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The very best way the games industry can reduce its carbon footprint
Why the industry is in the prime position to demand a much-needed console power cap.
February 6, 2023
36 Min Read
For all its disruption, political instability and economic turbulence, 2022 was a year that showed just how much the games industry continues to defy world events, with a generation of consoles that still couldn't meet demand even after a price hike and unbelievably expensive graphics cards that nevertheless sold out in minutes. The number of gamers worldwide has continued expanding rapidly, bolstering the industry’s place as the largest entertainment sector by a wide margin. But all this growth is making it harder to ignore the wider context in which games are created and played. Perhaps the most pressing example of this is how much energy and materials go into manufacturing, shipping, developing and playing games on all the devices we use, and the unavoidable impact on the environment that entails.
In the last decade there has certainly been progress drawing attention to environmental issues in the world of gaming. Many well-researched articles have been written, alongside a number of academic papers. An organisation called the Playing for The Planet Alliance was set up in 2019, partnered with the UN Environment Programme, to better enable the industry to spread environmental messages via the medium of games while also helping companies in the industry monitor their own impacts.
The Alliance then launched the Green Game Jam in 2020, encouraging developers of all sizes to incorporate environmental content into updates for their existing games and offering awards in several categories for their efforts. In 2021 the Green Games Guide was released, a handbook of tips, ideas and instructions for how businesses can reduce emissions across all areas and operations. There’s also a Special Interest Group with its own discord server, seeking to bring more coordination to grassroots movements in the industry.
Journalist Jordan Erica Webber sets off the 2021 Green Games Summit, an insightful set of talks which far too few people have watched
But the caveat is that so far, these efforts haven’t caused a major dent in the environmental footprint of the industry as a whole. And that's a problem because worldwide, video games use up a lot of energy, resources and labour. Below, I will set out the case that we need to think bigger, ramping up the pressure on the most powerful companies in our industry, if we are to achieve meaningful reductions in energy use and other environmental impacts in a limited window of opportunity.
A helpful first step is to provide some context on just how big the games industry has now become in 2023. On the player side, the total number of active gamers is estimated at 3 billion, over a third of the human population. Of the roughly 4 billion smartphone users, 2.5 billion play games on them. PC gamers total 1.8 billion and there are perhaps a few hundred million console gamers. (These estimates all need a pinch of salt because different sources give figures that vary by hundreds of millions, as is expected for such a vast and growing sector.)
Industry numbers are equally difficult to estimate globally, given the wide array of workers who are both directly and indirectly employed, alongside freelancers, students, hobbyists and so on, making it unclear how to pin down a determinate figure. Depending on how widely the industry is defined, the total number of workers could be anywhere between a few hundred thousand and a few million.
Carving up the production cycle across all devices into more refined categories is another big task, as video games sit at the end of a long and complex chain of economic activity. Just some of the steps required to bring you that huge update for the new game you had to wait patiently to download on Christmas day include: resource extraction, device manufacturing, packaging, shipping, online data centres, developing the game itself, producing the disc if it came on one and supplying household electricity from the national grid. All of these in turn require the building and maintenance of a large web of supporting infrastructure.
Each step has not just its associated energy requirements, but also a material footprint comprising all of the metals, plastics and other physical stuff required to mine out of the ground, assemble the platform device, transport it around and make it possible to play games on. The full impact of a product on the world, including both the creation process and eventual disposal, is known as its Lifecycle Assessment. While it can be tempting to jump straight to the burning of fossil fuels when tallying up the environmental costs of anything that uses energy, materials usage is a critical factor which is not easy to compare in an apples-to-apples style to any particular quantity of carbon dioxide released into the air. Some investigations have been made that tackle both aspects of device footprints, such as this one from the Verge on the PS4.
With these factors in mind, we can start to consider how things break down, area by area. It’s clear already that the answers will vary a lot based on the hardware required for each platform, install bases and types of games developed. For example, small devices like smartphones and portable consoles have low power requirements and tend to be replaced frequently, making them likely to have embedded emissions (those required for manufacture, transport, retail and disposal) as a high proportion of their overall footprint.
