Rumors have been whirling, and may as well be confirmed, regarding the likelihood of the next console generation coming to store shelves this holiday season. All eyes are on Sony and Microsoft, as gamers wait with bated breath for their current systems’ next-gen successors. Official announcements haven’t been made, but with Sony teasing big news in the next week or so, it’s only a matter of time. But is the arrival of the next big things this year potentially the next big mistake?
One primary concern here is the timing. Sure, we’ve been working the 360 and PS3 for nearly eight years now, and there’s no question we’re long overdue for new hardware, regardless of how many excellent titles are still coming out for both platforms. That’s not the issue here. Rather, the timeframe surrounding everything about these new systems, should they truly be due for the end of 2013, seems a bit compressed. For starters, let’s look at the announcements, or rather, the fact that they haven’t happened yet. Historically, successful consoles have had at least a year of time to build up hype for their arrival, getting consumers worked up over all the good things to come. The PlayStation 3, for instance, saw a year and a half’s lead prior to striking in 2006, enough time for not one, but two E3s worth of promotion. Similarly, its predecessor, the PlayStation 2, was announced in February of 1999, but not released until the end of 2000. The Xbox 360 bucked the trend, having been unveiled approximately six months before its release in 2005, but it also came out of the gate with backward compatibility for a sizable chunk of the original Xbox library, a system that had enjoyed nearly a year and eight months before arriving in 2001.
Meanwhile, in regards to systems with short reveal-to-launch windows, what comes to mind? The Nintendo 64, which was only shown in playable form ten months before hitting the market? Perhaps the PlayStation Portable, which came out in Japan seven months following its debut, and three months after that in North America? Or the Sega Saturn, whose ballsy, pushed-up US release threw it onto shelves three or four months following its announcement, rather than an intended seven? All wonderful pieces of hardware, to be sure, but consoles that have all gone down in history as not coming out on top of their direct competitors.
Another issue, which happens to be two-fold, is the matter of games. Firstly, one must consider the rather solid batch of releases already lined up for current generation systems this year. Between titles pushed back from 2012, such as Bioshock Infinite and Metro: Last Light, and more recently announced games due this year, such as Remember Me, Injustice: Gods Among Us, and the widely anticipated Grand Theft Auto V, current hardware owners still have a lot going on. A lot, mind you, even before taking account of both long-awaited and recently-announced titles that have more nebulous, unconfirmed release targets in 2013. Sure, some studios have already hinted at games being underway for the next console generation, such as CD Projekt Red’s trilogy-ending The Witcher 3, and 343 Industries’ admission to Halo 5 being slated for future hardware, but the former was only just recently announced, and the latter, going by the standard, two-year Halo cycle, isn’t likely to see markets until 2014. To truly tantalize gamers to upgrade, both new consoles are going to need pretty beefy launch lineups, backward compatibility, or some combination of the two.
When you think about it, the latter option seems the more viable one, as it’s not entirely clear whether there’s been enough time to develop much of anything for the new hardware, nevermind titles that are going to blow the current, often amazing things still occurring on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, out of the water. Distribution of PlayStation 4 dev kits wasn’t confirmed to any great extent until November of 2012, while the next Xbox’s “Durango” kits were confirmed to exist as far back as last July. So we’re looking at approximately a year, give or take a few months, of development time for the games that will be rolled out should those new consoles come in time for Christmas. Anyone can build a decent game in a year, with enough people and money to throw at it, but on new hardware, optimized to a point that will put its predecessors to shame, in many cases concurrently with development on current-gen titles? It’s worrisome, thinking just what horrendous crunch periods and a short dev cycle may spawn.
Finally, we have some of the less than luscious rumors surrounding the newcomers. Sony’s already confirmed to have patented technology to block the play of used games, though its integration into the PlayStation 4 is as yet unconfirmed (and considered unlikely), while recent accusations of similar technology being in play in the Xbox 720 are raising some concerned looks from Microsoft fans. Along with this potential “new game only” mode, the 720 is rumored to require a constant internet connection during gameplay, a feature most recently and readily associated with several unpopular forms of digital rights management, along with the debacle that was the launch of Diablo III. Shifts (and the lack thereof) on the hardware front are raising alarm bells as well, with Sony’s declaration that it is abandoning the DualShock controller format leading to nearly as many rumors as the PlayStation 4 console itself, and the Xbox 720′s allegedly upgraded version of Kinect, a peripheral that has yet to show much promise outside of casual and gimmicky applications, at least in its Xbox 360 incarnation.
To be fair, both sides of the equation have a lot going for them, should they brave such a potentially sensitive launch time. Microsoft’s Xbox Live program boasts a sizable user base, and given its fairly smooth integration of both the original Xbox’s and the 360′s networks, chances are stepping up one’s account from the 360 to the 720 will be similarly painless. While a bit newer to the unified online service front, Sony’s PlayStation Plus program has seen a rapidly snowballing level of popularity, and after a few hiccups, has managed to bring support for the PlayStation Vita handheld into the PlayStation Network as well. Should Sony actually foster its portable system, and offer a better realized form of the cross-platform applications that were promised for the Vita and the PS3 on the next PlayStation, it may have firmer footing, as well as more direct competition to Nintendo’s Wii U. And again, should backward compatibility enter the picture, even in more of a stopgap form (as per the Xbox 360) than a permanent solution, gamers are more liable to be interested in something that plays all the great games coming out this year and whatever greater things are yet to come.
Beyond that, however, there’s not much optimism to be found. With only nine months, tops, leading up to release day from the earliest announcements, and full-fledged unveilings unlikely until around E3 o’clock, we’ve either some amazing tricks (hidden up some very long, obfuscating sleeves) to see, or a whole bunch of smoke and mirrors to wait through. It’s not as if milquetoast system launches will bring about some sort of gaming apocalypse, either; it’s rare for a console to have anything particularly Earth-shattering on day one, or even in month one. It’s just worth some consideration as to whether these next-gen systems are as worth getting excited for as their producers would probably like you to think, and that maybe, just maybe, we all could have waited just one more year.