Six years after the launch of the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4, details are emerging about next-gen consoles.
Microsoft announced its new hardware, currently codenamed “Project Scarlett”, at the Electronic Entertainment Expo 2019, while Sony have opted to drip feed details about its new console through a series of press events and interviews.
Both companies led with headline-grabbing features:
- 120 frames per second video
- 8k resolution
- real-time ray tracing, to allow more realistic lighting effects
- solid state hard drives, providing quicker loading times than ever before
But what actually directs console gamers to upgrade is poorly understood. In the mix of factors like price, brand attachment, and software exclusivity, what’s most important to consumers?
Off the back of Sony and Microsoft’s recent announcements and teasers, we carried out a bespoke survey in the UK and U.S. to identify the most important factors ahead of the next-gen console releases in 2020.
Console loyalty can’t be taken for granted
Console gamers are often seen as quite a tribal bunch.
CEO of Sony Interactive Entertainment, Jim Ryan, used that very word when trumping up some of the features on his company’s new hardware.
But we find brand loyalty is actually a less important factor when it comes to console upgrades.
Only 28% of console upgraders said brand loyalty would influence their decision to upgrade, though 52% did say the selection of games would.
So sticking to a brand is important, though it may be more practical than emotional. Consumer loyalty may be directed more at the games than the hardware.
The biggest factor outright is quality of graphics and sound – the classic benchmark in improvements for next-gen consoles. But as technology improves, graphical differences aren’t as noticeable as, say, the transition between 8-bit and 16-bit graphics, or 2D and 3D environments.
What looks to be key this time around is graphics rendering; generating graphics as quickly as possible, creating more immersive experiences by reducing loading times and transitions.
Sony has emphasised this in its recent press activity. We found this to be a popular wish among console upgraders, with 44% saying a smooth gaming experience would influence their choice of upgrade.
Female gamers view consoles differently
By understanding what inspires console upgrades, we also uncovered interesting differences between male and female gamers.
Men and women perceive games consoles in different ways.
In general, male gamers are closer to the “hardcore” stereotype, with a heightened fondness for improved graphics and sound.
Female gamers, on the other hand, are more motivated by the selection of games, and are much more budget conscious. Female gamers are also less interested in the multiplayer experience of next-gen consoles.
Price: the elephant in the room
While hardware details have been teased for the new consoles, the current “big unknown” is price. As well as asking about the most desired features, we also asked more specifically about the actual purchase process, to figure out what sort of barrier price was likely to pose.
The more dedicated contingent of gamers will upgrade regardless of price, but we found just 16% of console upgraders felt this way. For the wider market, price is the biggest barrier, as 21% of console upgraders said they plan to upgrade “as soon as they can afford it”.
Winning on features may be one thing, but falling within a consumer’s affordability window is also crucial. Once again, women were more concerned about price than men.
You could interpret this affordability factor in two ways:
- Consumers will go for the most affordable option.
- They’re happy to wait and save for their favorite console when it fitted their budget.
But we should bear in mind the diminished role of brand loyalty we saw earlier. As most consumers don’t feel an emotional attachment to a console brand, price is likely to play a bigger role in the purchase decision, and differences in pricing may cause user migration across devices.
Clouds on the horizon for the gaming industry
But the battleground of the next console generation is bigger than just Sony vs. Microsoft vs. Nintendo. It will see a deeper debate about what console gaming actually means.
Google (with Stadia) and Amazon (with an as yet unnamed service) are joining the fray with new cloud gaming services, allowing gamers to enjoy premium gaming experiences without expensive hardware. It’s not just a battle between consoles, but how games are distributed and accessed, moving closer to the “on-demand” model seen in the music and TV markets.
Our earlier findings bode well for new competitors in the marketplace. With brand loyalty perhaps less important than expected, Google and Amazon may be able to draw users onto their services, provided they hit the benchmarks of improved graphics, sound, software, and smoothness.
That sense of “smoothness” ties in with cloud gaming’s USP, or what Google calls overcoming “friction” in gaming experiences. As the hard work for these services will happen on the cloud, the process of picking up and playing a game may be radically changed, with no downloads, installs, or device restrictions.
This depends on robust internet speeds from wifi or 5G, which our research has shown is eagerly anticipated by many consumers.
But there’s another overhanging question: how ready are gamers to use on-demand services? They may now be standard for music and movies, but they are less proven in a gaming environment.
We found most gamers still view games as personal property; 53% of console gamers prefer to own games, while 27% prefer to access them from online services, and 20% have no preference.
So there’s some resistance, but recent research into music streaming has suggested consumers can still feel a sense of psychological ownership in access-based environments when provided with the right tools on a platform. Giving users the ability to curate the content they have access to could be one way of providing this.
More than just a next-gen console war
2020 promises to be one of the most important years in the history of gaming. New consoles from Sony and Microsoft will go head-to-head with new entrants using entirely different methods of distribution.
Ahead of such a pivotal year, our key finding is the overall gaming market may not be as tribal as often claimed.
The sheer size of the market – 62% of our respondents said they’d played on a console in the past month – means other considerations come to the fore. Meeting the main requirements of improved graphics and sound, having access to the right games, and running a smooth gaming experience take precedence over brand loyalties. Pricing competitively is important too.
Our other key finding is how differently men and women view buying a new console. For women, price and software are pivotal, while men are more influenced by hardware features and multiplayer capabilities.