How Late is Too Late For a Console Launch?

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The prevailing opinion that I’ve seen right now is that the current console generation has dragged on too long. Personally I don’t think the dynamics of when they should start and end are all that clear-cut.

This is no doubt the longest modern console generation, with the Xbox 360 likely reaching its eight birthday around the time its successor comes out. People seem to be blaming this for console hardware and software sales that have been falling (well, in the retail space at least) for the last year or two. It reveals one reason that new game consoles do get released: to re-stimulate sales.

I actually like to look at things from the opposite point of view. I think the current console generation started a bit too soon.

The only reason it started in 2005 at all was because Microsoft couldn’t keep manufacturing the original Xbox anymore by that time. Sony was perfectly fine where they were. The PS2 was comfortably dominant, Sony was finally profiting off the hardware, and it was still getting great games. As tends to happen, Microsoft just jumpstarted the current generation to reshuffle the deck on Sony, and look what happened.

For starters Microsoft’s hardware wasn’t quite ready production-wise at launch, as evidenced by its failure rates. The Sony side of things is even more telling — for the first year or two of the PS3’s life it struggled to build a viable library of exclusives while the PS2 continued getting its own like God of War II, Persona, and the Yakuza games. The system was still selling in surprising numbers and many of the games were still pushing the hardware to new limits.

On top of that, the Japanese game industry wasn’t really ready for new consoles. Many of the big Japanese publishers still struggle to release PS3 and Xbox 360 games, much less ones that push today’s hardware. If it weren’t for Microsoft (and perhaps the format war), I think Sony could’ve held on with the PS2 until probably 2007 or 2008.

The thing I don’t like about console transitions is that they always seem to immediately kill off older hardware that’s built up a healthy install base, has become profitable, and often still isn’t completely tapped-out power-wise. It’s like if they tried to immediately kill off DVD right when Blu-Rays came out. DVD became such a dominant format because it had so many years to grow, and they still aren’t being phased out.

Then again, DVD already entrenched its dominance. No current generation console did so. The PS2 was able to last for so long into the current generation because of how dominant it was in its time. This generation, no console really got that upper hand, not completely anyway. The Wii has hardware sales dominance but no developer support, and the 360 only has its strong position in North America and the United Kingdom.

That said, I still don’t like the idea of asking people to drop their current consoles for newer, more expensive ones, as suddenly as seems to happen with each transition. The way advertising and developer support just shifts practically overnight (except for the absolute top-selling franchises) doesn’t seem smart to me. Even now, when asked why Grand Theft Auto V is current gen and not next gen, Rockstar basically said that they were really comfortable with the current hardware and didn’t want to re-learn how to develop on a new set of consoles so soon.

I’m not exactly qualified to plan console and format launches, but I think it would be nice to see new hardware in the future go through softer launches without trying to force the whole industry to make a sharp turn. It would be nice for manufacturers to release the new hardware and for developers to make the next generation games at first specifically for the most hardcore consumers while the mass market is still comfortable with the status quo. That’s basically how we transitioned from DVD to Blu-Ray.

Buying a console at launch is almost never a good idea anyway. Launch software is mostly mediocre, and new consoles these days are getting very expensive. I say leave the early adoption to the most hardcore, slowly shifting the gears until the hardware is less costly (both for consumers and manufacturers) and more good games are out.

Lastly, and this is one of the most important things that I think should determine a console’s lifespan, is how much room manufacturers have on the price of the hardware. Most game consoles have seen most of their sales below the $200 mark, and neither of the HD consoles has gone down that far yet (with a hard drive at least).

A basic Xbox 360 with a hard drive is still $300 — the price at which the original Xbox launched. A basic PS3 model is still $250. I just don’t want people to be bewildered when we’re in the middle of the next console generation and they find that people are still buying PS3s and 360s when they’ve gone down to $200 $150.

BULLETS:

  • A visual history of game genres and systems http://flip.it/rwYpV 
  • Happy holidays from Bethesda and Santa Corvo http://flip.it/oHwjW
  • Hotline Miami and FTL are the current Steam Weekend deals. Get them both if you own a Windows computer (or even a Mac in the case of FTL). They are two of the best games I’ve played all year and it takes practically nothing at all to run them.
  • This picture pretty much sums up playing FTL: http://shar.es/6z1Nf 
  • Vertical Video Syndrome – A PSA: http://youtu.be/Bt9zSfinwFA
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