OPINION: Xbox 720 in 2014? You never know, but I doubt it

It was very, very nearly revealed at E3 back in June, but talk of a longer than expected wait for Xbox 720 is bubbling up once again.

"We have heard no word yet from Microsoft or Sony about their plans to launch new consoles,” Michael Pachter said in his regular Wedbush Morgan investor note.

Both manufacturers are widely expected to launch consoles by year-end 2013, although we believe that Microsoft could delay a new console launch until spring of 2014 in order to accommodate what is certain to be overwhelming demand among hardcore gamers."

It’s a staggering development in the already lackadaisical road to market for the next-generation of console hardware, although one that does concur with recent statements from GameStop CEO Paul Raines.

We have not been expecting two more consoles in 2013,” he insisted. We’re expecting Wii U this holiday, another one next year, and another one in ’14. These rumours change every week, but we’re hearing more about next year.”

While possible, it’s hard to believe that Microsoft would be prepared to delay the launch of its Xbox 720 successor even further than it already has.

At the turn of the year Microsoft was planning to reveal the Xbox 720 at E3. In fact, in the weeks running up to E3 Microsoft was pitching a very high profile brief to journalists that involved an unusual level of detail and attention involving pre-announcement meeting with regional management, pointing towards something very big at the LA expo.

Which, as we know, didn’t happen. At what stage Microsoft decided to reign in its next-gen reveal we do not know. But what was shown was weak to say the least, and leaves Xbox 360 in an uncertain position this Q4.

What’s more clear is Sony’s roadmap. It too planned a PS4 E3 reveal but gladly held back when it became apparent Microsoft was pulling the plug.

Sony is nowhere near as far down the development road as Microsoft with its machine, as was evidenced by its excellent E3 showing. But at the same time it will not allow Microsoft’s new machine to enjoy the same sort of head start in the next generation as it did in the current.

This sentiment may have been downplayed in more recent times by Sony execs but I assure you – that’s the bottom line at the top of the SCE hierarchy.

Furthermore, delaying the new consoles further is beginning to make less and less sense. The traditional console market is dying on its feet. There’s a strong line-up of releases on the way over the next six months, but the market is still odds-on to suffer yet another year-on-year dip.

The games market is more diverse than ever, and an increasing number of even traditional gamers are turning to emerging models such as smartphones and PC/online free-to-play. It’s becoming increasingly hard to convince consumers that 50 for a console game represents good value.

Don’t forget the publishers, either. Some studios are now openly announcing next-gen titles while others are doing so in a more subversive fashion.

And publishers can insists that games such as Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes aren’t next-gen until they’re blue in the face. I’m not buying it. Any developer worth its salt in this day and age is now working with a fully scalable game engine. If the next-gen holds off, they’ll release on PS3 and Xbox 360. If not, they flick and switch and their titles will gratefully utilise that extra power.

Everyone is ready to go. We just need Microsoft and Sony to sound the claxon.

And all hope is certainly not lost. EA Labels boss Frank Gibeau predicted recently that both Xbox 720 and PS4 would hit in the next 12 months and claimed last month that he has seen both machines.

What’s remarkable about this transition is the staggering role reversal we’re seeing. Traditionally, platform holders have been keen push through new hardware (which more often than not equates to a nice sales boost) while publishers have resisted, hesitant at the idea of rebuilding (and, more often than not, upsizing) their ecosystems to accommodate new development requirements.

This time it’s the publishers, tired of staring at their dwindling returns, who are desperate for an injection of new life. So why are the platform holders so reluctant?

Well, Microsoft is still enjoying very strong sales of its Xbox 360 hardware in the US. It takes a leap of faith to turn your back on that. But chiefly it remains to be seen how easy it will be to convince them to fork out 250-350 on a new console, too.

All in the industry are very aware that we may have already seen the last great console generation. Is it any surprise that they’re holding on to what they’ve got for as long as they can?

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