Start figuring your gaming budget for 2013, because the clock is ticking down to the Xbox 720's debut at the Electronic Entertainment Expo next June. Microsoft's official Xbox blogger Major Nelson has all but officially confirmed this by posting an E3 countdown to his site with a terse three words: "And it's on…"
Tech spec rumors have already started swimming about the Xbox 720's potential 8 GB of memory and a price peg at a possible $299 for next year's holiday season. And it goes beyond the Xbox: speculation about Sony's next move concerning the PlayStation 4 are also skyrocketing now.
For the Xbox, you can also expect some serious upgrades to the processor and graphic capabilities, most likely thanks to Intel and Nvidia, though probably not a strong emphasis on motion controls, considering the stagnant adoption by the hardcore gaming market Sony and Microsoft have been catering to for years.
The bad news in all of this: Microsoft seems more concerned with repeating history and being first yet again instead of ensuring that its product is structurally sound and will deliver a truly 'next-gen' experience at launch time. That's what it happened mind eight years ago with the 360, and it seems we're heading down that road again.
The Xbox 360 Debacle
In 2005, Microsoft took a huge risk that being first to market was more important than being the best, when they released the Xbox 360 an entire year before Sony's updated PlayStation. Players were given the first experience of console gaming in high definition, accessory-free wireless controllers and a surprisingly elegant online interface.
But the Xbox 360 also yielded some massive missteps, the most obvious being the "Red Ring of Death" hardware malfunction that forced a recall costing Microsoft more than a billion dollars.
On top of that, the launch games for the 360 were terribly lackluster, with the only bright light being the second iteration of Call of Duty. It wasn't until late 2007 and early the following year that the console saw its best content, in the form of high-definition sequels to already-acclaimed series: the second Gears of War, the third Halo and the fourth Grand Theft Auto, to name a few.
By being first to the floor, Microsoft did give the Xbox the footing to begin seriously competing against the industry veterans with literally decades more experience. This was a smart move back when the company was having trouble branding Halo's Master Chief against Mario, Zelda and Solid Snake. With the early jump, they were able to successfully market the Xbox 360 as a true gaming enthusiasts' and, later, a true all-around media-consuming device.
When Sony finally hit the market in 2006, they got snagged by an expensive $600 price tag and hardware components that cost enough to mean a loss with each unit sold.
Now, seven years later, as rumors run high again, the last thing consumers need for a second wave of HD consoles is another industry free-for-all. Sony and Microsoft have already demonstrated they cannot deliver complex and delicate entertainment bundles under the huge pressure just to hit the shelves first.
Next-Gen Graphics Requires Next-Gen Hardware
Not only will those launch factors weigh heaviliy in 2013's looming console war, but voices in the game development and graphics engine markets have already been warning for months that upcoming consoles might be underwhelming as the next step in photo-realistic gaming and physics.
Tim Sweeney, founder of Epic Games and the graphics engine running everything from Gears of War on the Xbox to Infinity Blade on the iPad, is reticent to think Microsoft and Sony can deliver a console that meets Epic's standards. In February 2012, he announced that the Xbox 360 would need to be ten times as powerful to run the most taxing demo on the Unreal Engine 3. Epic is already onto the fourth version of its engine, and much remains to be seen on whether the next console generation will even be capable enough to run that engine at full capacity.
When talking with Wired magazine, Sweeney had more to say about it will take to deliver a truly earth-shattering gaming experience, like the jump from standard to high definition consumers were given back in 2005. To begin the quest towards human-vision style realism, which Sweeney thinks may be two or three console generations away (and potentially decades in time if console lifespans continue to expand), the developer is calling for hardware 2,000 times more powerful than the Xbox 360. But this kind of innovation "hinges on manufacturers moving toward the power levels Sweeney is looking for today."
"Epic has seen the specs of proposed new consoles and is actively lobbying for them to be more powerful. It could be a bad sign for the industry if new, relatively underpowered consoles make an appearance at this year's E3 consumer show," Wired concluded. This prediction seems even more likely with the recent race-to-be-first announcements and the tech-spec leaks that have been floating around.
Unless Microsoft and Sony are hiding a few tech cards up on their sleeves, players may be getting some disappointments this year. The posting of a countdown and the open provocation of a deadline only six months away don't exactly match up with the calculated and grand vision of the stunning next-gen gaming experience for which Sweeney is hoping.
As it stands, Sony has more reason to hold off from diving into the next-gen deep end than Microsoft does. They have two large AAA titles in the works — The Last of Us and Beyond Two Souls — as well as a number of other quiet latecomers to the PS3 that will keep Sony's console fresh for slightly longer than the rusting Xbox 360.
For now, Microsoft has put the Xbox 720 out first to start the inevitable race. It's your move Sony, but only if you want to play that game.