games / Columns

The Gamer Parent’s Strategy Guide: Next-Gen Consoles

October 2, 2020 | Posted by Jed Shaffer
Sony Playstation 5 PS5

The release of a new console is a singular day on the gaming calendar. Perhaps, even, unique among all of consumable media. I know, hot take to start off, and only in my second column.

Games, movies and TV episodes can’t compare. They get released too often to be a milestone moment. When a new something is released as often as McDonald’s changes Happy Meal toys, there’s a natural ceiling to the excitement level. Even if the release is something that’s been long-awaited, or a hoped-for revival, or finally emerging from development hell, there’s only so long you can maintain the buzz, because there’s a clock ticking in the background for the next thing. Got the new Call Of Duty? Cool story, bro, the new Tomb Raider drops in seven, same day as the new Forza. A week later, Super Mario Odyssey and the new WWE game. And holy cow, PSN is running a sale on indie games? There’s a limit to how many times you can get it up before you go numb. The rush of dopamine you feel when the GameStop employee slides that new game across the counter will wear off before you toss the shrink wrap in the foot-well of your car.

But a new console is different, because it’s not just a singular release, or even a dozen new releases. A new console is all about possibilities. It’s the discovery of a new mathematical theorem or a new element on the periodic table. It’s a new horizon, putting what you thought were the outer limits of possibility in your rear view mirror. When the NES released, the graphics were a quantum leap from the Atari 2600; there was no more “let’s pretend these blocks are trees, and those blocks are clouds, and that thing that looks like a broken duck is a knight”. Trees looked like trees, the Princess looked like a princess, and Jason Voorhees, for some reason, looked like Barney the Dinosaur in a mechanic’s coveralls. The jump from the fourth generation (the Genesis/SNES/TG16 era) to the fifth took us from 2D to 3D, and HOLY HELL, did it defy words. The worlds we’d seen on flat planes could now be worlds. There was no “end of the level”; there was just the horizon. Height and depth were no longer limited to “up and down” or “left and right”. Well, unless you were Bubsy 3D, where basic functionality itself was a limitation.

And with new consoles comes utter madness. The release of the SNES was met with unbridled insanity from kids, stopping just short of launching the kind of insurrection you’d normally see topple a military junta. On the other side of the coin was outrage from parents who found out everything they’d bought their kids for the past five years was now no better than backyard paver stones. The PlayStation 2 and Wii launches turned the consoles into a four-leaf clover hunt taking place during The Hunger Games, complete with aftermarket price gouging that required you to sell the kid you were buying the console for in the first place. The most recent two generations had people standing in lines on launch night that stretched the length of most freeways, all hoping the store’s meager allotment of the latest and greatest console wouldn’t run out before their number is called.

With some exceptions.

We’re on the precipice of new iterations of the X-Box and PlayStation consoles. A couple weeks ago, the prices of the different X-Boxes … X’s-Box? X-Bi? … Jesus, Microsoft, get your naming scheme straight. Your console names should not need an FBI cryptographer to pluralize. The prices of the different X-Box SKU’s leaked, and both social media and the gaming media lost their collective minds writing wanking think-pieces about what this could mean for the industry. Sony struck a week or so later, revealing the date and prices for the two PS5 models. As expected, battle lines were drawn before Sony’s Showcase event was over. PlayStation loyalists touted this feature and that exclusive and whatnot, and X-Box partisans did the same (especially after the Bethesda purchase), and gaming media tried to come off sounding like election “experts” on news networks, offering predictions as to who will come out on top of the latest drummed-up “console war”.

Meanwhile, in homes across the globe, the youngest of gaming’s target demos are looking at their current machines now in near-disgust, purposefully Bing-bong’ing all the enjoyment they’ve had with their consoles since 2013. They’re watching sizzle reels on YouTube of Spider-Man: Miles Morales or Halo Infinite on YouTube and dissecting them like the Zapruder Film. They’re debating the merits of physical media versus digital-only. They’re doing the only math they’ll willingly do all year: trying to figure out how many lawns they’ll have to mow and at what rate they’ll charge, before they give up and ask for their desired console for Christmas, because saving money is hard.