Consoles, in contrast, are much more weighted toward energy consumed during use. According to the publicly viewable Eco profile provided by Microsoft for its Xbox consoles, the Xbox One has a 1,114 kg CO2-equivalent footprint over an 8-year lifespan, including manufacturing and energy use. In its breakdown of environmental impacts, 82% of this footprint is caused by product usage, with another 14% from production.
Microsoft’s reporting on the energy use of an Xbox Series X over its lifetime shows that powering the console during use is the main contributor (Xbox One X Eco Profile)
On the development side, an indie game made by a core team of five will use up negligible energy compared to an Assassin's Creed with a workforce of a thousand. Only a handful of companies, such as Space Ape Games, have taken steps to extensively measure the environmental impacts across all their operations, though the number is growing. According to Ben Abraham’s Digital Games After Climate Change, the full carbon footprint of the whole games development sector is likely in the range of 3-15 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent per year, extrapolating from the handful of companies that do provide data.
No parallel attempt has been made to estimate the global carbon footprint of all devices used for gaming across every platform, using life cycle assessments to include all relevant stages. However, one recent study puts the annual energy usage from devices in the United States alone at 34 TWh, resulting in 24 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent, suggesting that a worldwide figure would dwarf that of game development by several times at least.
Following this trail further, the next question is to ask what kind of focus points and priorities present themselves across the three major categories of devices listed earlier. By sheer number, more people use phones and tablets than any other platform. PCs, on the other hand, use up much more average energy per hour and have a sizable userbase of well over a billion. Consoles have a relatively tiny install base compared to the other categories. Still, I believe consoles are the right platform to start with, given their unique role as gaming machines alongside other reasons I’ll go into below. Before looking at what can be changed, let's consider the situation today of the current generation, how it’s currently managed and how consoles have changed over time.
Consoles in history and the present day
Console energy use is governed by an industry partnership called the Games Consoles Voluntary Agreement (also called the Self-Regulatory Initiative), which was set up by the European Commission in 2012 to monitor and improve the environmental impact of consoles. Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo are all partners and have signed up to several revisions of the agreement in the past decade.
The most recent report, published in November 2020, covers a broad overview of the energy use of consoles and is the first to incorporate an analysis of the Playstation 5, Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S. The report, which was written by representatives of each manufacturer in partnership with the EU, details a number of improvements over earlier generations.
Firstly, the new consoles use less energy while in sleep modes than the previous generation. The PS5 consumes just 0.5W in rest mode, down from 4W used by the launch PS4 model. The Xbox Series X launched with a less impressive 12.4W instant-on mode, only slightly down from the 14W of the launch Xbox One, but Microsoft have recently changed the default power setting to shut down instead (0.5W).
Streaming video is also improved, with the PS5 averaging 53.5W for non-UHD content, down from the PS4's 96.7W (UHD support wasn't added until the PS4 Pro, but wattage is down on this front as well, from 84.2W to 75.7W). For Xbox, non-UHD content is down from 66.7W for the launch Xbox One to 51W on the Xbox Series X and 27W on the Xbox Series S.
PS5 energy use across each mode, compared with various PS4 models (2020 SRI Report)
On the gaming side, the report uses two "Business As Usual" (BAU) scenarios of how the consoles could otherwise have been made, to stress how much more efficient they are at performing the kinds of processing and graphics tasks needed for video games than either the previous generations or a comparable gaming PC. The first BAU considers how the current generation would look if there were no technological improvements in terms of die shrink, CPU efficiency, GPU efficiency or storage type since the Xbox One X or PS4 Pro. BAU 2 takes a similar approach, using the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 as comparison.
Unsurprisingly, the BAUs would have led to a massive increase in energy use. For example, the PS5 would have been pushed to 296W during active gaming in BAU 1 and all the way to 389W in BAU 2. Media playback would also have shot up, nearly tripling to 139.9W for the Xbox Series X in BAU 1 and reaching 240W in BAU 2, an almost five-fold increase. Overall, the total energy saved for the entire lifetime of this generation the first BAU scenario would have resulted in an additional 47.4 TWh of energy use from the current generation in just Europe alone, roughly the yearly electricity use of Portugal.
