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The Next Generation: Quick Out The Gates?

History tells us that the launch of new consoles is often rocky. Launch-day game offerings are usually slim and sales don't always meet expectations. Even the launch of this past generation, arguably the most successful in history, saw hardware hiccups and broken games. Most industry insiders consider slow starts to be a given, but I'm not so sure history will be repeating itself this time around. (Note I don't address the Wii U simply because it doesn't fall in line with a traditional generational shift).

The video game industry is a wildly different place than it was when we waved goodbye to the last generation of consoles. When the Xbox 360 launched, conspiracy theorists prophesied the end of PC gaming. Japan looked to be in position to continue a strong global presence in the development space with franchises like Final Fantasy and Resident Evil sure to make waves with so much extra power at their disposal. The PSP was ready to wipe out Nintendo handhelds with the promise of an analog stick and world beating graphics, at least for a handheld at that time.

None of those things happened. PC gaming has come back stronger than ever from its lull, with the more shortsighted PC gamers touting the death of console gaming. Japan has largely struggled to adapt on the design front with a widening audience and a slimming number of gamers willing to put up with their eccentricities and general hardheadedness. Despite decent sales the PSP failed to live up to its astronomical expectations or top Nintendo's handhelds. If anything this generation proved that, in a rapidly evolving industry, counting on trends of the past is no longer a safe bet. 

More About Next Gen Consoles

If you want to learn more about next-gen consoles and the rumors swirling around them I suggest checking out this piece from Ars Technica. While I don't necessarily agree that slightly less impressive specs will be harmful to consoles, since they ask so much less from the tech they use than PCs and weren't as far ahead out of the gates as Ars makes them seem, there's certainly worthwhile information to be gleaned from taking a look.

Why should the trend of slow starts extend to this generation then? One of the most damning pieces of evidence against that argument is that both Sony and Microsoft's next-gen consoles appear to be shifting to x86 based processors (see sidebar for source). All you really need to know about x86 is that it's the primary architecture for most high-end PC processors, and that consoles using the same architecture as PCs will only make development easier across all platforms. When paired with companies like Epic who are working to streamline developer tools that means cheaper production, reduced costs from the biggest publisher to the smallest indie developer, and fewer backwards flying dragons.

With console development sliding in line with PC development, and PC development not looking to change too drastically any time soon, there's no reason that developers should have a boatload of trouble. Launch of the Xbox 360 and PS3 suffered for the fact that they actually leapfrogged comparable technology at the time, presenting a much smaller development community with the same kind of problems that a world's worth of PC software developers would have figured out in a fraction of the time. Although not jumping out ahead of current high-end PCs may make for a shorter generation in the long run, it should also result in a smoother transition and better games across the board. 

Every other piece of the console puzzles should gather traction just as quickly. The hurdles of building an online infrastructure are behind both Sony and Microsoft. There are no new media formats anywhere on the horizon and 4k displays probably wont be working their way outside the enthusiast market anytime soon. With publishers scrambling to put their products front and center there's little chance that they'll risk missing out by not having their flagship franchises on shelves at launch. 

Servers will crash, bugs will surface, and there will be bad games; but these are things that already happen and, with the evolution the industry has undergone over this current generation, there is no reason they should be the rule instead of the exception this time around. Should we, as consumers, be cautious with our money? Yes. There is a chance that the next generation of consoles will start out just as slow as any other. Skepticism is a healthy thing when manufacturers are asking $400 or more for hardware. Make sure to pay attention as the transition occurs though, because the next generation might just wind up getting off the line like an Olympic sprinter and not a hungover college student on a Saturday morning. 

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