The original Xbox console had a lifespan of about four years, launching in 2001 and then being retired in 2005 following the launch of the Xbox 360. It had a great run, birthing such franchises as Halo, Forza Motorsport and Fable, and it introduced the almighty Xbox Live in 2002. Fast-forward to the present day and we have the Xbox 360 with a whole slew of hit games and the upgraded Xbox Live experience. On the flipside, there’s the PlayStation 2 followed by the PlayStation 3, each with their own major titles and online services. The PS2 ran its course in nearly six years. With that in mind, is it still too early to start thinking about the next generation? After all, it’s been four years since the release of the Xbox 360. Is an upgrade really necessary? The fact of the matter is, this generation will outlast any previous one, and by a good margin.
Technology is a double-edged sword. As it improves, there’s an increased need to upgrade. However, improved technology can also increase the lifespan of a product. Take gaming consoles for example. The Xbox lasted four years. We’re going to see its successor outlast it significantly for a number of different reasons, the first of which being improved hardware. Developers are still finding new ways to squeeze every last pixel from the system.
On the other side of the spectrum, we have PC gaming. PC gamers are of a different breed. They are the hardcore, and they know that they are superior to console gamers. They don’t buy a console every X number of years. PC gamers are buying news graphics card, new sound cards, new processors, new RAM – they are always upgrading their systems. PC gaming is more flexible than console gaming. You can’t go out and by a new processor for your PlayStation 3. Instead, consoles take all of the innovations PCs have made over the years and throw them together every 4-6 years, but that 4-6 year window is starting to increase.
Things are becoming more software-driven, and the Internet plays a huge part in this. Last year we saw the Xbox 360 undergo a major transformation, and all it required was a connection to the Internet and a little software update. If Microsoft wanted to make such a change in the Xbox era, it wouldn’t be nearly as easy, if even possible. A connection to the Internet allows developers to hotfix bugs, add new features, or in Microsoft’s case, completely overhaul a system. The Xbox 360’s lifespan was extended hugely through that dashboard update.
Look at Sony with the PS3. They want to add 3D gaming to the system by 2010 via a simple firmware update. 3D gaming. That’s a massive feature to be adding to a console post-launch. Xbox 360 will also be getting new functionality through Microsoft’s Project Natal, which is expected to be releasing sometime in 2010 as well. Project Natal enables users to control and interact with the Xbox 360 without the need to touch a controller. Not only does it open the console up to a whole new range of possibilities, but it expands the Xbox 360’s audience.
When asked if the introduction of Project Natal would extend the time before the next-generation console platform is launched, Microsoft corporate VP Shane Kim reaffirmed that the company believes that the lifecycle of the Xbox 360 will last through 2015. That’s a 10-year lifecycle, or nearly double the usual lifecycles of consoles. If that is really the case, then the Xbox 360 will just be reaching its peak when Natal launches. Back in 2006, Sony CEO Kaz Hirai also stated that consumers should expect the PS3’s lifecycle to last 10 years.
Can a gaming console really last 10 years with circa 2005-hardware though? Frankly, I think the answer is no. Even with all the cool new software features being thrown into the systems, the real heart of the matter is sheer horsepower. Already many games are watered down when compared to their PC counterparts. The Xbox 360 only has 512MB of GDDR3 memory, and while the processor is still solid now, it won’t be long before it starts to show its age. Remember Moore’s Law? This is where the adaptability of PC gaming comes into play. PC gamers won’t have to wait 10 years to play next-gen games while console gamers will have to wait for a system with more juice or play watered down versions of games on older hardware.
It’s unclear whether a 10-year lifecycle is reasonable or not for a gaming console because we don’t know where technology will take us, but from what we’ve seen, it’s safe to say that there’s still room for improvement in games – improvement that can’t be reached without faster processors, bigger memory, and better GPUs. So, will we really be waiting until 2015 for the next Xbox or 2016 for a PS4? If the industry bigwigs stick to their guns, then yeah, we will. The question then is, will console gaming fall even further behind?