XBox One vs. PS4 vs. Wii U: Are Graphics Still Relevant in the Eighth Generation?

Graphical upgrades between console generations used to be jaw dropping. The difference between an 8-bit NES game and a 16-bit Super NES game was enormous, as was the difference between a Super NES game and an N64 or Sony (NYSE: SNE  ) PlayStation title.

Yet ever since the sixth generation of consoles, which included Microsoft's (NASDAQ: MSFT  ) Xbox, Sony's PS2, and Nintendo's (NASDAQOTH: NTDOY  ) GameCube, the improvements have become increasingly incremental for many gamers.

While the seventh generation Xbox 360, PS3, and Wii were notably flashier than their sixth generation counterparts, the "wow" factor had diminished substantially. Sure, there were still impressive graphical beasts such as Ubisoft's (NASDAQOTH: UBSFF  ) Assassin's Creed and Sony's Uncharted, but as video games became more expensive to produce, gamers became harder and harder to please.

EA's Titanfall. (Source: Gamerzine.com)

When the Xbox One and PS4 arrived last November, the initial differences were even less substantial.

Although both machines packed considerable graphical processing horsepower, some cross-generation titles that have been released so far -- Activision Blizzard's (NASDAQ: ATVI  ) Call of Duty: Ghosts, Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed: Black Flag, and Electronic Arts' (NASDAQ: EA  ) Battlefield 4 -- simply lack the graphical punch that makes gamers want to abandon their well-worn seventh generation consoles.

Meanwhile, Take-Two's (NASDAQ: TTWO  ) GTA V, which was released for the PS3 and Xbox 360, was a gorgeous demonstration of how much untapped potential remained in both consoles.

So that leads me to my main question for this article -- have we reached the point where graphics no longer matter for home consoles?

Does graphical horsepower still matter at all?
Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto, the man who created Mario, once famously stated, "Too many powerful consoles can't coexist. It's like having only ferocious dinosaurs. They might fight and hasten their own extinction."

Miyamoto made that statement before Nintendo released the Wii, a console much less powerful than either Sony's PS3 or Microsoft's Xbox 360, but still outsold both consoles by 18.5 million and 19.8 million units, respectively.

The Wii U, however, has only sold 5.7 million units since November 2012. By comparison, Sony's PS4 and Microsoft's Xbox One have respectively sold 5.3 million and 3.5 million units since November 2013. That has caused some critics to claim that Nintendo doomed itself with weaker hardware, which has made its games less graphically appealing than comparable PS4 or Xbox One titles.

Yet that statement is completely off base. As I mentioned in a previous article, Nintendo's Wii U ran into serious problems due to three other factors -- poor marketing, poor name choice, and a confusing form factor that caused some customers to think that the Wii U was a tablet peripheral instead of a new console. It had nothing to do with the Wii U's graphical capabilities.

Here come the texture by texture comparisons...
The differences between same-generation home consoles have also narrowed since the fifth generation.

Many games have been released on Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo consoles and mostly look and play the same. There are plenty of articles that compare exact side-by-side screenshots and videos, but to many casual gamers, the games look roughly the same.

For example, here is a comparison of Eidos' TimeSplitters: Future Perfect (2005) on the original Xbox and the GameCube:

Now, jumping ahead to the eighth generation, here's IGN's comparison of Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag on the PS3, Xbox 360, Wii U, and PS4.

While some gamers, who obsessively notice every last drop of rain or bead of sweat, might spot the differences, they aren't that obvious to average gamers. While the differences might be a bit easier to spot on large HDTVs, the basic gaming experience between these cross-platform titles is roughly the same.

There are also new comparisons between the Xbox One and PS4 versions of Konami's (NYSE: KNM  ) Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes that some sites claim prove the PS4's graphical superiority. Yet again, to most gamers, those differences simply aren't that apparent.

Sensory overload and the imminent death of triple A games
Movie fans probably remember the first time they saw CGI dinosaurs in the original Jurassic Park (1993) They probably also remember the two-and-a-half hour long explosion known as Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011). The first Jurassic Park only cost $63 million to make, while the third Transformers film cost $195 million. Yet the former title has arguably aged much better than the latter.

That's exactly the problem facing the video game industry today -- triple A games are getting ridiculously expensive to make, and it's getting increasingly difficult to recoup production costs. Gamers are demanding Hollywood-like special effects, and games have reached a tipping point of sensory overload more akin to Dark of the Moon than Jurassic Park.