Reading the report, you'd easily get the impression that we're in an age of unprecedented ecological preservation, with no expense spared to minimise the impact of gaming. The problem is, there's nothing "usual" about the BAU scenarios in the real world context of technological progress. They have no grounding in the economic and technological conditions that consoles are actually made in and the energy "savings" made by comparison to each BAU don’t represent remotely plausible alternative situations. Computer technology changes at a rapid pace and at no point in the entire history of consoles has one generation been superseded by the next without any efficiency improvements at all. Moore's Law has proven remarkably resilient through the decades, most recently in the System-on-Chip (SoC) architectures that both sets of consoles have taken advantage of, but which are also widespread in phones, tablets and macs. It's also the driving force behind the existence of console generations in the first place. Imagining it doesn't exist, or might have stopped by now, leaves you with a world where it's hard to imagine these consoles would have been created at all.
In all its 51 pages the report pays scant attention to arguably the most critical piece of data of all: energy use during gameplay has gone up on average, compared to the last generation. The Xbox Series X uses 180W on average, compared to the Xbox One's 106W, while the PS5 uses 201W, up from the PS4's 137.3W (the figure for PS5 is taken from the Playstation website, as the report only had access to Astro's Play Room at the time of publishing). According to tests done by Eurogamer, the launch PS5 can draw all the way up to 230W, and the Series X 190W, while playing Cyberpunk 2077.
Image credit: CD Projekt Red
Cyberpunk 2077 is one of the most taxing games to run on the PS5 and Xbox Series S/X machines
To put these numbers into a more fitting context, I wanted to include a graph here of how home console wattage has changed over time, dating all the way back to the 1970s. Unfortunately, it's hard to find verifiable numbers for many of them so I will have to settle for some examples from this list, with the caveat that there may be small inaccuracies (if someone happens to have a power monitor and a large collection of old consoles, that would make a helpful research project).
The earliest consoles in the 70s and 80s, such as the Atari 2600, NES and Sega Genesis used tiny amounts of energy - less than 10W on average. Things started creeping up in the 90s with the likes of the Playstation, N64 and Dreamcast coming in at around 10-20W. In the early 2000s we have the best selling console of all time, the Playstation 2, along with the original Xbox. The numbers I've found indicate something in the range of 40-80W here. Then we have a huge leap upwards with the Xbox 360, which could draw up to 177W, and the PS3, which would often draw 200W while gaming. The following generation in the 2010s cut back a bit with the Xbox One (120W) and PS4 (140W). Meanwhile Nintendo changed its business strategy after having to sell the 2001 Gamecube at a loss, and thereafter stopped competing with Sony and Microsoft on graphical fidelity. The Wii (2006) used 18W, the Wii U (2012) used 33W and the Switch (2017) now draws up to 15W in docked mode. (Note: all the above are for launch versions of consoles, and don't include further revisions which cut down on energy requirements.)
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
The Atari 2600 drew 4.5W during use, which is about 2.25% that of a launch PS5 running a native PS5 game
So there we have it: in the last five decades consoles have increased in power usage about 10-20 times and the only console that can match the current crop for power drain is the PS3. The biggest jumps came in the 2000s, roughly in parallel with the rise of climate change as a major issue of concern in the public consciousness. All this raises the disturbing question of how any of this can, in any reasonable light, be considered an environmental win. The report makes literally dozens of references to "efficiency" in one form or another, but the fact that these are literally two of the three most power hungry consoles ever made hardly merits a mention, with just a note that "Gaming power consumption is the only mode where power has increased, due mainly to the substantial increase in performance between generations." That's a strange way to describe the mode which is the defining function of the devices in question.
