Recent remarks from THQ's head of core games regarding the next generation of consoles were filled with apprehension and hyperbole. Some publishers may think that the next generation is still some time away, but recent sales trends arguably say otherwise.
With few exceptions, video game consoles since the era of the Nintendo Entertainment System have seen somewhere around a five-year window before being replaced with more advanced technology. The NES hit the mass market in 1986, and was followed by the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) in 1991. The Nintendo 64 landed in 1996, and then the Gamecube hit in 2001. Sony's PlayStation debuted in 1995, and was followed by the PlayStation 2 in 2000.
Trends would indicate that, despite bluster from Microsoft and Sony about 10-year plans and extending current console shelf life with the introduction of motion controls, this console generation should be nearing its end. Sales of new console hardware have been trending down in general (thanks to the Wii bubble finally springing a leak), and price cuts can only do so much. It may be time for the next generation of consoles to start surfacing-- at least in terms of speculation and discussion.
For Danny Bilson, head of core games at THQ, the thought of new console hardware is akin to Video Armageddon. In a recent interview with Eurogamer
, here is Bilson's response to the suggestion of new console hardware:
"It would be horrible. But I think they all know our model's broken anyway. It still costs us a fortune to make games on this platform. If they're going to up the scale, up the art, up the content, I don't know how to make that and sell it to anybody for under $100 a game. Who wants to do that? It's bad for everybody."
$100 games? Really?
At least Bilson admits that there's something wrong, but instead of trying to venture any kind of possible solution or commit to some sort of fiscal responsibility, he resorts to hyperbole and a general sense of fear. Even if the next generation of consoles is still three years off, it's still coming... no matter how Bilson or THQ feel about it. In fact, the idea of new console hardware arriving within the next three years is a very real possibility, and it would likely be a domino effect. For example, if Nintendo was to unveil plans for a new platform in 2012, how could it be argued that Sony and Microsoft would be content to just sit idly by while Nintendo steals the spotlight? Much like we're seeing Sony's announcement of the successor to the PSP mere days after Nintendo released official 3DS launch details, it's a pretty safe assumption that all three hardware players are-- and have been-- working on next-generation hardware. Once Nintendo, Sony, or Microsoft comes forward with their next-gen announcement, the other companies will follow suit. It's inevitable.
Fear of the next generation of consoles by third-party publishers isn't new. Electronic Arts CFO Eric Brown seemed confident last February that the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 would buck the five-year trend
, citing that any visual upgrades with new hardware would have little impact given the 1080p ceiling on current high-definition televisions. Interestingly enough, Brown did think even a year ago that Nintendo might come out with some new hardware to take advantage of the trend in high-definition penetration... although Nintendo failed to announce anything in 2010. While Brown's point is understandable, graphics issues in games still persist as not all games are running at the 60 frames per second benchmark, and slowdown still affects a fair amount of titles. This is at least partially a development problem, but current hardware can only go so far.
The critical question to be asked here is: Are gaming consumers ready for new consoles? It's a difficult question to answer. It's expected that at least one more round of price cuts will occur in 2011 to stimulate hardware sales, especially for the PlayStation 3 and the Wii. If sales continue to be flat, then it's logical to predict that at least one of the next-generation dominoes will fall sooner rather than later. The wild card will be the effect that significant expected increases in fuel and food prices will have this year. The industry will also be closely following launch numbers for Nintendo's 3DS as well, to see how well a new platform will be accepted.
Whenever the next generation of consoles does arrive, publishers and developers are going to have to take a look at methods of fiscal restraint to prevent software prices from exceeding what the mass market will bear. The development model is, indeed, "broken". Perhaps publishers will have to take fewer risks or decrease the number of games developed in a fiscal year to keep their books in check. If console gaming software somehow reaches that critical $100 price point, it will almost assuredly be "Game Over" for an industry once thought to be bulletproof.