Which means us gamer parents have some hard decisions to make. For ours kids’ sake and our own.

Problem #1: who, exactly, are you buying this for? Yourself, or the kids? I don’t know if you noticed this, but this ain’t 1987. The prices of these new machines are a little painful, so the idea of getting one for yourself and one for the kids is taking a mortgage payment and skipping it, which banks really enjoy. They even send you letters showing you their appreciation for this. But you’ve got multiple gamer mouths to feed, right? What’s the alternative? Sharing a console?!? I’LL BLOODY DIE FIRST, THANK YOU VERY MUCH. I love my boys, don’t get me wrong, but I’m pretty sure sharing a video game console with children is the unmentioned eighth circle of Hell. If you don’t want to suffer through the existential nightmare that is knowing you “have” a Minecraft trophy because your kid forgot to switch profiles and played it as you, you need to find a way to get separate consoles. Trust me, I’ve lost sleep to this, and you will too.

“I didn’t earn one out of my 2,463 trophies! The sanctity of my achievements is RUINED!”

But the prices, man! This is finally the generation where the game manufacturers are giving GameStop’s used game racks the middle finger and releasing models that eschew physical media … in addition to models that maintain the status quo with discs. Now you have multiple price points to piss off your spouse with! There’s the all-digital X-Box Series S ($300), the physical X-Box Series X ($400), and two versions of the PlayStation 5 that they couldn’t be arsed to give separate names to. Guess I gotta apologize to Microsoft, at least they did differentiate in names. The digital PS5 is $400 and the other one is $500. You could walk onto a car lot right now and those prices would be two months of payments. Someone remind me why I picked this hobby again.

Microsoft generated a huge amount of buzz with Series S’ price point, and a monthly payment plan that looks like you’re robbing them, provided you ignore the fine print. You’re thinking “hey, I get X-Box Live, plus over a hundred XBONE games available digitally, and the console for 25 bucks a month? All I gotta do is not take the family to Burger King once a month and it’s like I’m getting this for free!”. That is, until you do the math and see that your $300 console will cost you almost DOUBLE the purchase price ($599.76, to be exact). It’s like a rent-to-own place, without the concern of some shady guy coming over to take the payment out of your kneecaps. Don’t even ask how much the Series X comes out to be if you choose the monthly plan on that. Let’s just say they’ll be naming a part of Microsoft HQ after you in return for your generous donation. Give credit to Sony here, even if in a left-handed way. They’re not trying to dupe you with some loan-shark-style financing scheme. They’re giving you a choice: video games and poverty, or feed your family this month. Truly a tough call for gamer parents.

So, what’s better, you ask, digital or physical media? Well, sad to say, we’re screwed in so many ways, Vivid Video should be contacting all of us about performer contracts. I’m not gonna lie and say that GameStop is the be-all-end-all of game stores. Nobody who has bought a game literally anywhere else – WalMart, Amazon, out of the back of a truck at the docks – would hold up GameStop as the platonic ideal of video game purchasing experiences. You can get the same lack of attention and pushing of extraneous services at a Best Buy (for you non-US readers, I’m sure there’s a big box store in your area willing to sell you an extended warranty on a single video game). If you’re craving undeserved elitism, there’s the indie shops, where you’ll be treated with the kind of scorn serial killers get if you’ve never played the FM Towns Marty. But specialty stores having problems, especially stores that have market dominance, are often the canary in the economic coal mine. Look at the music industry; Napster and LimeWire did their damage to physical media. But the death knell for the CD was when Tower Records and Sam Goody went belly-up. Hard for a product to survive if you can’t, you know, BUY IT ANYWHERE. And GameStop’s futures are about as good as a steakhouse in a vegan commune. This doesn’t mean the end is nigh for physical games; places like WalMart and Best Buy aren’t going anywhere. But it does make it feel like the scene in Other People’s Money where Danny DeVito is talking to the shareholders:

But there’s another angle to the all-digital issue that has to be mentioned, one that’s going ignored and is, even by the might of Microsoft and Sony, insurmountable right now. While the internet is as ubiquitous as a celebrity saying something stupid on Twitter, it’s only that way in certain areas. As much as you think you can’t escape it, all you really need to do is jump in your car, point it away from your nearest major metropolitan hub, and drive for an hour and a half, where you’ll find many the rural population is lucky if they’re connecting with those AOL discs from the 90’s. Here in the US, thirty out of fifty states do not have broadband access available to 10% for more of their population. The worst is Montana, with thirty percent of the state lacking the ability to curse someone out for liking Star Wars: The Last Jedi at a speed better than dial-up.

And if there’s one state that could really use reliable access to Farmers Only …

And lest you fine folks in other countries this this is a uniquely American problem, allow me to disabuse you of that. Europe has fourteen countries where broadband reaches less than half its rural populace. And I’m not talking countries you forget exist like Luxembourg, or the ruins of Bosnia. I mean places you might go on honeymoon, like FUCKING FRANCE, with only 37.3% of their rural populace having broadband, and just under 52% of their country overall. LOOK AT THESE STATISTICS. Italy, Romania, Sweden, Greece, Spain, Austria; these are not dead-end wastelands. These are tourist destinations, and they are, figuratively and literally, LAGGING. Don’t even ask about Finland, getting broadband to EIGHT PERCENT OF ITS RURAL RESIDENTS (Bizarre side-note. The country at number one? MALTA. I assume, based on size, they all share a router). So, all the prophets screaming about the supposed discageddon, pump the brakes a wee bit. They’re not going to suddenly excise millions of people out of their consumer base.

But the physical media consoles bring their own problems. If you’re looking at buying one for you and one for the kiddos, you’re dropping a thou, right off the bat. And this ain’t the days of the NES, where you get extra controllers and at least one game packed in. The console makers figured out a long time ago that giving games and controllers away was a revenue source they were tossing into a hole. They know they got you by the scag-bag, so, if you wanna play couch-co-op, or, you know, want to play a game at all, pony up, bucko. There’s just no way out of going physical media for you and the kids without tapping into your 401k.

So, I don’t actually hear you asking, but I assume you are; what’s the solution?

Don’t buy one. Wait a year. Maybe two.

I sense I may have lost some of you.

I was once like you. I wanted to be on the bleeding edge, to plant a flag and say I was among the first (several hundred thousand) to get this new console. Ignoring the fact that sometimes, getting a console at launch is harder than getting a teenager to not complain about anything, the privileges of getting a console at launch are not all they’re cracked up to be. Have you looked at launch libraries? It’s like looking into Patrick Bateman’s eyes at the end of American Psycho, or the person in charge of the DCEU (these might, in fact, be the same person). Kotaku recently ran an excellent pair of articles comparing launch line-ups for all the consoles in the Microsoft and Sony lines, and these lists are bleak. I can’t even make a joke about how bleak they are. How do you make a joke out of the fact that one of the original X-Box’s launch games was Shrek? Or that the PS3 had Genji, the “historically accurate” game about ancient China that features a battle against a kaiju crab? Yes, there’s the occasional Halo, but that’s just the point; for every one of those, you get quick cash-in sports games, cheap movie tie-ins, tech demos in disguise, cross-gen releases with the most minimal of upgrades, and new tons of new IP’s that are dead before you can download the day one patch.

You will finish this game faster than you will a game of Monopoly.

Want another reason not to jump on the train as soon as it pulls out of the station? Often times, that engine stalls, and you’re stuck with everybody, waiting in the bar car, and not even PBR. In the last two generations alone, we’ve been treated to experiences like the Red Ring Of Death, Joy-Con drift, and the PS4 throwing up incorrect low memory warnings. You think those early adopters felt good about their decision to jump on the bandwagon on day one when they had Microsoft’s eye of Sauron staring back at them? I promise you, they did not.