It might seem unfair to compare machines released in 2020 to those from decades earlier, given the huge changes in computers, the internet, market expectations and technology in general. But that's exactly the point: all of these things are assumed to be primary factors which define how consoles are made, with other concerns limited to merely trimming around the edges. A design philosophy genuinely committed to sustainability would factor that in right from the start and then find ways to build products within that remit. The terms of the Voluntary Agreement itself state that its members must "Reduce the power consumption of Games Consoles to the minimum necessary to meet their operational specification while not limiting the industry’s ability to improve functionality and to innovate". In other words, they have to cut down on energy usage only to the extent that it makes no meaningful difference to the devices at all.
Aside from its questionable use of BAU scenarios, the report stresses the improvements Sony has made reducing PS5 power usage during sleep mode over preceding generations. But the standard of comparison here should be the sub-1 watts used by earlier generations that were designed to be conveniently turned on and off, rather than the last two generations which actively introduced sleep modes in the name of better convenience. In the process, the lowest energy uses have become more awkward: my old Playstation 2 used to boot straight into the inserted disc when turned on, whereas my current PlayStation 4 Pro doesn't even have that as an option. Mitigating a problem that has only very recently and deliberately been brought about is the very minimum we should expect.
Mark Cerny explained how architectural improvements enabled an incredible leap in performance with the PS5, back in March 2020 (Sony Interactive Entertainment)
Perhaps the most worrying sign in the report is how it frames the capability of new consoles to output an 8K signal to displays. In the report’s own words:
"The next step in resolution, 8K, is at the cusp of a transition from high-end technology to mass market. While 8K televisions are currently an order of magnitude more expensive than 4K televisions, the prices are dropping, and they will become common within the next few years."
Interestingly, there's no citation given to support the claim that we're on the cusp of such a transition. It seems to be taken as given that because 8K TVs are getting cheaper, consumers will soon flock to them in droves, perhaps out of sheer embarrassment at the idea of having to entertain friends with a stone age Ultra High Definition HDR 120Hz screen any longer. Whatever the reason, the report then goes on to claim that games will be the primary driver of 8K content, with streaming services and blu-ray unlikely to support it any time soon.
The warning signs should be plain and clear now. I don't know how anyone could write a document that all but outright states that a new technology is going to help the environment by prompting millions of people to buy extremely large new TVs they would have no other reason to upgrade to, each with its own embedded footprint from resource mining, manufacturing, distribution, retail and packaging, which will almost certainly be more energy intensive in use than present day screens, all to enable a level of fidelity that's literally indistinguishable to the average viewer.
The core of the problem here is that the Voluntary Agreement makes a huge deal out of efficiency improvements, but what we're facing is a climate emergency, not an emergency need to build higher efficiency products for their own sake. The new consoles could be a million times more efficient than the previous generation and that wouldn't stop them being a step backwards in this regard. In the words of Sam Barratt, Chief of Youth, Education and Advocacy of UNEP, speaking in the Green Games Summit, "Our carbon emissions need to fall off a cliff" in order to get anywhere close to the 1.5 degree pathways outlined in the Paris Agreement.
Pathways to staying within anywhere near a 1.5 or 2 degree threshold involve massive reductions in greenhouse gases (Our World in Data)
We need to face the situation presented by climate change with honesty and acknowledge that rapid reductions in absolute energy use are the only acceptable response here. The rising deployment of renewables into our energy mix is encouraging, but there is no avoiding that we also need to scale down energy use wherever we can, as much as is feasible.
The Voluntary Agreement is clearly inadequate for putting the level of pressure on Sony and Microsoft to achieve the seismic changes in their environmental policies that we need to make our industry aligned with the Paris Agreement climate goals. The games industry needs to stand up and say very clearly: this isn't good enough. It isn't enough to avoid making our carbon footprint worse, we need to make things better, and fast. It's time to move the decision making process into a real public debate that's inclusive of the whole industry and its players.
The case for a power cap
There are many environmental changes and campaigns already underway but I want to argue for something specific. There's no one-quick-fix to all the complex issues we face, but cutting the power demands of consoles is the single most impactful change we can make for the effort required, both in terms of its direct impact and larger ramifications.
