With the annual E3 show less than a month away, it seems certain that there will be no announcements on the next generation of hardware. Indeed, the focus will be on upgrades and add-ons for the current generation of hardware, expanding its lifespan. But who will play the next generation game successfully?
Nintendo have traditionally only moved on to the next generation when they are ready. The NES had a long lifespan, while the Super Nintendo gradually tapered off but enjoyed some stellar late releases. Anyone who has played Yoshi’s Island will agree it is a stylish and playable sequel to one of the best games ever. The N64 struggled to arrive and then struggled against the Playstation. The Gamecube suffered most of all, considered to be in third place behind its rivals while it steadily put out a list of great games – from Resident Evil 4 to killer7 to the much maligned Super Mario Sunshine. Many pundits are predicting an HD version of the Wii before we see a new console from Nintendo, but I find it an unlikely strategy for the company. More likely is a new machine that retains some form of backward compatibility with the Wii and its motion sensing.
Sony worked out that backward compatibility was a good thing, meaning the PS1 remained relevant long after the hardware was considered obsolete. The PS2 continues to live on and has reached its 10th anniversary with third party developers continuing to support it and the slimline console continuing to sell – a lesson that games are still good to play even if they are “older”. Bold predictions of a 10-year lifespan for the PS3 seem less outlandish now. But the focus is on its version of motion control (Playstation Move, with the coloured balls and an integrated camera) and support for 3D television hoping to keep the console in living rooms for years to come.
The first generation of Microsoft’s Xbox has now officially come to an end, with support for original Xbox games on Live finally dropped. Nearing five years from the launch of the 360, the tremendous growth of online gaming over Live has been a good selling point. Where developers continue to strive to get the best out of the PS3, the 360 has hit after hit – but the physical limits of the DVD format are starting to tell (witness the video compression of Final Fantasy XIII, or the apparent content cuts facing Lost Planet 2.) Natal and its vision of motion control will certainly act as a boost for the console.
In many ways these add-ons and improvements could dramatically extend the life of the consoles behind the typical 4-5 year generation. The ability to update the firmware via Internet access has provided new features and ideas to keep things fresh, but there will inevitably be a point when improvements in technology (from faster processors to new display possibilities to new ideas on interaction) will herald the need for change. The outsider, OnLive, could shake up the whole system with its different angle on delivering games. But the race for the next generation has not started yet, and the runners will be jockeying for position at the starting tape…