I don’t think by this point anyone seriously believes the world is going to end this year. But for gamers, I think it’s that period in the cycle of a console’s life when we start feeling the transition towards the end times. I have no proof for it, but after going through so many console generations, I think what we’re looking at with 2012 is the beginning of the end. This is going to be the last “pure” year for Sony and Microsoft to support their respective machines with total commitment.
In Nintendo’s case, the gauntlet was already thrown last year with the debut of the WiiU at E3. Since then, the Wii has already seen a dramatic decrease in its already small line up of non-casual games. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is quite likely the last major title the console will see since we already know the WiiU is slated for a debut later this year. It’s pretty obvious time, manpower and resources have already shifted in Japan as Nintendo gears up for that most painful of experiences, the launch of a new console.
It’s no stretch to imagine that Sony and Microsoft are both making similar preparations, though they’re not as far along the process as Nintendo.
This console generation has been a little different from others in the past, and those differences will probably have an effect on the transition this time as well. For one, the audiences that use these machines are much larger, the attention the mainstream media pays to the medium is much greater, and the internet means that information about corporate mishaps travels faster and wider than it used to. As a result, both companies have had their foibles broadcast to a much larger, more attentive public. The outcry at Sony’s initial $600 point of entry for the PS3 was met significant enough to damage the console’s reputation, and topple Sony’s dominant position. Microsoft, on the other hand, lost some of the goodwill their cheaper console earned with the infamous “Red Rings of Death,” that crippled an unacceptably high number of units. In both cases, the combination of a larger, less hardcore public and a more attentive press had drastic influence on the fortunes of each console. The Wii, of course, sailed on to become the leader for exactly the same reasons, with appearances on Oprah and other mainstream outlets, while the low price and usual reliability of Nintendo hardware ensured the machine would cause less trouble to its casual audience. All of these factors are likely having a significant influence on how both Sony and Microsoft are approaching everything from the pricing to the build quality of their new hardware.
With the current generation of consoles about six to seven years into their lifecycle, I think we’re finally starting to hit a wall. Nintendo hit it first, and is acting appropriately, as their standard definition console was the most obvious casualty of the move to HD displays in the last few years, but both Sony and Microsoft are starting to feel the strain as well. The Xbox 360 has already a few high profile titles such as Mass Effect 2 and Final Fantasy XIII that were forced to ship on multiple discs as a result of the storage limitations inherent to DVD. Meanwhile the PS3 has bumped up against its own ceiling of RAM split between its CPU and GPU that has done everything from encourage shoddy ports—like the unacceptably bug-ridden PS3 version of Skyrim—to preventing the PS3 from sporting similar Xbox 360ish features like cross game chat.
On top of all this, there’s the eye-candy factor. It’s not unreasonable to think that games in the next two years will not have the same dramatic leaps in technical fidelity as previous titles. We’ve already seen this in some PS3 exclusives, with Uncharted 3 having only mild, incremental graphical improvements, compared to the jump between Uncharted and Uncharted 2. Meanwhile, on the Xbox 360, heavy hitters, such as Microsoft’s own Halo series, have been forced to drop their fidelity to sub-HD resolution in order to keep the performance consistent, a practice used by quite a few developers to ensure a smooth gameplay experience while providing complex visuals.
Of course, there are still some heavy hitters that are on the horizon. The Last Guardian has been incubating for years, and Final Fantasy Versus XIII is another title that was promised early in the life of this generation and has become a poster boy for how badly production cycles need to be optimized. We already know that another Halo and Fable game are on the way as well, but again, these games—while obviously being lavished with generous budgets—are safe, familiar, and will not really make any great advances in either graphics or design. Games this generation are close to getting tapped out, with only marginal improvements to their code to make them faster and more efficient, and squeeze out a few more effects here and there. The days of being totally bowled over the technical mastery at hand are over for this generation. I think it’s still possible to be amazed by the art direction at play in games—as evinced by the amazing El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron—but I doubt that any game will be significantly more technically impressive than the cruise ship level of Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception with its insane amount of environment and object manipulation.
At this point we’re only going to get “wowed” in that way again when we start seeing the trailers for a new console. We’ve seen just about everything the current machines have to offer. I have no doubt that—like the PS2—it’s certainly possible we’ll see some of the greatest games for a machine come out in the last year or two before a successor comes. I look forward to those twilight games, as we got some greats in last generation around this same time, like God of War II and Shadow of the Colossus, but those games will have to rely more on the brilliance of their game design than being able to floor us with never before seen visual fidelity.