There's been some discussion in green circles of encouraging developers to spend more time optimising code in order to reduce the power consumption of their games. Unfortunately, this approach has limited potential by itself, for two reasons. Firstly, some of the gains in performance will simply be eaten up by permitting higher graphics settings, resolutions and frame rates, especially on PC where high refresh rate monitors are gaining market share. But more significantly, a piecemeal approach of trying to reduce energy use one game at a time is a gargantuan undertaking in a market where thousands of developers are making hundreds of thousands of games a year. Optimising code is a difficult, time-consuming process and often getting a game running smoothly enough to be playable by a tight deadline is a serious challenge on its own, as well known examples in recent times attest. The only way we're realistically going to achieve sizable, industry-wide reductions in power usage is by going straight to the hardware itself.
With enough support, we can collectively call for a cap on the maximum energy requirements of all future consoles. We need Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo to all commit to not release any new consoles, or enhanced versions of existing consoles, that can run beyond a threshold wattage at any point during operation. It's important to stress that this should be an overarching cap because while the Voluntary Agreement does include provisions for power caps, they only apply in streaming and navigation modes, which are much easier to achieve than during active gameplay.
What should this threshold wattage be? Any number is going to be arbitrary to some extent, but to me 100 Watts strikes the right balance between ambition and being realistic about what can be achieved in the short term. It's a lot less than the Xbox Series X and PS5 are using at the moment, even with the energy efficiency improvements made in more recent models. On the other hand, it's well within historical precedent for what revisions of earlier consoles have achieved, and sets an ambitious target for the slim versions of the current gen when they come out this year or next.
So the idea is we have no more consoles that can use more than 100 Watts at any point in operation, granting Microsoft and Sony a couple of years or so to catch up with their current generation. Over time, this could change - perhaps we could cut the target to 80 Watts or even lower, if it looked technically plausible and there was broad agreement across the industry.
In the long term, the expected benefits of this cap are immense. A cap actively cuts down on the two biggest sources of console emissions, as it reduces not just the energy during use but also the embedded emissions of producing the console: lower power devices are smaller, requiring less materials and transportation cost. Over decades, this amounts to a huge energy saving for every console generation to come.
Speaking of console generations, one of the big uncertainties today is what future generations could look like and when they will arrive (if at all). Whatever happens, an energy cap will almost certainly extend the current generation longer than the seven years it's currently forecast to. That in turn means a longer lifespan for the consoles we have, reducing the impact of their embedded emissions.
Another outcome is removing any possibility of a mid-generation upgrade in the same style as the Xbox One X and PS4 Pro - it simply wouldn't be possible without increasing the peak wattage. In the near term, this is certainly the most important direct benefit of a cap. Given that we're at least a few years away from another generation, a cap can't have any effect on completely new consoles until they arrive. However, there is still the possibility that either Microsoft or Sony decide that an enhanced model granting them the undisputed title of Most Powerful Console is too tempting to pass up. In reality, there's no good reason for such consoles to exist. We're a long way from seeing the full juice of the present-day capabilities being squeezed out of current consoles (I'm still waiting to see anything as breathtaking as The Matrix Demo), and as mentioned already, accommodating 8K is plain silly. There are reasons to be sceptical that these enhanced consoles will indeed come about, but it is still well worth being sure of.
A cap is both consumer friendly and business friendly. Apart from lower electricity bills, consumers benefit from longer support for their devices due to prolonged generations. Developers can reap longer term benefits from the initial fixed costs of adjusting to a new generation by releasing more games for it, a noteworthy advantage even for the majority of companies now using Unreal Engine or Unity. Finally, manufacturers can mitigate the risks involved in investing a huge amount of resources into a new generation, selling consoles at a loss and hoping to recoup that money over time. There's mounting evidence that Microsoft in particular doesn't want people to buy its consoles nearly as much as its Game Pass.
