The end of E3 2011 may also mark the beginning of the end of this generation of consoles.
That's the message that my boss Julian Rignall has been preaching here at the office pretty much all week; that this is the last great hurrah for the Xbox 360 and the PS3. This time next year, we'll be looking at not just the Wii U, but the PS4 and possibly a new Xbox 360 as well.
His opinion is borne out by long experience and the events of this past E3. Most of the games on the show floor were sequels in the franchises that have grown and flourished on the current tech. And games like Battlefield 3 clearly show that the tech has reached its maturation.
This hasn't exactly been a typical console cycle though. Neither Microsoft nor Sony seem particularly interested in moving onto the next set of consoles; the former because the Xbox 360 is doing so well, and the latter because they're still trying to recoup their investment in the PS3. Rolling out new hardware means losing money, and I doubt that either Microsoft or Sony are interested in the investment required to kick off a new generation.
We're getting there though. In November, the Xbox 360 will be six years old. Most consoles only make it five years before a successor is introduced; the Xbox and GameCube could only make it four before being unceremoniously killed off. The Xbox 360 isn't exactly antiquated, but it's definitely not matching up to the more powerful PC hardware currently available. That's just the nature of the hardware cycle.
If Microsoft unveils their new console at E3 2012, that will mean that the Xbox 360 has lasted seven (relatively) healthy years. They'll be able to ride the momentum that they've built up into another console cycle in which they figure to enjoy strong western third-party support. They may even let the Xbox 360 have a bit of a tail, rather than killing it outright.
But what of Sony? The PlayStation 3 was specifically built with longevity in mind. It's become the de facto Blu-ray player for a large number of gamers, and is just a great multimedia platform in general. More importantly, games like Uncharted 3 prove that the PlayStation 3 still has a huge amount of potential if third-party developers are willing to take steps to try and unlock it.
Sony, of course, has made a great deal of noise about having a "ten year plan" for the PlayStation 3. In this case though, I do actually believe them; they've certainly put their money where their mouth is with their previous two systems. Hell, new PlayStation 2 games were still being released in Japan as recently as 2009. The only reason developers is that the PSP has taken over as the top console in Japan (no, really).
In terms of home consoles at least, that would seem to make Sony the lone holdout; but they've already got plenty on their plate with the Vita. The recent shift in emphasis to handhelds platforms in Japan means that Sony has a large stake in its success, even with mobile platforms starting to supplant handhelds here in North America. This is a monumental opportunity for Sony; a chance to wrest control of the handheld market away from Nintendo. And unlike Nintendo, I think Sony is in a better position to let their console coast for another year or two while they get their handheld established.
Regardless, we have definitely reached this generation's endgame. We'll still be playing our Xbox 360s and PlayStation 3s for a few more years yet, but the transition has already started for all of the major platform holders. For some, the announcement of a new console will bring frustration, as there are plenty of gamers who are perfectly content with this generation. For others, a new generation will bring the hope of renewal after years of sequels and reboots.
For me, the transition to a new generation will be tinged with the disappointment that Japanese development never really caught up with the tech. And like others, I'm not quite ready to buy another console just yet. I'm content to stick with both my PS3 and Xbox 360, even if it really was time for Nintendo to put out something new.
When E3 2012 rolls around, we may at last begin to see the realization of cloud gaming. We may see Apple grab an even larger share of the gaming market. We may even see the beginning of the very last generation of consoles (who knows, it could happen).
Even if Microsoft holds off for another year and Sony sticks to the Vita though, the wheels are turning. Get ready to open your wallet.