In an August 2012 interview for Edge Online, Assassin's Creed 3 creative director Alex Hutchinson called triple A titles the "last of the dinosaurs," which could buckle under the weight of their Hollywood-like production budgets. GTA V, for example, cost a whopping $266 million to make -- higher than the $220 production of Disney's (NYSE: DIS) The Avengers.

The greatest games don't need the greatest graphics
Yet when we look at the top five best selling games of all time -- Wii Sports (2006, 81.9 million units), Super Mario Bros. (1985, 40.2 million units), Mario Kart Wii (2008, 34.3 million units), Wii Sports Resort (2009, 32.2 million units), and Pokemon Red/Blue/Green (1996, 31.4 million units) -- none of them were big budget graphical spectacles. Instead, they were simply fun games that appealed to gamers of all ages.

More importantly, they were all made by Nintendo, which makes the lowest priced and lowest powered eighth generation console, the Wii U. This means that there is still an untapped market for fun games with less emphasis on photorealistic graphics. In addition, the latest trailer for Nintendo/Monolith Soft's upcoming Wii U title X demonstrates that its graphics can still hold its own against the PS4 and the Xbox 360:

The bottom line
I may sound old fashioned when I say this, but beautiful graphics simply aren't required for a great game. Simply take a look at Minecraft, a title with 1990s graphics that has nonetheless charmed gamers and sold over 35 million copies worldwide.

It will be interesting to see where home gaming consoles will be headed after the eighth generation -- just how much better can video game graphics get, and how much higher will their production budgets rise?

What do you think, fellow gamers? Has the industry become so obsessed over graphics that it has lost sight of how to make fun, compelling games? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below!

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Read/Post Comments (22) | Recommend This Article (5)

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  • Report this Comment On February 20, 2014, at 11:06 PM, Pwuz wrote:

    Wow, this may be the 1st article I've read on the Motley Fool that wasn't all doom and gloom about Nintendo while throwing around Patcher quotes like they were gold!

    As a gamer for 7 of the 8 console generations, I can safely say that the best systems selling systems don't often have the most power, but they do have some of the best and most popular games.

    Nintendo's Wii U does have some problems besides just abysmal marketing, confusing name choice, & risk of being confused as an add-on. Nintendo has some poor relations with major 3rd party developers. The delay of only the Wii U version of Watchdogs is perhaps the biggest red flag, as Ubisoft has done such a great job of supporting Nintendo over the past decade & it seems their support may be slipping.

    The Wii U may not become the runaway success that the Wii had, but it will provide those amazing Nintendo games that can not and will not ever be found anywhere else. Serious gamers can't ignore titles like Smash Bros, Mario Kart, & Zelda because they are crafted with the care akin to that of an artisan cheese. Not everyone shops at Whole Foods though, and some people just want lots of flashy choices that may not offer the same amount of depth, but when taken in large enough quantity are just as filling.

  • Report this Comment On February 20, 2014, at 11:54 PM, IngramR wrote:

    Wow, an actual objective, balanced well written article from Motley Fool? I'm shocked! Not used to that from these guys.

  • Report this Comment On February 21, 2014, at 2:25 AM, Relias27 wrote:

    Well technically this generation pretty much harkins back to the PS2 days when all three systems were comparable. Although this time Nintendo has the weakest system. So if you own any of these systems your going really good graphics and games.. I find it funny though, how many people say graphics don't matter as much as game play(Of which I am a firm believer, a lot of my favorite games don't have the best graphics.) and yet when you ask them why they won't buy a third party game on a Nintendo system the first thing they mention is graphics, and how much better it looks on the other systems and why should they settle for a clearly inferior version because it does not look as good as the other versions. That is seriously what a lot of the conversations boil down to and the first thing that is usually said. Anyway, no graphics do not make a difference any more. I believe we have reached the point (actually we reached it last gen) where the graphics are no longer going to be leaps and bounds above the gen before. Once we went HD that was it. Now they could do 3D, but even at that it won't be a huge graphical jump .

  • Report this Comment On February 21, 2014, at 6:46 AM, GrooveMachine wrote:

    I don't remember the last time I read a gaming Fool article that wasn't reminding me how "poorly" Nintendo or the the Xbox or the Vita was doing. Or to even include the Wii U with the newest MS/Sony machines in the article. Please, more objective articles like this, not the usual negative propaganda that usually shows up on my computer screen.

    I'm in my late 30's, and to me the only time graphics make any sort of difference to me is when it affects gameplay. I'm all about control, fun factor, and value for the money I just spent. Pretty, ultra-realistic games are nice, but I'll take a smooth frame rate and tight controls over photo-quality realism any day.