Perhaps most importantly, a cap is a clearly definable, easily measurable, wide-encompassing goal which any company in the industry can get behind with minimal effort. It only takes a single board meeting followed by a press release, petition signing or even just a tweet to add their name to the list calling for one. The move towards companies monitoring and reducing their operational energy usage is an important and necessary one, not just in games but in every industry. But as indicated earlier, the bulk of total emissions in this sector result from gaming devices themselves, so they cannot reasonably be left as an afterthought or a matter to return to after years of missed chances for change.
PCs and setting a standard
A natural objection to raise at this point is: but why focus on consoles, when we know gaming PCs use more energy for pretty much any activity, as well as outnumbering consoles by at least several hundred million units? The highest end PC you can buy today incorporating Nvidia's RTX 4090 graphics card requires a recommended 850W PSU, and typically draws 500-700W when pushed to its full utilisation. A more typical gaming PC might incorporate a 600W PSU and use 200-500W during gameplay.
Gaming PCs tend to have much higher power draws than consoles (Resul Kaya - Unsplash)
Firstly, the question needs framing in the right way to understand exactly how to approach it. We shouldn't be looking for excuses for some devices by pointing to worse comparisons - no one's being told off for not doing their homework on time. Rather, the focus should be entirely on the question: what are the opportunities for the biggest energy savings we have available? There are good reasons for focusing on consoles over PCs as a first priority, other than raw metrics. (As an aside, the same argument applies to any comparisons to other household appliances like fridges and washing machines. If there's scope for cutting down the electricity used by fridges, that's something to act on as well, not a reason to ignore opportunities here.)
To adequately judge what a new industry standard is going to change, we have to consider not just its direct effects on power consumption, but knock-on effects that different parts of the industry have on each other. In this case, the vast majority of AAA games are not PC exclusive, which means minimum hardware requirements are effectively enforced by whatever consoles are capable of. (Towards the end of each generation minimum requirements for PC ports have a tendency to creep up substantially higher than the console equivalents, but much of this is due to the inherent difficulties in supporting a vast range of hardware on PC while also utilising the full potentials of the consoles, which can punch well above their weight based on what a simple comparison of teraflops would imply.) The net result of all this is that the longer a console generation lasts, the fewer games are developed which push consumers towards upgrading PC hardware.
We absolutely need to shine a closer light on AMD, Nvidia, Intel and every other company involved in the PC space. Most likely this is where the biggest overall reductions in emissions will be made, due to the sheer number of users and potential spillover effects of cutting power requirements in non-gaming applications as well. But the key factor is there is no parallel opportunity to set a single, all-encompassing standard here, given the large number of companies and inherent massive variation in the PC hardware space. Consoles, the only devices manufactured first and foremost for the purpose of gaming, provide an ideal first step towards placing environmental factors at the forefront of decision making. Once that's in place, there is a strong precedent to raise the profile of sustainability on PC (and mobile) as well.
Exactly what can be done for PC gaming warrants an article of its own, but, to briefly tangent away from consoles, a promising first step looks to be ramping up the distribution of SoC-based machines. The System-on-Chip design architecture involves incorporating many usually separate components into a single circuit board, and has allowed Apple to achieve huge performance improvements in recent macbooks at far lower power consumptions than similar performing PCs. It doubtless has a large role to play in reducing energy use without losing the performance PC users are already familiar with.
Disappointingly, there are very few Windows machines with SoC architectures at the start of 2023. Back in 2016 Microsoft announced support for running Windows operating systems on Arm-based machines, paving the way for a potential mass transition to SoC devices. Since then, only a few Windows laptops and tablets powered by Arm SoCs have been released and they barely merit comparing to Apple's 3 year-old M1 powered macs.
Anthony Young from Linus Tech Tips explains how the industry may be on the verge of a mass transition towards SoC machines. Unsurprisingly, a lot of custom PC builders aren't happy at this prospect, but it should be a welcome change for the majority of PC owners.
