Monday, 10 October 2011

The Long Haul - Current and Next Generation Console Cycles

With word on the street that we won't see the next Microsoft or Sony offerings hit the stores until 2014, I look at the current trend towards ever increasing console self life.

It's hard to believe that in November that the Xbox 360 will be six years old. The Playstation 3 and the Nintendo Wii aren't far behind each being about five, and while Nintendo is planning to release the Wii U sometime in 2012 Sony and Microsoft maintain that we're only really at the halfway point in terms of each of their consoles life cycles. Microsoft itself has said:

"I think 2010 will be a very big year for us, it is in many ways for us mid-lifecycle. What you've seen is with this new sleek design and Kinect for Xbox 360 we've got at least another five years of this generation where we continue to offer great experiences for people.”

So with a seeming promise of a new Xbox being released no earlier than 2015 -- which will mean that the 360 will have been around for nearly 11 years as the primary Microsoft platform -- I can't help but take a closer look into what these longer terms mean.

Certainly there are a lot of benefits: with the ever increasing cost of technology and the rising price point of most of the consoles the longer life span can make them seem like more of an investment than anything else, and can help mitigate some of the offputting price point in some cases (I'm looking at you $599 USD although that has of course changed since then). Indeed, having a development cycle that lasts a decade or even slightly longer puts consoles in good position to compete on some levels with PC gaming, which requires more constant hardware updates in order to remain at the top of its game.

Developers and companies also enjoy benefits from longer console cycles: Cliffy B notes in an interview that, "Given the proper coders and tools you can still squeeze more water from that stone" and "As you get to know the console better, you can always squeeze a little more out of it, but eventually it will dry out." The last part of the statement is obvious of course, there's always going to be a ceiling. The fact that we apparently haven't hit said ceiling yet though is kind of exciting from a lot of standpoints. It's possible that we'll see significant improvements over the course of the next few years until we finally get the next generation that will entirely justify this longer life cycle, and I can only imagine that after the next console generation actually hits that we might expect to see even longer shelf life for each platform as people explore their depths and push them to the limits.

Now, are there downsides to having such a long term outlook to consoles? Well, sort of. Gamers can tend to get somewhat jaded waiting for "the next big thing" to arrive. Also, the depth that we're seeing right now from the current generation is impressive certainly, but there's the question of whether the well really runs as deep as the companies pushing these machines say it does. Certainly we've seen and are continuing to see some amazing things, but can the trend keep up? Only time will ultimately tell where the ceiling actually is.

There's also the touchy issue of potential stagnation that arises from having the same consoles stick around for so long. There's an issue where familiarity can and sometimes does breed complacency, and it's up to the developers and console makers to ensure that this doesn't happen. Have they been going a good job so far? Well, perhaps, but they could be doing a lot better. That's a somewhat separate issue though.

Overall a longer console lifetime is mostly a good thing, it gives more bang for the buck and lets the limits be pushed further. It's just a question of also knowing those limits and knowing when it's time to say goodbye to the old and hello to the new.

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