[Looking at recent rumors of the Xbox 360's successor supposedly poised to surface soon, Gamasutra's Chris Morris explains why neither consumers nor publishers should really want a next generation at this point.]
New consoles are one of the favorite topics of the rumor mill â€" and over the past couple of weeks, the system has been grinding out a seemingly endless stream of speculation and anonymously tipped whispers about the next generation.
Microsoft, specifically, has been in the spotlight, with several reports saying the company plans to unveil the Xbox 720 (or Xbox Next or whichever clever naming scheme you prefer) as early as next year â€" and perhaps release it before the next holiday sales rush.
It's a fun guessing game to play, but it's one that too often puts on blinders about the reality of today's gaming world.
The fact is that the economy continues to be a major concern for both console manufacturers and game publishers.
The launch of a new, expensive generation of machines at this point would be a harder sell than the Xbox 360 and PS3 were at the start of this generation, since consumers' aggregate disposable income is more strained.
Additionally, virtually no one in the gaming world really wants a next generation at this point. There's still plenty of power to wring out of the current crop of systems and sales have been steady. And there's still plenty of headroom to attract people who haven't bought one with price cuts. (The Black Friday "unofficial" price cuts to $150 and $200 should prove that definitively.)
Still, gaming is an industry that has always been forward looking. Enthusiasts (and gaming media) are folks who have the attention span of an ADD-riddled gnat; often more excited about what's to come than what's out. And that's only slightly less true among gaming giants.
One school of thought has it that the announcement of the Nintendo Wii U has spurred Microsoft and Sony to hasten production of their next gen machines. That's unlikely, though.
The Wii U was a necessary move for Nintendo. Wii sales have plateaued and there's not a lot of room left to shave prices there (though a permanent $99 price cut would give the system one last rush). The system's debut at E3 brought the expected long lines, but neither Microsoft nor Sony was trembling at what they saw â€" and reports that the company has since run into production issues make it even less concerning.
Publishers, meanwhile, have been quite happy that development costs are coming under control in the current generation - and no one is eager to spend the stratospheric amounts that accompany making titles for a new system.
So, technically, there's no fire under the corporate butt of either company to launch next gen systems â€" but we all know they're still coming.
Two development houses I've spoken with are already working on next gen titles for Microsoft, leading to the question of what will the next Xbox be like? Will it be another big gamble, with a leap forward in graphics quality and processing capacity? Will it focus on Kinect? (Almost certainly.) Will it be a high-priced item or will it aim for a mainstream market from Day One?
And most importantly, when will it arrive?
The answers to some of these questions are bound to leak out over the course of the next year. The video game industry, which has never been one that is particularly adept at keeping its secrets, has gotten even chattier in recent years. And at some point, Microsoft and Sony are going to have to start their road shows for these machines, when the rumors will turn to floods of information.
But if you're putting your money on the whispers that we'll see a new Xbox in 2012, you're probably betting on the wrong horse.
A 2012 acknowledgement that the next generation is underway makes sense â€" possibly at GDC, but given how much Microsoft has been positioning the Xbox as a consumer electronics device lately (with the integration of film streaming services and the upcoming Xbox TV), don't rule out the Consumer Electronics Show.
In either event, that's likely to be nothing but a namecheck. More details, of course, will likely come at E3. And a year later, the company can unveil the launch lineup.
It gives developers time to finish and polish their games. It gives the 360 a last hurrah. And it gives Microsoft time to rev up its impressive marketing machine.