Though there's very little that could dissuade the most hardcore tech enthusiasts from picking up a next-gen console later this month, there's plenty of precedent to support the practice of patience.
The abnormally long lifespan of the current console generation has made the arrival of the next one a highly anticipated event for some. Based on the pre-orders and reports of already limited stock for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, it seems there's no shortage of anticipation for next-gen to finally hit critical mass in just over a week.
But between hardware refreshes, software delays and, of course, price cuts, conventional wisdom dictates it's a much wiser idea to hold off from buying a console at launch. It's a philosophy touted by many members of the gaming community: folks who already own sufficiently powerful PCs, older gamers who've been burned by too many launches past — even gaming troubadour Brentalfloss, who advocated for patience in his School House Rock-inspired track "Game Launch Rock."
You're in good company if you decide to hold your horses beyond the holiday season, but one important question remains: How long should you hold them?
WAITING FOR A PRICE CUT
The factor that's easiest to track has probably led to more cautionary tales and consumerist horror stories than any other factor when it comes to gaming hardware: price cuts. It's not uncommon for gaming consoles to undergo significant price reductions less than a year after launch. That's typically welcome news for those who hadn't yet invested the original amount for the hardware — and an absolute tragedy for those who buy that hardware the day before the price cut is announced.
In the current generation, the PlayStation 3 was the poster child for fast, responsive hardware price cuts. When Sony's home console hit store shelves, it landed with a a $499 price tag for a 20 GB model and $599 tag for the 60 GB model. It was a pricing structure that dragged the console down at launch; one that was quickly shed. Less than eight months later, the 20 GB model had been discontinued, and the 60 GB PS3's price had been slashed by $100.
That's four models, rotating through three different price points, in less than two years
It was a popular move, but it kicked off a turbulent few months for PS3 buyers. The following month, in August 2007, Sony introduced an 80 GB PS3 (bundled with first-party racer Motorstorm) at the old price point of $599 — a price that lasted just two months. In October, the 60 GB PS3 was discontinued; the 80 GB model became the only option, and had its price dropped back down to $499. On the same day that price cut was announced, a new model was revealed, which launched in November: A $399, 40 GB model. Ten months later, that new model was phased out, and the surviving 80 GB model underwent another $100 cut.
That's four models, rotating through three different price points, in less than two years.
The console's rocky financial start smoothed out from there, but the frequent change-up in price provided plenty of opportunity for early adopters (of several models) to get burned.
In the current generation, the PS3 was the only console to receive such an expedient discount — its high price tag led to incredibly soft sales following launch, making a price cut a vital move for its long-term success. The Xbox 360 had no such hurdles — by the end of 2006, a little over a year after the console's launch, Microsoft had sold over 7 million units of the console. The 360 didn't undergo a price cut until August 2007, nearly two years after it first hit store shelves.
The Wii also didn't struggle at launch, selling 7.4 million units by the end of 2007, a little over a year after its launch. It wouldn't receive its first price cut until September 2009, an unprecedented three years after its North American release date.
The Wii and Xbox 360 bucked a trend of expedient console price cuts that extend back through the generations. Before this generation, the Xbox, Gamecube, Dreamcast, PlayStation, Nintendo 64 and Sega Saturn all experienced price cuts less than a year after their initial release. Most of them followed the same pattern, too; launching in the fall, reaping the holiday shopping dollars that circulated in the winter months, then cutting their prices in the lull of the following summer.
For a more recent example of that anecdote, you only need look at the Wii U. Nintendo's latest home console has had a rocky launch since it hit shelves last November. By the end of the year, things looked somewhat promising; Nintendo sold 3.06 million units by the end of 2012. The current year brought things to a standstill, though, as by the end of June, Nintendo had only sold a little over 3.6 million units worldwide.
In an effort to give sales a shot in the arm, the company decided to retire its Basic model of the Wii U hardware — which featured less storage space and no bundled games — and knocked the Premium model's price down $50, to $299. Though the console still has a negative impact on Nintendo's profits, the discount has helped boost sales, from 160,000 sold during the company's first fiscal 2014 quarter, up to 460,000 units in its second.
