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How Console Gaming Evolved In 2016

Steve Peterson|

It’s been a banner year for gaming consoles, with the newest generation of hardware continuing to set sales records. Sony recently announced that the PlayStation 4 line has sold over 50 million units, with almost 370 million pieces of PS4 software sold as well. Microsoft’s Xbox One line, while behind in overall units, has been the best-selling console in US stores for the past four months, and it shows no sign of slowing down.

We have also seen this year the demise of the Wii U, which has ceased production as Nintendo prepares to launch a new console line in 2017. The Wii U sold little more than 13 million units, and never garnered major third-party support.

Both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 continue to sell strongly, as both platforms get a steady release of top games. There has been no lack of solid entertainment for both consoles, and that looks to continue. Here are some of the major events of the year in console gaming:

Consoles Get Mid-Cycle Refresh

This year saw something unprecedented: significant improvement to existing consoles, without shifting to a new architecture and without making current software obsolete. When this possibility was rumored earlier in the year, one of the big questions was whether or not consumers would accept this change. That’s been answered resoundingly, as sales of the Xbox One S have powered it to be the leading console sold in US stores for the last four months. The PlayStation 4 Pro has been well-received by reviewers, though Sony has not yet released sales figures for it.

The Xbox One S is smaller and somewhat more powerful than the original Xbox One, and sports an Ultra-HD Blu-Ray drive in addition to 4K HDR (high dynamic range) color output, at a price of $299. The PlayStation 4 Pro is significantly more powerful than the standard PlayStation 4 (now sold in a slimmer form factor) and sells for $399 while the original PS4 is now priced at $299. Both the PS4 Pro and the PS4 now support HDR output.

Microsoft isn’t done with mid-cycle console upgrades. The company announced Project Scorpio at E3 earlier this year, and it promises to be even more powerful than the PS4 Pro, with support true 4K gaming. That will ship sometime during the 2017 holiday season.

These mid-cycle console refreshes are driving substantial sales of both hardware and software, and giving marketers new features to focus on. Meanwhile, gamers are getting more powerful consoles without losing any of their old favorite games, so it’s a win-win.

Nintendo Prepares For Switch Launch

The Wii U never managed to live up to the Nintendo’s lofty expectations, but the company is moving on. Not only did Nintendo launch some very successful mobile games this year, but after much rumor and speculation, it officially revealed its new console, the Nintendo Switch, set to launch in March of 2017.

So far, Nintendo has kept the information limited about the new console, with one video showcasing the console’s ability to move between playing games on a TV and spontaneously going mobile by switching to the device’s built-in screen when on the go. A reveal with hands-on time for the press is promised in January, which is none too soon for a console that’s planned for March release.

There’s plenty of excitement among Nintendo fans for a new console, as well as for the only official game announced so far for the Switch: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which got a truly breathtaking booth at E3 this year. Nintendo has gotten its fan base prepared for new hardware while shipping the highly anticipated Pokemon Sun and Moon this holiday for the 3DS to keep its fans engaged while they save up for the Switch.

VR Comes to Consoles

One of the biggest additions to console gaming in 2016 has to be the PlayStation VR (PSVR), which brings the excitement of virtual reality technology in an easy-to-use, relatively low-cost platform. Initial sales are less than initially projected by analysts earlier in the year, but Sony hasn’t put a lot of marketing effort behind the PSVR hard yet, perhaps because it is waiting for more games to launch first.

Still, early adopters have been pleased with the promise of console VR. Sony has an impressive lineup of current and upcoming titles, and it has the potential to bring VR to millions of people over the coming year. VR on consoles is only beginning, and it’s sure to have a much greater impact in the future.

4K Gaming Hits Consoles

With the new hardware launches, the hottest trend for consoles is 4K along with HDR, quadrupling the resolution of games along with vastly improving the color output. Many observers believe that HDR is going to have a great impact on gaming, but the situation is still complicated for consoles, given how 4K TVs with HDR support haven’t been widely adopted yet. However, that may soon change, given the huge price drops we saw this holiday. Right now, 4K/HDR gaming is just beginning on consoles—but the impact is already being felt, as games are updated and more players purchase 4K TVs.

The Shift to Digital Distribution

Digital distribution of content has been around for a long while, but as more households get high-bandwidth connections, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 saw a significant increase in digital purchases. More and more full game sales are happening through downloads.

The bigger impact of digital distribution is to make it even easier, and more profitable, to produce additional content for console games. Add-ons are now standard offerings, and we’re seeing more in-game items, free-to-play games, and the whole range of new features being offered. It’s also leading to greater engagement with console titles, as regular updates keep players entertained for the long term. Destiny is a prime example of how digital distribution is transforming both gameplay and marketing, as the game’s dedicated players keep enjoying new content.

2016 has been a great year for consoles, and it looks to be the foundation of more strong years for console gaming ahead.

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