Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Longest Console Cycle Ever

It's mid-2011 as I write this, and gamers find ourselves in an unusual state, historically speaking.  The XBox 360 is nearing six years of age, and the Nintendo Wii and Sony PS3 are almost five years old.

Nintendo reportedly has a Wii II (good grief, I hope that's not how the actual name reads) in the works, which will allow its popular mass-market console to catch up to the graphics power of the more advanced hardcore consoles.  This is an obvious move to stay competitive, made possible by the cost-reducing miracle of time, very likely according to Nintendo's long-term plan.

But neither Microsoft nor Sony have said anything about new boxes.  Sony has indicated that the PS3 was planned for a ten-year life cycle, which would place the PS4 another five years down the road, in 2016.  Microsoft is rumored to be hiring engineers to work on its next console, but nothing has been announced or concretly rumored about what the XBox 360's successor might look like.

This is an unusual state of affairs in the videogame industry.  My dates here are North American-based, approximate and debatable, but for argument's sake let me suggest that the Atari 2600 managed to last just about this long, from 1978 to 1984, and the NES enjoyed software support from 1985 through 1994.  But both machines had successors that arrived during their own lifetimes -- the Atari 5200 came to market in 1982, and the Super NES shipped in 1991.  (I am ignoring handhelds for the purpose of this discussion -- Nintendo's original Game Boy beats the average by quite a bit.)

So most console generations have turned over more rapidly than this one -- five years has been the approximate norm for successful machines to spawn a next-generation console, and unsuccessful platforms have generally lasted three or four years before throwing in the towel. 

Why is this generation lasting so long?  For one thing, at least on the PS3 and 360, the historical push for better graphics is losing momentum -- the raw power of these machines can handle a wide variety of games adequately, and game logic, audio, online-play and controller technologies are all fairly mature.  Again, Nintendo has some catching up to do here, but they aren't expected to bring anything shockingly new to market.

The next generation of hardware will see improvements in most of these areas -- higher frame rates, better shadows and details, more convincing human beings, better physics and AI -- but many games won't benefit much from this added horsepower.  The hardware is pretty darn capable now, with solid HD capabilities, and that makes it harder to impress consumers and developers with incremental updates. 

Legendary game designer Eugene Jarvis (Defender, Robotron: 2084) once said that (and I paraphrase) going from nothing to Night Driver to Pole Position was exciting and technically impressive; in current terms, going from Gran Turismo N to Gran Turismo N + 1 isn't nearly as dramatic.  There's a limit to how many shadows, reflections and textural details human beings can visually process while playing a game in real time, and the current generation is pretty close to the saturation point.

Developers are also fairly happy at the moment -- while some want to push for new hardware, as the PC platform's continual iteration outstrips what these dedicated consoles can do, it's cost-effective to keep developing for established technology; there are real costs associated with mastering new hardware and development tools.  The indie game scene also benefits from this stability, as small studios and individual developers putting all their hopes on one big game are less able to manage generational transitions than large studios with big pockets and diverse product portfolios.  And all developers are already spending more than they used to on audiovisuals -- not having to create yet-more-detailed assets for more capable hardware helps keep game budgets under control and publishers solvent.

So it may be a while yet before a brand-new console tempts us to shell out for the machine, and some games, and supplementary controllers, and all the other extras that go with the thrill of moving on to the next big thing.

I'm not complaining.  Video games have been around for quite a while now, and there's still a whole bunch of stuff I haven't played.

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