Microsoft has been making a lot of headlines about their green ambitions recently but their exclusivity deal with Qualcomm for producing Arm-based Windows devices might well be the most environmentally harmful policy in the entire history of computing. Because of it, there has been no competition from other vendors in the space, lower-power laptops and desktops are years behind where they could have been and hundreds of millions of conventional PC users are using far more energy than is required for their day-to-day needs. If Microsoft was as serious about sustainability as it claims, it would end the exclusivity contract immediately and make an urgent push to expand the production of energy saving Arm-based PCs at every level of price and performance on the market.
It's hard to say just how important a power cap on consoles could be at this stage. Speculations about the end of console generations crop up from time to time, and I don't have a crystal ball. But if there's even a good chance that more consoles will be released, we should take the possibility seriously, not least because each new generation is several years in the making. As mentioned earlier, console manufacturing is a risky market to operate in with large initial investments only paying out over several years. It's not obvious that Microsoft or Sony would even want to release a new generation as soon as it becomes financially feasible to do so, if not for the fear of falling behind the competition.
A much more concerning risk is that of new measures backfiring and causing protest in the console gaming community, which has gotten used to seeing enormous leaps in graphics, at regular intervals, from each generation. There's no way no to know for sure if this would happen, short of actually trying, and I can't speak for hundreds of millions of gamers, but I can point to data that makes me doubtful. Studies show that people who play games do, in fact, care about the environment and it's hard to see the idea of having to wait a bit longer for a new machine as more than a trifling sacrifice in the context of everything else the decarbonisation process is going alter in societies over the coming years and decades.
In terms of what people are choosing today, the obvious example to bring up is the Nintendo Switch, which is still outselling the PS5 and Xbox Series X despite its comparatively ancient hardware. The Steam Deck has proven a big hit as well, with critical praise and over a million units sold, indicating that many PC gamers who are used to cranking up graphics settings are happy to trade that in for improved portability and convenience. (Perhaps console players have the same preferences, and would rather a handheld PS5 Portable or Xbox Series Mini to play their existing digital libraries on, rather than enhanced consoles, once the die shrink gets small enough?)
The Nintendo Switch has been comfortably outselling the PS5 and Xbox Series X in the past year (VG Chatz)
Add in the volatile costs of electricity alongside rising costs of living in many countries and you have a next generation with a much higher threshold to justify itself, even on its own terms. And bear in mind, this is all future-looking, so could only ever impact improvements made on the incredibly powerful consoles we already have.
One well-versed argument here is to note the diminishing returns yielded by ever more powerful devices. Any discussion of how much the sharply quantifiable improvements in computational power, along with the somewhat measurable changes in visual quality that result from it, actually influence the subjective enjoyment of playing games threatens to descend into familiar moralising on the wastefulness of modern consumerism. It's the kind of lesson we all know in our heart of hearts to be true, yet baulk at the idea of being told so by anyone else, all while being unable to resist the rush and excitement of the next big thing.
A better approach to take on this front is to point to the recent developments in software and hardware that suggest we may be able to have our cake and eat it too. Resolution upscaling has been used in various forms for many years, but it gained a big momentum with the announcement of Nvidia's DLSS in 2018 and was then followed with AMD's FXR and Intel's XeSS, all of which have enabled high resolutions like 4K to be natively rendered at much lower resolutions, with impressively little impact on final image quality.
The latest development in this space is Nvidia's DLSS 3, which uses an AI frame generation technique to insert extra frames in between regular frames, allowing for a near doubling in frame rates in exchange for a small impact on input lag and image quality. The fact that this has all happened in the space of just a few years should give us hope that equally impressive breakthroughs are on the way, perhaps with machine-learning driven AI taking over large parts of the rendering process itself in the future.
And all this is within the context of a well established pattern: for the last four generations every console started off with high power requirements, which were then steadily reduced over the course of the generation in subsequent models and revisions. If this pattern holds in the future, the most pessimistic scenario is getting the same generational upgrade 3-4 years later than would have otherwise happened, not exactly a tragedy after half a century of devices to look back on.
