wasn't helped by marketing which struggled to make it clear that the Wii U was even a new game console, and not just an add-on to the Wii. The console also had weak hardware specifications that were awkward to develop for, meaning many third-party developers outright refused to support the console. The Wii U languished in sales, leading to Nintendo's first hardware financial loss since the Virtual Boy, and the second since entering the video game business. Eventually, the company decided to cut their losses and quietly discontinue the console at the start of 2017, with the Wii U exiting the stage as Nintendo's worst-selling home console at under 14 million systems sold.

Microsoft unveiled their entry, the Xbox One, a few months after Sony unveiled the PlayStation 4, and they both released November 2013. The Xbox One had as much of a troubled reveal as Sony did with the PS3 prior, if not worse. The console's first controversial feature was that it came bundled with a Kinect that would always be on and that the Xbox One couldn't function without. However, the real controversy exploded when Microsoft revealed but also had a used game DRM policy wherein disc-based games could only be installed on different Xbox systems a finite number of times before the disc ceased functioning, and required the console to check in with Microsoft servers every twenty-four hours (with some content requiring a 1-hour check in) or else it wouldn't function at all. The explosive negative response prompted Microsoft to retract these policies just a few weeks after announcing them, but not before Sony managed to get in a few jabs about how their new console wouldn't feature any of that stuff. The pre-launch DRM policies and the heavy focus on the device as a multimedia hub over its use as a game console hurt the system's early reception, as did its lack of exclusive games in comparison to Sony and Nintendo. Microsoft would stop releasing sales figures after the first year, and while the One would not do anywhere as badly as the Wii U, it is estimated that it only sold half of what the PS4 managed to do by the end of this generation.

As for the PlayStation 4, Sony learned from their mistakes with the PS3's notoriously difficult architecture and they made the console much easier to develop for. The DualShock controller got a bit of an overhaul, getting a few new features including a touchpad. The PS4 could also work alongside the Vita through a "Remote Play" feature that was later expanded to a free application available on smartphones and PCs. All-in-all, the PS4 was a simple, straightforward improvement on the PS3, and that (plus Microsoft and Nintendo's major fumbles) were all that Sony needed to return to being the best-selling home console on the market.

2016 and 2017 would bring an interesting change in the form of an "8½ Generation", marked by two things: upgraded higher-spec versions of Sony and Microsoft's consoles and a new Nintendo console. The PlayStation 4 Pro, released in November 2016, had enhanced performance and 4K resolution support, with the Xbox One X boasting similar upgrades the following November. In-between, in March 2017, Nintendo released the Nintendo Switch as a "take two" for the generation. The Switch was a successor to the Wii U and Nintendo 3DS, being a "hybrid" game system that can function as a home console, a dedicated handheld, or both depending on how one feels like using it. Learning from their mistakes with the Wii U, the marketing was laser-focused, the system was easier to develop for, and (most importantly) it had games. Though its only major game at launch was the latest entry in The Legend of Zelda franchise, it had a new first-party Killer App for every month of its launch year, setting the stage for a console that would not only outsell its predecessor before the year was over, but also manage to shoot past the Xbox One by the end of the generation to take second place. Nintendo would later release a handheld-only "Lite" variant in late 2019.

From a developer perspective, the PS4 and the Xbox One simplified development and made development of multi-platform titles more viable. In contrast to previous generations, both consoles had very similar hardware architectures, featuring 8-core AMD x86_64 CPUs, Radeon GPUs, and a unified pool of memory instead of separating system memory and video memory in hardware, eliminating the need to juggle data between different memory types and giving developers greater choice in what they want to use the machine's memory for. The consoles' architectural similarity to consumer-grade PC hardware and to each other also made cross-platform development and porting a less painful process. If for nothing else, this generation will be best remembered as the one where the line between consoles and computers blurred, with both sharing more architecture and hardware with each other than ever before.

For those environmentally conscious, this generation also showcased just how much thought hardware engineers were now putting into energy efficiency. Previous generations saw energy consumption rise alongside the leaps in power. That wasn't the case this time, as the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One both used barely more energy than their predecessors. The Wii U consumed twice as much energy as the Wii, it offered performance better than the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 while using five times less energy. Meanwhile, the Switch in handheld mode uses half the energy of the Wii U while offering better performance.

The eighth generation saw console manufacturers strongly embrace the Indie Game development scene. Sony's stated intention to foster indie development with less expensive development kits for studios of a certain size was matched by Microsoft's intention to do the same, while both manufacturers lowered the costs and barriers to put a game on their respective marketplaces. Nintendo mirrored the move with the Nintendo eShop for the 3DS and the Wii U, and the fact that indies made up the bulk of the Wii U's support for the latter half of the system's life more than likely played a large role in them fully embracing the indie scene with the Switch, where they'd begin to market indie games in their own dedicated Nintendo Direct videos, make large appearances at indie gaming events like BitSummit and PAX, and even allow indie developers to make use of Nintendo characters (leading to games such as Cadence of Hyrule).

This generation also saw the introduction of microconsoles, these being low-cost devices based off the Android mobile operating system. The most well-known of these was the Ouya, which was a Kickstarter-backed project that never found an sizable niche and closed down operations after just two years. Some microconsoles, like the nVidia Shield, were not only able to play smaller games installed locally, but also stream more resource-intensive games hosted on a networked PC or over the cloud. Cloud gaming will come to play a major role in the next generation, but it got its start here, with better internet bandwith opening up the possibility for media streaming devices like Amazon FireTV and Chromecast to become the stage for new cloud gaming services that could rival Microsoft and Sony. In a totally unexpected, but bizarre fashion, the famous Japanese adult game developer Nutaku dived into the microconsole scene. Basically, their console has a library of nothing but adult games. By far, this is the first Hentai console. It sold out quickly.

Finally, there's the case of virtual reality. VR made a huge resurgence during this generation after a decade of disinterest, with quality experiences now being avialble through affordable consumer-grade technology such high-end smartphones and home devices like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. While definitely not shaping to be the definitive next stage for gaming as once thought, virtual reality has proven through the likes of games like Half-Life: Alyx that that's here to stay as at least a niche section of the gaming market, with the ninth generation bound to deliver more and more examples of developers experimenting with the possibilities it offers.

Consoles of this generation

Handhelds of this generation

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