Let’s be honest. If you ignore all the news, pretend all the hype is imagined, and search your feelings: is anyone really excited for the next Xbox or the PS4 yet? If this was an actual discussion and, ya know, not a written column, the answer would likely be a resounding no. That doesn’t mean people aren’t interested in the next generation of consoles and won’t buy them with the glee that only a hardcore gamer can experience, but are people really prepared to abandon the current generation to shell out hundreds of dollars on a new system, just because?
The Xbox 360 and the PS3 are both nearing the end of their life cycles, but that doesn’t mean that it is time to put them down then lie to the kids about it, telling them that you gave their Xbox 360 away to someone with anice farm. It is easy to get sucked into the excitement of a new product launch, but the release of a new system is something that needs to be handled delicately. If it is done too late, it could be a difficult road to recovery (looking at you, PS3). But if it is done too soon, it could be disaster.
Unlike the Wii, which is gasping along after a year spent stagnating (with a few exceptions like the recent Zelda game), the system is in bad need of an upgrade. Most Nintendo fans are keenly aware of this, and so the release of the Wii U is timely and makes sense. The possible rushed releases of a new Xbox followed shortly after by the PS4, would not.
By the way, although Microsoft has been tightlipped on its next generation console and all the names floating around are just rumors (“The Loop” is another possible name), we are sticking with calling it the Xbox 720, partially because of the movie Real Steel. The Hugh Jackman flick was set a few years in the future, and featured a brief image of sign that read “Xbox 720.” Obviously this is nothing even resembling confirmation, but the odds are Microsoft had to at least ok the placement. It isn’t quite confirmation, but it isn’t a denial either. Game, set, and match, Microsoft.
Attack of the creeping rumor
The rumors of a new Xbox have been floating around for a while, and everyone knows it is coming sooner or later. There has been talk of a new PlayStation, which is also inevitable, but between the two, the bulk of the rumors have focused on the Xbox 720. The early money was on a 2015 release date, which would give the Xbox 360 a ten year life span. That would make sense, because the numerous licenses and partnerships Microsoft recently landed to help provide content–including ESPN, Hulu, Comcast, and several others–are not deals that Microsoft is likely to just ignore in a year or two. Those deals may have clauses that tie the partnerships into the next console, but it seems unlikely that major corporations would agree to a deal involving hardware that hadn’t even been built yet. So 2015 seemed like a good possibility, maybe 2014.
But then the Wii U was announced at E3 last summer, and suddenly 2015 seemed like a million years away.
The industry then turned its expectant eye on Microsoft, and rumors became stories, and stories became analysis. Suddenly the 2015 release date of the 720 was a joke—something only crazy people could possibly believe. Microsoft’s gaming division would be cinder and ash! Sweet merciful Jesus, they must release a new system immediately or they are doomed. Doomed! So naturally the release date in the rumor mill was adjusted accordingly, and the new date was 2013. Of course, it should be pointed out that Microsoft hasn’t actually made any statements at all about the next generation of Xbox, but that has never stopped a good rumor before.
A 2013 release date would give the Xbox 360 a full year to run amok and get a foothold, but if this generation of console wars has taught us anything, it is that being first isn’t the same as being best. The Xbox 360 proved that by having a year head start on the Wii, and still got crushed by Nintendo’s ubber-console. The PS3 was the last to be released, but has pulled within reach of the Xbox 360–plus it was plagued more by high initial costs than a late start. The release date doesn’t really matter that much if the system has something worth offering. On top of that, the Wii’s audience was eclectic to say the least, and Nintendo was brilliant in creating customers out of non-gamers. It didn’t steal customers from other systems as much as create new ones. So in that sense, the Wii U won’t be going head-to-head with the Xbox 720, at least not as much as the PS4 will be.
Regardless, that hasn’t stopped the rumor mill from spinning off its axis and ripping through a town filled with terrified locals, metaphorically speaking. For a time it seemed like every week a new rumor from an unconfirmed, “but reliable,” source was spilling new info on the 720. If even a third of them turn out to be true, Microsoft has more security issues than…well, Sony’s online network. Some say it will use an AMD chip, others claim it will use IBM. It will supposedly be six times faster than the current generation, or it may be 20-percent faster than the Wii U (which has been rumored to be twice as powerful as the 360 and PS3). It may or may not use Direct X 11 and will heavily integrate the next generation of Kinect (actually, both of those are probably true). It may not play used games, and it could feature a built-in Blu-ray player. It may also make a lovely omelet, just like your mom.
But the most alarming new rumor that was gaining strength was that the Xbox 720, would be debuted this year, probably at E3. Some reports even claimed that it would begin mass production later this year, which would mean that it would be available in time for the holidays and would be going head-to-head with the Wii U. If this is true, this would be a mess for Microsoft, and for the gaming industry as a whole.
But here’s the thing, in all the excitement about the next wave of consoles, there is a simple fact that seems to have been overlooked: no one is demanding a new system. At least not yet.
The timing just isn’t right. The Wii is dated, and if nothing else the lack of HD graphics alone justify Nintendo’s new system. It is time, and Nintendo’s fans are ready for it. Xbox 360 and PS3 fans are not, and both systems still have a lot of life left in them. If a new Xbox and PlayStation were released, it would be little more than a money grab brought on by fear of Nintendo.
The sales would cannibalize each system’s core fanbase, and force developers to choose between the more powerful new system and the appreciation of the manufacturer, or go for the potential higher sales of the older generation (assuming that the next gen systems are not backwards compatible, which they most likely won’t be). It would cause massive problems for retailers as well that would be forced to continue to stock both the old and the new, but would be left in a gray area on pricing of the older hardware, and the accessories that went with it.
