Now that Nintendo has announced its intentions to jump the generational gap with the forthcoming Wii U, chatter around the industry inevitably must turn to its two chief rivals, and when they might answer Nintendo’s challenge with brand new hardware of their own.
Five years is generally considered the standard life cycle for a video game console. Nintendo’s Wii turns 5 this November, and its successor has already been announced for launch sometime next year. But what of Microsoft and Sony?
The Xbox 360 is the oldest of the bunch, coming up on its 6th birthday this holiday season, while the PlayStation 3 (like the Wii) will turn 5 around the same time. This means that when Nintendo’s Wii launches, it’s very likely that the Xbox 360 will be nearly 7 years old.
Microsoft certainly gained a tremendous amount of momentum by coming out of the gate with the Xbox 360 a full year before its rivals. Nintendo had the “new, wow!” factor on its side with the Wii’s motion controls, so being a year late didn’t hurt them. But Sony has continually felt like it’s playing catch up with the Xbox during this generation. (They were the last console to add Netflix, for example, and only created their own top-tier online service, PlayStation Plus, after witnessing Microsoft’s staggering success with Xbox Live.)
Microsoft has made nearly an annual tradition out of overhauling the Xbox’s “dashboard” user interface (with yet another on its way), while Sony still uses the same setup that they’ve had since the PS3 launched. Xbox has also done a solid job of consistently adding new features to their Xbox Live service, such as Netflix, ESPN, Last.fm, and they were the first console to integrate Facebook and Twitter. And they’re still adding new stuff all the time; at E3, they just announced plans to integrate live TV into Xbox Live’s many media offerings. Sony is doing better about adding new features, and is making a very strong case for 3D gaming of late, but still has a ways to go to catch up with Microsoft.
Microsoft and Sony have both refreshed their legacy hardware by upgrading their current hardware. The Xbox 360 S and PS3 Slim consoles trimmed down the machines’ casings while refining their innards — without really changing anything about the core experience — and lowering the price tags. And both companies have manufactured and marketed motion controllers with Kinect and Move, respectively. They represent two drastically different approaches to motion control, but both were birthed in response to Nintendo’s incredible success with the Wii.
So what happens now? Does the next-generation console race begin again, thanks to Nintendo’s announcement of the Wii U? Will Microsoft and Sony jump on the bandwagon and trot out their next big home consoles?
One recent report suggested that Microsoft is eying 2015 as a target launch window for its next major console release, though this report seemed to be comprised mostly of speculation. Yet it seems probable, does it not, that Microsoft is in no hurry. Thanks to Kinect and its constantly-improving slate of features, MS believes the Xbox 360 still has plenty of life left in it. And most gamers agree that graphically speaking, Xbox 360 games still look great. But how long will it be before its processing power simply can’t keep up with the times? The “you are the controller” functionality of Kinect is getting such a huge focus from MS nowadays that that technology will undoubtedly be a core part of the next Xbox, whenever that comes. So hey, “2015” is as good a guess as any.
Sony chief Jack Tretton says that the PlayStation 3 is “just hitting its stride,” and I think he’s right. Despite the PlayStation Network debacle, it finally feels like the PS3 is reaching its full potential. Tretton also says that he doesn’t expect there to be a PlayStation 4 “for quite some time.” So I’d say we’re probably 4 to 5 years off, at least, for the next PlayStation as well.
Tretton makes a particularly shrewd observation in that same interview, when he notes that the horsepower capabilities of Nintendo’s new console were used as Sony’s benchmark back in 2006, when the PlayStation 3 was released. He posits that the Wii U is Nintendo finally arriving to the party, not jumping ahead to the next step. Tretton suggests that Sony (and by proxy, Microsoft), has nothing to prove against Nintendo (except, you know, the Wii’s staggering sales numbers).
So what do you think the future holds? Is Nintendo playing catch up, or will it set a new benchmark for Sony and Microsoft to meet? My gut says that Nintendo is scrambling now that the Wii’s last-gen hardware is finally cracking at the seams. But the Wii also taught us that no one should ever underestimate Nintendo.