Another noteworthy concern is the possibility that by the time this cap comes into full force, electricity supplies will have largely shifted to renewable sources, making any reductions in energy use redundant. Shifting the trajectory of gaming towards low wattage, longer lasting and more repairable devices will be a slow process, likely going well into the 2030s and even 2040s. Some countries are making fast progress on decarbonising their national grids already: for example, the UK already has to routinely switch off wind turbines generating more electricity than there is demand for in their transmission range.
The prospect of bountiful clean energy is certainly appealing. However, the steady expansion of low carbon sources of electricity into national grids actually serves to hide how much difference a reduction in energy use can make to emissions produced, both today and the foreseeable future.
To demonstrate this, take a very simplified example: suppose that where you live the wind is blowing quite strong and so the local grid is able to supply 95% of its current electricity demand from wind power, with a gas power plant covering the final 5%. If you then turn on your console and start playing Elden Ring, what’s the energy mix that your device is being powered by? You might say it has a 95% chance of being wind energy, given that that’s what’s meeting 95% of the demand. But the problem is, that’s not the right question to ask. When considering reductions in the energy use of a specific device, the important question is: what is the marginal change in electricity supply if the reduction happens? Assuming, for the sake of this (again, simplified) example that the wind turbines are already maxed out, the entire marginal effect of changing your console’s power use is an increase or decrease in gas burning.
The net result of all this is that, when considering the significance of future energy sources on the effects of energy reductions, the overall energy mix is less important than the percentage of gaming time spent in which 100% of the energy is provided by low-carbon sources, for a given region. Obviously this will vary hugely across different parts of the world, within countries, across different seasons, and over the peaks and troughs of daily demand. Adding to the complications is the increasing role of large-scale energy storage in future, which will become necessary as the overall share of intermittent supply from solar and wind increases, alongside demand-responsive pricing and longer transmission lines which can send electricity across country borders. But what this all indicates in a very broad sense is that the industry CO2-equivalent estimates mentioned earlier may underplay how much potential there is for emissions reductions, because they are based on a country’s average energy mix rather than the effects of marginal changes in demand.
In any case, current projections indicate that worldwide electricity supply will likely still have a substantial fossil fuel input in 2040 (and the IEA predicts coal will still supply 3% of electricity in the EU in 2050), which leaves a good three generations worth of future consoles that need to be accounted for.
The entire games industry and all the energy use associated with it might seem like a very small segment in the overall picture of the causes of climate change, when the most ideal conceivable savings lie in the realm of tens to hundreds of millions of tonnes of CO2-equivalent out of a worldwide total now surpassing 40 billion tonnes annually. But the problem here is, so does everything if you split it all into smaller and smaller categories: there’s no single global region, industry, or economic sector that can’t be divided up into small enough pieces that each one can look like it’s too insignificant to make a difference on its own. And in the context of the entire world’s carbon footprint, a single percentage point reduction is an absolutely massive impact. It’s an amount of change that, if a million people formed a company and then spent their entire careers in that one company dedicated solely to cutting off that 1% of emissions, they would each have done an astonishing good.
Most of the direct effects of a console power cap will not be felt for at least a few years (other than warding off the possibility of mid-generation enhancements). But this is only half the story. The other half of succeeding here is to show that as an industry, we can stand up and demand that the most powerful companies make good on their commitments to sustain life on this planet. Such a victory, by itself, has the potential to alter the trajectory of all hardware and software development in the computer industry and spur greater progress on not just the environment but many other issues that need urgent attention.
Every developer, publisher, university, union, retailer, journalist, content creator, streamer and everyday player that joins in calling for a power cap will add pressure to the companies that have been giving themselves generous credit for the efforts made so far. It might seem that the tech giants which make these devices are too big and powerful to be swayed, but remember that console makers rely on developers, especially in the AAA space, to support their platforms in order to sell their machines, peripherals, subscriptions and other services. As the people who make, sell, publicise, stream and review games, we are the ones who enable companies to sell consoles, phones, desktops and other devices in the hundreds of millions. We have every right to demand they listen.
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