Thankfully, mercifully, it has been confirmed by a Microsoft rep that these stories are wrong.
“We are in an industry where it talks a lot, it likes to tell stories. I am not convinced that things are happening this year. The cycle of the Xbox 360 is by no means complete. The proof we are not at all parties on the logic of price drop this year. After that, it will happen at E3, it is still premature,” Cedrick Delmax, marketing director of Microsoft France told French website Lepoint.fr (the text has been translated by Google). “What is certain is that there will be nothing new in 2012.”
From a business point of view, this makes sense. The Xbox 360 is still doing well, and the Kinect has helped buoy the sales figures. They are obviously slowing down, but as prices drop, Microsoft sill has at least another good year of sales to look forward to on a console that has long since turned a profit on each unit. A new system would likely be in the same boat as the 360 and the PS3 when they were introduced, and be sold at a loss for a time. It would also put the new Xbox directly in competition with Nintendo, which would create and unnecessary battle.
“If we had to deal with Nintendo, it would be able to come up with something immediately, and it is not the case at all, Delmax said. “We are not here to deal with Nintendo and they are not there to fight against other manufacturers. Nintendo has placed itself in a different cycle, they advance at their own pace, successfully as we have seen with the Wii, and now it is their turn to present their innovation.”
It has also been confirmed, again by the French site lepoint.fr, that the PlayStation 4 won’t be out any time in the immediate future either.
“The Wii is pressed for time because it is in decline. In our case, we have a lot less pressure,” the new CEO of PlayStation France, Philippe Cardon, said. “We were the last to have the PS3, [and we] will probably be the last to announce something.”
Taking the jump
When the PS2 was released, not only did it look significantly better than the PSOne, it could do more things. It featured a DVD player, would (eventually) allow broadband connection, and made the gameplay experience better immediately. The jump from the Xbox and PS2 to the Xbox 360 and PS3 was also noticeably impressive, and the entire experience was immediately better thanks to more possibilities in the games, a built-in online community, and better graphics. The next generation of consoles won’t have that advantage.
There has been a sort of industry zeitgeist about what to expect from the graphics of the next gen Xbox and PS3, and most are saying that the graphics are going to be on par with many CGI movies. Some have even claimed that the graphics will rival movies like Avatar, although that seems somewhat unlikely–if you replace the word “somewhat” with “insanely.” But even if it did, would that make for a better gaming experience?
There will no doubt be several other tweaks and improvements in the new systems, and you can expect things like better online connectivity, possibly a new type of controller, and an integrated Kinect experience in the case of the Xbox 720. All of which will be welcome and appreciated, but none of which is enough to make us want to abandon a system that is just beginning to hit its stride, at least not yet.
The last few months of 2011 showed that games were still firing on all cylinders, and there continue to be improvements made all the time. Developers are finally beginning to reach the full potential of the systems, and the Xbox 360 is just finding its own identity as a home entertainment system rather than a gaming-only device. The integration of TV channels and video apps changes everything, and breathes life into the console.
The problem is that once the Xbox 720 is released, support for the 360 will essentially end. Sure, there will be tech support for a few years after that and you may see a few decent games released yet, but you will essentially be forced to buy a new system to play the top games, stream the most up-to-date content, and get the most out of your home system. If you are a dedicated gamer, you will be screwed, as the best developers will probably look to the new system. A few great games may still hit the older consoles, but the franchises will head to the new systems.
On top of that, the new apps and the solid sales of the Kinect have brought some new excitement to the 360. All of that will dry up once Microsoft’s attention shifts to the 720.
And then there is the cost.
Right now estimates as to what the next gen systems will cost are pure guesswork, but a new console will likely run at least $400. Even the Wii U pricing is still unknown, although Nintendo has been good about keeping the costs of its hardware down, and will likely learn from the mistakes of the 3DS’ launch. Once you factor in buying a single game (which, if the trend continues, may be as much as $10 more than current games), and possibly a second controller or alternative cables, you will be looking at over $500. If it is a massive improvement then it is justifiable, but if it is an alternative, that is tough to accept.
But this is more than just a matter of not wanting to pay for a new system and being forced to upgrade everything, this is a potentially bad business move that could split the gaming community. The jump from the 360 to 720 is likely to be huge, but are people no longer impressed when they play a game like Skyrim, which is absolutely massive and looks really good? Forcing new technology on people that aren’t clamoring for it is never a good idea, even when it is better technology. Blu-ray is a perfect example, and even now blu-ray disc sales are at best average (although they are improving).
It is a matter of timing. People weren’t ready to give up their DVDs, and many didn’t (and still don’t) have a home theater that can take advantage of it. And yet the initial competition from HD DVD, plus the instance of Sony and other manufacturers, meant that the new format was going to be pushed onto us. Thankfully, the arrival of Blu-ray did not mean the end of DVD support–at least not yet—and DVDs are still being produced. Gamers won’t be so fortunate.
The arrival of the Xbox 720 and the PS4 will mean the day of the current generation of consoles has come to a close, and a new war for the hearts and minds of customers is underway. Once it begins, we have some incredible things to look forward to, and hopefully the technology will be so impressive and comprehensive that it will makes us wonder how we ever got by with our primitive caveman systems. But that day needs to come somewhat organically. We know and accept that the day is coming, but it can’t be forced on us.
While the Wii U is a different story, most of us aren’t ready to give up our consoles that still have the potential to impress us. Hopefully Microsoft and Sony are both aware of this, and when the next generation is released it will be greeted with awe and wonder, not groans and regret.