When consoles become PCs – Why console upgrades might make consoles obsolete

Microsoft recently said that they would not be making a pro version of Project Scarlett, their new upcoming console. This has lead quite a few new rumors to start flying around, specifically in how Microsoft is going to keep up should Sony create a PS5 pro. The most recent involves the existence of an upgrade option. Instead of releasing a pro version of Project Scarlett, Microsoft supposedly will allow you to upgrade Scarlett’s individual parts like hard drive (or SSD), RAM, and possibly even the graphics card. Of course, like most rumors, we cannot verify this until Microsoft themselves confirms it, and Microsoft is saving a lot of Project Scarlett info for next year.

But let’s talk about what would happen if this were true. What does crafting a console with the ability to be upgraded mean for the home console market at large?

Let’s start by making one things clear, you can already upgrade your consoles. Usually these upgrades are limited to replacing the hard drive with a larger one if you aren’t comfortable with microelectronics, but more extreme hobbyists have been taking apart and reassembling their consoles for years.

That’s the thing though. This was something only hobbyists did. It wasn’t something that was expected of the general console owning populace.

It’s a matter of attitude really. PC gamers are expected to know their rigs.  That knowledge confers with it a certain skill set, specifically the skill set to take your rig apart and put it back together. Even if there are some parts of your computer you’d rather not mess with (many new PC hobbyists still flinch when they have to replace a processor) almost every PC gamer can, at the very least, replace a graphics card and seat in a few sticks or RAM.

Console gamers, on the other hand, had a different set of expectations, or rather there was a different set of expectations put on the console. Despite consoles evolving from early home computers (remember “Famicom,” the Japanese name for the NES, stands for “Family Computer”) they have come to be known as sort of “idiot proof” devices. All the extra bells and whistles (and by that I mean core programs) of a standard OS have been removed form console firmware. This allows game developers to squeeze quite a bit of power out of a device that, in the eyes of PC gamers, would otherwise appear to be low spec.

This has started to change with modern day consoles. First simple web browsers were added to consoles. Then streaming and social media apps have been added to the home console’s toolset. Consoles have become less of a video game playing device and more of an all-in-one home media box. While you likely won’t find people using their home consoles for word processing or spreadsheets (except for those weird dedicated homebrewers that find a way to run Linux on everything) consoles have become closer and closer to “computers” while still retaining their identity as a device that can be used by basically anyone without knowledge of specs or electronics.

But everything changed last generation with the introduction of “pro” consoles. While either PS4 or Xbox One could play any piece of PS4 or Xbox One software, the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X could now play games “better.” Shortened loading times, graphical enhancements, better framerates, these upgrades are more were promised to “pro” console owners. Suddenly, there were two types of console gamers, gamers that played their games on low spec to save money and gamers who played their games at high spec by using the best equipment on offer.

Sure sounds a lot like PC gaming doesn’t it?

Which brings us to the proposed ability to upgrade consoles. On one hand this could make consoles a less impactful monetary investment. If you could, for example, simply upgrade the graphics card of your Xbox instead of buying a whole new generation of console then you could possibly reduce the cost when moving from generation to generation. Then again many graphics cards are as expensive as new consoles if not more, so the economics might not work out.

And if the economics don’t work out, then consoles themselves will be in a sticky situation. Right now the advantages that consoles have over PCs is that they are A) easy to set up and use and B) less expensive than a mid-line gaming PC. However, developing individual parts for console upgrades effectively removes these two advantages. Now users will have to learn how to upgrade their consoles, which might be easier than upgrading a PC but still introduces a new toolset. In addition, buyers will have to factor in the costs of needed upgrades to their decision to buy a console in the first place.

Then there’s the fact that Microsoft in particular is attempting to make their games multiplatform with, you guessed it, PCs. Specifically they are trying to make every major Xbox One (and presumably Project Scarlett) game available on Windows 10 as well. Now that cross platform play is becoming more common, this also means the barriers between PC and console play are breaking down. Essentially, there won’t be much difference between the PC and console version at all.

At which point we are going to have to ask, what’s the point of a console? Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that you can upgrade Project Scarlett’s individual parts. If there is even one game that requires parts other than the ones you get when you take the console out of its then is the console really a better monetary value than a PC? Is it less of a hassle than a PC? Are controllers the only thing that it has to offer and can’t they be hooked up to a PC too?

Now I’m not saying Project Scarlett is going to come out and suddenly there is going to be a mass exodus of console gamers to PC platforms. What I am saying though, is that we are setting a trend. Video game consoles are becoming less and less… well… video game consoles and more tiny weak PCs. At the point that they become indistinguishable from PCs in all but marketing and a few functions, we are going to have to consider their value in respect to PCs as well.

Do you want to spend $500 on a console or would you rather put a little extra money in and get an $800 budget gaming PC? Do you want to spend $800 on a console and a few upgrades or do you want to spend $1000+ on a pretty decent gaming PC? Do you want to spend several thousands of dollars getting every console on the market and every upgrade for them, or do you want to get just one top of the line gaming PC?

All of this is theoretical right now. Frankly we don’t even know if Project Scarlett will be upgradeable, or if the PS5 will have a “pro” option. However, I’d put good money on this trend of high-end consoles not going away. At some point these consoles will truly have to compete with PCs and, frankly, I’m not sure they will win.