Console generations have existed almost as long as video games themselves.
The cycle goes something like this: various console manufacturers create game consoles of comparable power. Those consoles sit on store shelves for a few years. Over time, those consoles become graphically-obsolete, and so, a new console generation begins. New games are unplayable on the older machines, and so, players upgrade to the latest and greatest hardware.
This happens every four or five years, and has worked like this for decades. It's part of what makes console gaming, well, console gaming. You buy a box. You play it for five years. It gets old. You upgrade.
However, that's changing now that both Microsoft and Sony have officially confirmed new, more powerful versions of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. For the first time, the idea of a console "generation" appears to have become irrelevant. Microsoft and Sony haven't announced the PlayStation 5 or the next Xbox. They've announced new, more powerful versions of their existing consoles, ones that are fully compatible with existing PlayStation 4 and Xbox One games.
Details on these new mid-generation upgrades are still slim, so slim that Microsoft didn't even reveal what the console will look like. Project Scorpio, Microsoft's ultra-powerful Xbox One, is said to be the most powerful game console ever created and will be coming holiday 2017. Xbox boss Phil Spencer made a point to emphasize that all Xbox One games and accessories will work with Project Scorpio, saying that "No one gets left behind." Whether you own an original Xbox One, the new Xbox One S or Project Scorpio, they will all, at a basic level, do the same thing.
Sony has said its new console, codenamed the PlayStation 4 Neo, won't be making an appearance at E3, but did confirm that it's a more powerful version of the existing PS4. Leaked details about the console make it clear that it too will play PlayStation 4 games.
For the first time, two new, more powerful consoles are being introduced midway through a traditional console life cycle. These more powerful machines will likely be able to display 4K and be optimized to support VR, but otherwise will still play Xbox One and PS4 games just like their predecessors.
It's a curious change of pace for console gamers, who are used to buying a gaming box and sitting on it for five years until they are forced to upgrade when new games no longer are being released on the system. While newer models of consoles have released in the past, like the Xbox 360 Slim and PlayStation 3 Slim, those machines didn't change the core computing power of either console. The Xbox 360 Slim and PS3 Slim were smaller and more efficient versions of the existing hardware, not significant graphical upgrades.
This is nothing new for PC gamers. Those playing with a keyboard and mouse have long been accustomed to regularly shelling out hundreds of dollars to keep their gaming rig in tip-top shape. With new graphics cards coming out every year, many PC gamers upgrade on a much more regular basis than their console gaming brethren.
Microsoft and Sony are now changing that. Much like PC gaming or even mobile phones, it seems fans can expect more frequent, mid-generation console upgrades in the years to come. Microsoft is even embracing mobile terminology by calling its latest Xbox One the Xbox One S.
Questions still remain. Just how significant will the graphical differences be between an Xbox One game played on an original Xbox One console compared with the same game played on Project Scorpio? How much will these new consoles cost? Once the PS4 Neo and Project Scorpio have been released, how long will it be until the next wave of new consoles is released?
In the coming year, many of those questions will be answered, and gamers will have a choice to make: stick with an outdated machine that technically can still be used or upgrade to a new console? Regardless of what players collectively decide, it seems the console cycle as gamers have long understood it is finally coming to an end.