With the Wii U heading to retail later this year, it's time for the other two major console manufacturers to start talking to us about their next generation of hardware, right? I mean, this is the point in the story when Microsoft and Sony sit down with their respective marketing teams and say, "All right, guys. What does Research & Development have for us thus far?" They should be thinking about marketing their new consoles, building a hype base for them that will have gamers salivating for the weeks upon months until their eventual release. We're already hearing murmurs of an "Xbox 720" and a mysterious "Orbis" device that is, apparently, Sony's next console, but details have been scarce as well as suspect, with little in the way of backing. That doesn't mean the rumors are false, though. Besides, it's been almost seven years since the Xbox 360 launched our current generation of gaming hardware. What happened to the five-year cycle?
The five-year cycle, first off, is more of an average than anything else. Since the third console generation, each subsequent series of hardware has launched within four-to-six years. We're nearing the end of year six now. Perhaps it's because technology has advanced so much, and so rapidly, in the time since this generation began that one can feel as though the current crop of gaming consoles are approaching their limits, paling in comparison to the cornucopia of advanced hardware that has been spawned on the PC scene in the years since 2005. And that plays into the long-running philosophy behind each successive generation of gaming hardware: increase the power, increase the graphical potential beyond what's currently possible out there. It's, in part, why the Wii U isn't generally considered a harbinger of that upcoming console generation; its specifications are more in line with what's already available in the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 than an unprecedented leap forward into parts untested.
The thing to understand, though, is that this generation isn't like past generations. It's no longer just about providing a more powerful iteration of the same gaming hardware to which consumers are accustomed, a box that sits near the television and plays interactive pieces of electronic entertainment crafted specifically with that hardware in mind. In other words, consoles are about more than just games, which is an absolute first in the world of consumer gaming hardware. And there are other firsts tied to the seventh, and current, console generation. We have the first high-definition consoles, designed to play games in native 720p or 1080p resolutions, brought on by the relative proliferation of high-definition displays, the technology finally adopted by a significant portion of consumers (such that old-school televisions are almost impossible to find). This is also the first generation to successfully deal in motion gaming, even if the impact hasn't been as tremendously widespread as it initially seemed it was going to be, some ungainly floundering by all three companies in successfully implementing motion controls in compelling and worthwhile software. Most importantly, this is the first generation in which Internet connectivity can be taken for granted.
The ability to connect to a network—and through that the Internet—has utterly revolutionized the relationship gamers have with their gaming hardware. No more does it provide an isolated, insular experience, but an unabashedly social one. Even if the games one plays are exclusively single-player, or if one avoids the online component of a title, there are structures in place that relate one's experience to one's friends, as well as patches and downloadable content expansions for even the most staunchly single-player of games. In a way, it brings today's consoles closer to the computers from which they sprung, with suites of features and applications that expand their functionality beyond mere gameplay, turning them into multimedia content devices.
And that's the biggest issue in designing the next wave of hardware, and the reason that churning out a slightly more powerful (or even significantly more powerful) iteration of the exact same thing won't fly anymore. Innovation is the key player here: What will tomorrow's consoles do that today's can't? Simply enhancing the graphics won't work, as what we have today is already plenty satisfying and, even if it wasn't, the sort of time and money investment required to create the best of what's out there today—much less the hypothetically, exponentially more complex and demanding visuals of this next generation—proves prohibitive. This has been a generation with less in the way of obvious shovelware (at least on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3) with entire classic genres relegated to modern consoles' digital storefronts, due in part to the financial nightmare of bringing a niche title to retail on such demanding hardware.
New hardware would set this barrier even higher, force developers to migrate their online frameworks over to a new device, learn the ins and outs of development for it, and burn a lot of money in doing so. A release of new hardware in the coming year would risk alienating consumers and developers alike, potentially signing the death warrant for Sony or Microsoft's gaming division. It seems far more likely that, for the foreseeable future, the hardware that is already out there will continue to see software updates, leveraging its existing capabilities to create a more unified multimedia experience, until something comes along that the current hardware is just absolutely incapable of doing, at which point we'll get these consoles' successors in our hands.
Date: April 18, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*