Opinion - TERAFLOPS, should we be bothered?Platforms: All
We are being bombarded from all sides at the moment with leaked specifications of the next-gen consoles that are due out later this year. Whether they be factually accurate or simple rumours, should we really be bothered? The console marketplace has not always been a race for power but this generation of hardware seems to have taken a turn in that direction, how many TERAFLOPS a console can pump out seems to be a big selling point. Well to some people anyway.
This article is mostly my personal opinion, taken from various things I have noticed over this generation and from my time writing articles in the industry. Thoughts taken from discussions with friends and their experiences taken from owning many different consoles. Some of it is fact but a lot is my own personal opinion.
What is a Teraflop?
A FLOP may sound like a made-up word to most people but to some gamers, people who work in IT or who work in certain fields of science, it is a unit of measurement used to measure raw computing speed. A FLOP stands for FLoating-point Operations Per Second. A teraflop is a unit of computing speed equal to one million million floating-point operations per second. A FLOP is calculated as follows:
FLOPS = sockets * (cores per socket) * (number of clock cycles per second) * (number of floating-point operations per cycle).
For the sake of this discussion though, just think of it as the raw computing power of the device in question. More TERAFLOPS mean more elements can be calculated, ran and processed within a given timeframe.
Other Considerations to Consider
There are a lot more factors that govern peoples chosen console purchase than just power. Features and exclusive games are far more a draw than how many TERAFLOPS your chosen machine can crunch. Things like GamePass has been a big win for Microsoft, features like the PlayStation 4's Share Button, Remote Play, SharePlay and the form factor of the Nintendo Switch are all big selling points. To most people, TERAFLOPS mean nothing, its how much does it cost? What games are available? What does it do feature-wise? Are far more poignant questions to ask.
The games that are available is, in my opinion, the true factor that governs people's choice when buying a console. Look at Spider-Man for example, I know a lot of people who bought a PS4 just to play that game. It is the same with other consoles too. People buy an Xbox to play Halo or Forza and other gamers buy the Nintendo Switch to play Mario Kart, Zelda or Animal Crossing. Games are king and always will be. That is, after all, what we buy these consoles for.
Lessons from this Generation, Exclusive Games and Features do Sell Consoles
A look into the past shows us a lot. Traditionally, the most powerful console is not the best selling or the most popular. There are a lot more variables to be taken into account and more points to be considered when people select their console of choice. More power in the hands of the correct developer can be a massive advantage but, as always, the content available is more important and even the most meagrely powered consoles can run great games.
Look at the Nintendo Switch as an example, it only has 1 teraflop of computational power which is way shy of both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. The Nintendo Switch, however, has just overtaken the Xbox One in lifetime console sales and is rapidly catching the PS4. This statistic alone tells a tale, more power does not necessarily lead to better games, more enjoyable experiences, higher sales or a console being more popular with the general populace.
So why has the Nintendo Switch been more popular than the Xbox One, even though it is massively underpowered in comparison? Well, I see the reason being two-fold. Firstly, the Nintendo Switch has a lot of exclusive titles that can only be played on the system. With most Xbox exclusives now being able to be played on PC and some even now appearing on the Nintendo Switch, an Xbox is not a necessity to play Microsoft exclusives anymore and it shows. I know so many people who have traded in their Xbox and just played their games on PC instead, as they already have a PC anyway. Power does not really factor into the equation at all.
Secondly, the feature set of Nintendo's home console-portable hybrid has a feature set not seen anywhere else. Portability, two controllers built-in and the ability to carry on playing your games on the main TV instantly are all big selling points. The Nintendo Switch covers an area not covered by any of the other consoles. It has features that are truly exclusive to that device and with a lot of exclusive titles, it is the reason why it is selling so well.
One of the Reasons the PlayStation 4 has more units than any other console this generation, in my opinion, is the fact you can only play native, local running versions of their games on the device. I say this because you can play some on PC but they are streamed and we all know the issues that presents. If you want to play Uncharted, Spider-Man, Bloodborne, Horizon Zero Dawn or any of the other big PlayStation exclusives, you need a PlayStation. That's the term right there, need, you need to buy one to play the games you want to play and it shows in console sales. It's not about power, but about what experiences it can offer the player.
PS4 vs Xbox One The Race for Gaming Power and Mixed Messages from Microsoft
The race between Sony and Microsoft this generation combined with the internet's obsession with comparing games performance has led to a race for the most powerful console on the market. It started with the original PS4 and Xbox One launches, with the PS4 being slightly more powerful. Only by a small margin in the grand scheme of things but it led to long-drawn-out comparisons of games running on the two devices. Don't get me wrong, more power did lead to slightly better-looking games and often, better running ones but on the whole, the difference was mainly unnoticeable.
After that, when 4K was a more common feature of the gamers living room, Sony released the PS4Pro which was a lot more powerful than other consoles on the market and ran games at 4K. There is another discussion here with real 4k vs upscaled 'fake' 4K but that discussion is for another time. This then led to Microsoft releasing the Xbox One X, which made Microsoft the leader in the power race for the first time in this generation and gave fans 4K gaming. This sparked a another internet resolution war that further fueled this artificial power race.