The advantages to waiting, though, are vast. You get to sit out the growing pains. You’ll likely see at least one price drop, and probably a console revision, which usually means more storage. And not only will the game library be larger, you’ll know which games are worth it. Sure, unless you play one of these evergreen titles like Fortnite or Grand Theft Auto 5, you’ll likely be left out of the online experience for games from your waiting period. And you’ll have to avoid spoilers on the bigger games, and you’ll chew through your tongue looking at reviews for games you can’t play. Perhaps worst of all will be the abuse you’ll get from your kids. Day after day of watching steam shoot from their ears like a Tex Avery cartoon as their friends talk about having the newest console and they don’t. Just try to remember that, more than likely, they’ll latch onto some multiplayer game some screaming idiot on YouTube won’t shut up about and play only that for a year or two.

I got my PS3 two years after release, and my PS4 two years after as well, and I don’t regret either decision. I let everyone else cut through the weeds for me. The operating systems hum, no mechanical issues in sight, I could pick up most any triple-A title used for a third of the original cost on the used rack, and the console cost itself was about half what it was on launch day. Not gonna lie, it hurt like hell to go to IGN and see reviews of PS4 games pile up while PS3 reviews dwindled away. But I’ve gotten consoles at launch, too: I helped birth the Game Boy, Sega CD, Saturn, PS2 and Wii, so to speak. I’m not saying I regret getting any of these consoles. I love all of them. But in those first few months after launch? The Wii was all about Wii Sports and Zelda. Stepping outside of those boundaries was asking to light your wallet on fire. The Sega CD’s launch library was so bad, goth kids write poetry about it. Half of the ten games were FMV/QTE-driven games, one game (Sol-Feace) was also on the Genesis, and one of the two system pack-ins was a four-pack of more Genesis games.

Nothing moves units with teenagers like Sherlock Holmes viewed at a resolution of “none”.

But hey, maybe you can’t not be among the vanguard. It’s just in your blood. I’ll admit, my pants got tighter when I saw the God Of War: Ragnarok reveal. And I’m lucky enough that my oldest boys are 14. They’d old enough to save up their pennies and work for a new console if they want one bad enough (when you’re a multiple-times parent, being spoiled is just not a thing). So I could, in theory, be one of the many to experience crashing websites all over the internet trying to pre-order one. If you wanna be, hey, man, I ain’t here to judge.

But I can’t do that, because there’s one other reason not to get it now. For me and my household, it isn’t responsible adulting. I can’t say “sorry, money’s tight this month, we can’t get a $1.79 Slurpee, but GUESS WHO’S GONNA GET THE NEW PLAYSTATION IN TWO MONTHS?!?” Hell, I can’t even get my kids to hold onto a ten-spot for longer than a day. They have to buy pretend currency in whatever microtransaction-riddled digital heroin they’ve hooked themselves up to this week. I’m supposed to show them responsible spending and the concept of value when I’m frittering away money like the Pentagon paying $600 for a hammer? I’m supposed to look my partner in the eye and say “I know you had to work OT so we could afford this bill we we’re late on, so I’m gonna spend triple that on a new video game machine!”?

“Going further into debt is not what I’d consider ‘doing things together’.”

Bottom line, there’s no right answer to the question of when to buy a new console. Maybe you have a brand new baby and need something to help you stay up at night when the little critter won’t stop crying as you bounce it on your knee. Or maybe you have high-school kids with part time jobs, and you make a cool half mil a year. At that point, I wonder why you’re reading me, but I’ll take what I can get. Only you can examine your situation and decide what’s best for your kids. I’m just trying to provide some perspective on a hot topic. You do you, man. No hate.

But fair warning, if you name your kid as poorly as Microsoft names consoles, I’m calling child protective services.

And in closing …

Larry Csonka’s GoFundMe is still going on. Would love to see it hit the $50K goal. Chip in if you can, any little bit helps.

Loved the feedback on the last column. Now that we’re past the hellos and onto real discussion, I’m interested to see how it all shakes loose. Remember, you can email me at [email protected] if you wanna do it one on one, drop a comment down below, or check me out on Twitter.

See you in 2.