Throughout the personal computer revolution, the landscape was awash with architectures. Z80. 68000. PowerPC. SPARC. MIPS. Everyone wanted a piece of the pie, and innovation looked radically different across the board. By the turn of the century, however, the market had collectively settled on Intel’s x86. At a stretch, one may buy an Intel machine distinguished by, one: having a picture of a fruit on it, and two: the ability to run an operating system with a picture of a fruit on it.
It was inevitable that game consoles would meet the same fate.
The Playstation line went from custom MIPS cores in the first two iterations, to a thoroughly strange PowerPC chip in the third, to an AMD Jaguar APU in the current PlayStation 4, a chip that may as well be found in some office PC.
While the Xbox began with a Pentium III, the 360 featured a custom PowerPC core co-developed with IBM, but then the Xbox One returned to x86 as an AMD Jaguar-powered box, just like the PS4.
Nintendo’s prior architectural variety, including the Wii’s CPU, similar to that of 1998’s G3 iMac, gave way to the Switch, cobbled together from off-the-shelf components in what was widely hailed as good business sense, both for saving on R&D, and for ease of porting everything from Fortnite to Skyrim to Doom 2016. Slip off the controllers and unscrew the back plate proudly bearing the Nintendo branding; what you now see may as well be the guts of a commodity Android tablet. There’s a reason the Switch lacks a web browser – it’s all in the service of insisting that the Switch is a console and a console only, because that’s how hard one must insist, these days. Where a browser was a cute gimmick on consoles before the smartphone age, it now just serves as a mute reminder that a console’s chief distinction consists of publishing deals for games people want to play.
On the topic of the smartphone era, what that did to handhelds warrants mention.
It’s no surprise that homebrew scenes are dead these days. Why bother probing circuit boards or decompiling firmware when the only reward is an architecture just as easy to toy with by ordering a Raspberry Pi, or slapping Linux on a PC? The view that homebrew efforts take place for the sole sake of piracy, the same view that ignored CLIRC and MoonShell on the DS, or XBMC on the Xbox, has unfortunately found validation in the latest generation. Nowadays, there is nothing to ignore. Improvise an IRC client on your 3DS as opposed to your DS? Why, when you can just do that on your phone? Turn your Xbox One into a set-top box, like the Xbox of old? Well, there’s little point in the age of Roku and Chromecast.
I am not here to declare the console dead, or to be consumed by bitterness. Rather, it’s simply that gaming has settled into its home for the foreseeable future, on the commodity hardware that already powered the rest of our lives. There is an unambiguous upshot to this: if one can no longer leverage unique hardware in the market, perhaps people will see a new level of absurdity in console exclusives. When it’s merely a matter of which AMD APU housing, or which ARM-powered touchable glowy rectangle, the specific device a game runs on starts to seem thoroughly arbitrary, as silly as the notion Dell- or HP-exclusive PC games. After all, the recent Samsung exclusivity episode got a thoroughly sensible amount of backlash. Fingers crossed, that’s what such practices will be met with from here on out.
Yestin Harrison is a dilettante fascinated by anything from games to graphic design to planetary-scale distributed systems. When not performing his duties as webmaster at Rebind or kicking the site an occasional article, he's found anywhere there's a lark to chase. Reach him on the Web at ylh.io, and on twitter @yestinharrison.