Neither of these new 4K consoles affected overall sales too much though as it was only the hardcore fans that adopted them early on. You could still play the same games so most gamers stuck with their original machines. They offered little to the majority of gamers, offered limited actual improvements and once again showed us that power is pretty much irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.
A section of journalists and certain corners of the internet thought that it was the power deficit that gave the PS4 such a massive sales lead over the Xbox One but in my opinion, this was not the case. The constant bleating online between console fanboys, fueled by online reporters and graphics comparisons led to an artificial argument that had no foundation. I saw a lot of these comparisons and it seems that some gaming journalists were more bothered about fueling internet arguments rather than talking about whether a game was fun or not.
The reason Xbox One sales were far behind the PS4's, in my opinion, was not power, but a lack of exclusive games, poor communication and initial backtracking by Microsoft. We spoke about how important true exclusive games were earlier in the article and the facts speak for themselves. The fact that the PlayStation 4 launched for a lower price than the Xbox One was also a massive factor in which console fans bought.
When the Xbox One was first announced, it was with very mixed messages. Firstly it had to be online every 24 hours to verify your purchases and physical games could not be shared with your friends. It also launched as an all-in-one entertainment centre and the initial reveal spent a lot of time showing TV features. A mixed message that did not sit well with a lot of gamers at the time, people have TV services set up already and do not need another TV device. They wanted Microsoft to focus on the games and that is not what they got. There was also the Kinect 'was mandatory' debacle which did not sit well with fans either.
Microsoft did rectify a lot of these issues quickly and have put things in place for the next generation that will hopefully serve them well. They have purchased new studios to create more exclusive games and hopefully have learned from the Xbox One's launch. Gamers want to play games and not much else. Focus on the games and gamers will follow and with things like GamePass, Microsoft does look to be in a lot better position to launch their new console this year.
Wrapping up this section, it was a poor Xbox One launch that put it behind the PS4 and not the power deficit as some thought. Most gamers don't even know about what power level their console can reach anyway. I never see people in shops questioning how many TERAFLOPS consoles can push, just what features it has, the games available and its overall cost. They just want to play games with their friends and have fun. It's just a simulated internet argument between fanboys that have created this artificial race for power.
Is the Power Difference even Noticeable?
When the next generation of consoles hit, I think the difference in power will be that negligible that it will be irrelevant anyway. Gamers will still fall back to the above-mentioned factors when choosing their next console purchase. Price, launch games, features and online services will govern where players will spend their hard-earned cash.
Even during this generation, when looking at comparison screenshots between the various consoles, it is hard to tell sometimes without counting pixels or using a microscope to see what the difference actually is. When we have a lot more power next-gen, I think it will be even harder to tell the difference, making the whole power thing a moot point. I for one, at times, have had more fun with games running on lower-spec consoles. When you are playing a game, a really good game, the number of pixels, the framerate and the power being used fade into nothing. As long as your enjoying yourself, who cares?
Another thing to take into account with the next generation of consoles is the vastly different architecture they are rumoured to be running. This means that TERAFLOPS may not be the only thing to take into account when comparing raw computing power. Things like the new SSD's speeds, Ray Tracing, more optimization and other unannounced hardware features mean that TERAFLOPS will be on factor amongst a plethora of hardware features to be considered.
One place I do think that power is a big thing is Virtual Reality. More power can create a more immersive world and combined with a good quality headset, create better, more immersive VR experiences. Normal games can be made with any amount of power, VR games, however, need extra power to create more detailed 3D environments and more substantial games to be immersed in. What the future holds for VR though, only time will tell.
Power, Who Cares?
Power does help when creating game worlds, generating great stories or creating complex AI, especially in VR. However, the power needs to be put to good use and have a great developer to mould it into something fantastic. Even then, it will be other factors that are more important to gamers and will decide where they spend their money. Games are king and where a player's favourite franchise can be played will probably be where they play their games. Exclusive games, as this generation has shown, will be a massive selling point.
Things like online services, features and price will also play a massive part in what console people will purchase this year. A lot of households will only buy one console and the features it can provide will matter to a lot of people. As will its launch cost, launch games and other services such as GamePass, backwards compatibility and PS+ or XBOX Live. In addition, as we saw from Microsoft at the Xbox One launch, a mixed message can lead to a confused consumer and it may put them off buying your console.
When I look back over my lifetime in gaming, the experiences and memories that really stand out are games I really enjoyed, beating my brother at Mario Kart or finally beating a horrid boss in Bloodborne. It will not be the amount of power that will be remembered, but the games and experiences that shaped us as gamers. When the time comes, spend your money on whichever next-gen console suits you and don't mess around counting arbitrary numbers.
So get out there people, enjoy your games on your console of choice and do not worry too much about how many TERAFLOPS are involved.