  • Report this Comment On February 21, 2014, at 6:54 AM, hisradness wrote:

    It's wild to see that there's very little difference between all these systems graphically. I have always thought my Wii U looked pretty good compared to the others, but it's hard to say definitively without a side-by-side comparison like this. It proves that Nintendo should strive to market their system better and get their upcoming big name titles some air time, if they properly advertise the Wii U it could compete with Sony, it's already ahead of XBox.

  • Report this Comment On February 21, 2014, at 8:50 AM, Ebby720 wrote:

    No it isn't.....seen PS4 against Xbox One and I can't tell the dif, certainly not when I'm playing or getting shot at....and it depends on how they shade and color the scene and how they want it to look...whether realistic or not.....I would like to see a Crysis 3 on one of the new machines to see how that looks.

  • Report this Comment On February 21, 2014, at 9:04 AM, eQil1 wrote:

    First off, great well written, thoughtful, non-bias article Leo. You have already put Sam Mattera's articles to shame. Now, I do believe that the industry & some gamers have become too obsessed with graphics & power. Lately there have been too many comparison videos of different systems. I understand that competition sells system but it has gotten a little overkill. It's all about fun for me. I don't think graphics are that big deal as long as the framrate is good. As for the Wii U, I think nintendo cofused a lot of people with this system which is really just a HD version of the Wii. It plays all Wii games can use the same controller with the exception of not being compatable to play Gamecube games, it's a Wii HD. The name had nothing to do with it, after all we bought the Wii. Nintendo itself doomed it's own system by not having the type of systems selling ( Zelda, Metriod, Smash Bros. ) games for the system in a timely matter, only to say that it takes time to make these games! Like releasing another system was a surprise to them. As for the gamepad all they had to do was use it in a clever way (easier said than done, right) and/or made all games able to be played on it alone. I actually played Pikmin 3 yesterday & thought the graphics & environment in that game looks great so it's power is not the issue. Overall somewhere along the line some but not all of the video game industry & gamers have forgotten to have fun with games.

  • Report this Comment On February 21, 2014, at 9:08 AM, DicStillwagin wrote:

    I've been a gamer for some 35yrs and I've always said that graphics don't make the game. Just because it looks pretty doesn't make it a great game. I'm guilty of having been suckered into playing more than my fair share of beautiful looking turds.

  • Report this Comment On February 21, 2014, at 9:29 AM, Hermii wrote:

    Games matter more than graphics. The Xbox One will be able to play the same games as the PS4, just with slightly worse graphics. Nobody but the super Hardcore will care if a game is 1080p on ps4 and 800p on xbox one or whatever so the power difference wont matter.

    The Wii U and The Wii is not powerfull enough to run these games at all without significant compromises if even then. This is why system power matters. You need to be more or less on the same level as your competitors.

  • Report this Comment On February 21, 2014, at 10:07 AM, michaelarkangel wrote:

    LIke the others before me, I am surprised about this article as well. No bashing of consoles or fanboyism, it's like a breath of fresh air, I am a gamer form the 2600 days, and needless to say graphics to me are "the cherry on top" when it comes to gaming, Story,gameplay, and overall fun factor are way more important to me, considering I have a 7 year old son now that plays with me and has now surpassed his "old man" on Mario Kart wii!

  • Report this Comment On February 21, 2014, at 10:13 AM, nakauch wrote:

    Thank you for a thoughtful conversation promoting article. I don't know if you get paid by clicks, but if so you proved you can get them without bashing jto piss people off. This should be a lesson to writers like Sam Mattera who does no research and blatantly writes articles to troll responses.

    Thanks for your opinion!

  • Report this Comment On February 21, 2014, at 11:42 AM, jokerabm wrote:

    Graphics haven't been relevant to me since the sixth generation. The jump to HD was nice, but it's not somethin I needed.

  • Report this Comment On February 21, 2014, at 12:01 PM, TMFSunLion wrote:

    Thanks for all the comments!

    One other thing I should also mention is that Nintendo needs to give the Wii U better first party support as well as third party support.

    Since the 3DS is more popular than the Wii U, Nintendo is letting it get the better first party titles first -- for example, the 3DS already has a new Zelda title, whereas the Wii U is getting the weird hybrid Hyrule Warriors. The next "true" Zelda won't even be announced until E3.

    I seriously think we've reached a point where video games simply can't get that much "bigger" -- hopefully now is the time when better designed, more entertaining games will prevail on all 3 consoles.