Price cuts are, like most other factors in this industry, a corporate reaction to the movements of consumer demand. It's a bit too soon to tell how the next generation's prices will fare, but if early pre-order amounts are accurate, and the PS4 and Xbox One live up to the lofty expectations of analysts — most have landed at around 5 million sales for each before the end of the fiscal year on March 31, 2014 — odds on a speedy price cut for either aren't great.
WAITING FOR GAMES
Holding off for a stronger library of games might be the more sound reason for delaying your purchase. That's not to say that either the Xbox One or PS4 has a paltry line-up for day one; both consoles will sport well over 20 games on launch day, a mix of genres, of AAA and indie releases, of physical and downloadable titles.
Xbox One's biggest boon is its supply of first-party exclusives, six of which will be available with the console on day one. Following the delay of Evolution Studios' DriveClub into 2014, the PS4 will only sport two first-party exclusives on launch day: Knack and Killzone: Shadow Fall.
In digital offerings, the PS4's games handily outnumber those of the Xbox One — though the latter will launch with notable games like Killer Instinct and Crimson Dragon, the PS4 will launch with over a dozen downloadables on offer. Those include current-gen ports like Flower and Sound Shapes, free-to-play adaptations for Warframe and Blacklight: Retribution and a handful of all-new titles like Contrast and Housemarque's new side-scrolling shoot-em-up, Resogun.
Both consoles will launch with basically the same lineup of third-party games as well — your Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag, your Call of Duty: Ghosts and so on — meaning early adopters of either won't have any shortage of things to play. However, even as early as next spring, both libraries should fill out significantly.
For starters, each platform has a potential heavy hitter launching before the end of March. For PS4, it's Infamous: Second Son, a next-gen follow up for Sucker Punch's well-received series of open-world action games. For Xbox One, it's Titanfall, the highly anticipated shooter from Respawn Entertainment, a studio founded by former Infinity Ward heads Vince Zampella and Jason West. The latter will also launch on Xbox 360 and Windows PCs.
There are countless other games slated for both consoles in their "launch window," a somewhat nebulous period running from launch until the end of March 2014. Peggle 2 will draw in the casual crowd to Xbox One when it launches in December, and Project Spark — an ambitious set of user-generated content tools — will arrive in 2014.
PlayStation 4 will receive an enormous amount of indie support in the months following its launch, bringing titles like Hohokum, Mercenary Kings, Octodad: Dadliest Catch, Transistor and The Witness to the platform. DriveClub will also arrive sometime next year, though Sony has yet to announce a release window more specific than that.
WAITING FOR NEW MODELS
Delaying your purchase of either console until they undergo a hardware refresh is probably the most speculative reason of all. That's not to say there's no precedent; both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 have received several makeovers, both internally and externally, reducing the size of both consoles while increasing their internal memory, fixing flaws — like the 360's now-infamous "Red Ring of Death" (and the PS3's much less frequent "Yellow Light of Death") — found in their earlier predecessors.
It's too soon to tell whether flaws that damning will exist in the next generation, but there's certainly room for improvement regarding hard drive capacity for both. The Xbox One and PS4 will both come packed with 500 GB hard drives, which are likely to fill up fast — early launch titles are clocking it between 30 and 50 GB, meaning you'll be able to install just a dozen or so at any one time before you'll have to start swapping them out. More robust cloud integration on both platforms might help abate this issue some, though that will come as little consolation for owners living in regions without a decently blazing internet connection.
The most sound decision, it would seem, is to purchase your next-gen console when you're ready, revisiting the decision periodically. Maybe wait until reviews for the consoles and their respective launch titles start hitting — you'll have to work to get a console this holiday season if you haven't pre-ordered, but it's not impossible. Maybe wait until the lineup fills out by next March, and see how the rest of the year's releases are taking shape. Maybe see which way the wind is blowing, see if either is faltering at retail, if odds of a price cut improve.
The next generation of consoles is likely to be around a while; if you're not sold on either of them quite yet, you can afford to take your time.
This is part of Polygon's Gen Next series, stories that will examine the transition from current-generation to next-generation consoles, what it means if you don't make the transition and if and when you should. Follow along here.