Next year will be 2010, an important year for two reasons. Firstly, we can officially say to any time travelers that might visit, ‘ welcome to the future’ and not feel pretentious, but most importantly is that there are rumoured to be several hardware based announcements from most, if not all, of the console manufacturers. At this stage of course not a single one of the companies will comment on exactly what that will entail, or even confirm that this is the case, but it’s widely believed that there will be an evolution of the hardware currently on offer, possibly as part of a ‘rebranding’ exercise, or potentially a whole new system. Lending weight to the speculation is Microsoft’s Shane Kim recently commenting that the launch of Natal, currently scheduled for next year ‘will be like the launch of Xbox 360′. But however Nintendo, Sony or Microsoft respond in the coming months, it raises a pertinent question; can we actually afford another generation of hardware?
This year’s E3 was rare in that no new hardware generation was announced so many years into the current product cycle. Traditionally consoles tend to have around 4 – 6 years before it’s successor is released, with roughly a year or so of hype building, marketing and power specifications detailing before that. The 360 and Wii, released in 2005 and 2006 respectively, should then have successors announced by now if past trends were being followed, but if anything, it has been products that will arguably extend the lifespan of those consoles that have been shown. Motion Plus and Project Natal are both supplementary pieces of hardware aimed at improving the experience already implemented into the system.
So if the companies behind the hardware aren’t interested in new consoles, at least for the foreseeable future, what thought process has led them to this conclusion. Perhaps the most prevalent answer is simply ‘Economics’. It’s unlikely that during the recession the highly lucrative ‘casual’ audience will be willing to splash out on advanced hardware and the starting prices that will surely accompany the new tech. So whilst it is true that during economic downturns buyers tend to turn to media they can keep and re-enjoy as opposed to one time experiences (i.e. they are more likely to buy a DVD than go to the cinema), and whilst games often represent exceptional value for money, it is highly unlikely that they will purchase a whole new system for their family entertainment. It is far more likely they will stick to the consoles they already own.
But it’s not just the economics of the home that must be considered. It’s worth noting that according to chairman and CEO of Ubisoft Yves Guillemot, ‘The next generation is going to be so powerful that playing a game is going to be the equivalent of playing a CGI movie today’ and that most high profile titles will cost ‘$60 million’ to produce. If his calculations are correct, then to break even on a title costing this amount to make, would require it to shift at least one million units at the premium price of $60.00. Even for extremely popular franchises, this isn’t an easy task, so is it really in the developer’s and publisher’s best interests to make that next technological leap?
Could this then be the end for console generations, and the beginning for incremental system updates as we’ve seen with iPhone? Is it possible that the next generation will be something we’ve never seen before? With the rise in cloud computing, could this lead to the abolishment of consoles from our homes entirely? Only time will tell, but needless to say it will be fascinating to see where the big 3 players in the gaming market will head in the next 5 years or so of gaming development.