  • Report this Comment On February 21, 2014, at 12:39 PM, speculawyer wrote:

    Are graphics relevant? Well, the system with the best graphics (PS4) is selling like crazy and the system with the worst graphics has completely flopped (WiiU).

    You figure it out. Duh.

  • Report this Comment On February 21, 2014, at 12:56 PM, Risky88 wrote:

    speculawyer

    The ps3 was more powerful than the 360 and was basically behind almost the entire way.

    In comparison the 360 is actually a complete rip off compared to ps3 especially when both of the system first came.

  • Report this Comment On February 21, 2014, at 12:57 PM, Risky88 wrote:

    both systems first came out*

  • Report this Comment On February 21, 2014, at 12:58 PM, targeyone wrote:

    @speculawyer You're completely disregarding some of the best selling video games in history , which are right there in Sun's article and used to build his argument, if you'd bother to read it before commenting. (not to mention console sales of just last gen, and this gen's handheld sales)

    @Leo Sun Thank you for doing research and providing a more clear-headed take on the industry. I've criticized your articles in the past, but this one is well-written, logical, and in the face of Nintendoom articles, incredibly refreshing.

    I think it's important to mention I believe Nintendo has a lot to be criticized about, but it should be done based on facts, not hyperbole.

    Thank you for the article.

    On that note, I think the only reason graphics really matter, is in a situation like Nintendo finds itself in right now. When 2 of the systems are so similar in so many ways, and one emphasises innovative user input over pure power, you have 3rd developers willing to create a game, port it relatively unchanged to the other 'twin' and leave the much-different Wii U out in the cold. (much like the original Wii)

    However, business elements not withstanding and as far as games themselves go, graphics have no connection to how fun a game is. (Super Mario bros. 3 is still incredibly fun after all these years, on 8-bit hardware.)

    I think this is something Nintendo realizes, but developers have lost sight of. Time will tell if their own inflating budgets will actually curb this or not.

  • Report this Comment On February 21, 2014, at 7:12 PM, pmchawk wrote:

    Well written and thought out article. I agree, graphics aren't everything. They definitely can't make a game. But they can make a good game great.Or they can make a good game unplayable.

    Also, the comment about the top 5 games of all time is a little deceiving.Wii Sports and Super Mario Brothers were sold with their respective systems. People weren't buying the games but the systems. On that note, I think that is 1 thing Nintendo is right about doing and I think every system should do; A game comes with the system you purchased, Day 1 from launch.

  • Report this Comment On February 21, 2014, at 10:09 PM, Qset83 wrote:

    I didnt buy either system this time around. We paying hundred of dollars for same thing. This video just prove that. The gaming industry about making money. Its no heart into it nomore. When i seen differen new techology, then i spend my money. Nintendo need to stop with all the kid marketing. Your fans older now !!! I use to back nintendo. But all the kids mess. Im not backing then or the other systems.

  • Report this Comment On February 21, 2014, at 10:46 PM, TraxeSteelTrrair wrote:

    WOW! An actual GOOD, logical and smart article. ON FOOL.....I am scared to leave work as I think the end of the world has come. Good job Mr. Sun.

  • Report this Comment On February 22, 2014, at 12:23 PM, ChrisTheChip wrote:

    If you look at this video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=shUA-VbArbU

    it shows remarkably little difference in graphics quality between PS2 and PS3 for carbon need for speed. So combined with your PS3 vs PS4 comparison I presume you are better off with the old PS2 console than getting a PS4. If I could find a similar PS1 vs PS2 video showing minimal graphical improvement on say a 20 year old title, you could say we were better off with a PS1 than a PS4, and 20 years of advances in semiconductor manufacturing were next to irrelevant to game quality. I leave it to the reader to find the error in my logic.

  • Report this Comment On April 07, 2014, at 12:24 PM, kdognumba1 wrote:

    This is one of the best gaming related articles I've read from a general news site in a long time. I agree on pretty much all of the points. The graphical leap this generation is FAR from the major change we seen in the past and for the people who are actually paying attention, its hard to justify going out getting the new systems now because of it. Granted, myself, I got a Wii U but it's hard to justify getting a PS4 or XB1 when my PS3 and 360 are doing near the same visually on multiplat games and my PC is blowing the consoles out of the water.

    Also I love the fact that this article didn't follow the trend of Nintendo bashing for clicks that seems to be the hot thing on the web these days. I mean, I know the Wii U isn't as powerful as the new systems but it's nowhere near as bad as what most people make it out to be and some of the upcoming games looking freaking fantastic, such as X and Mario Kart 8.

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