Another week, more speculative reports on next-gen consoles. Is there a seed of truth in any of this? Rob Fahey has a few theories of his own.
Although there now seems to be a grudging acceptance that we're not going to see very much - if anything at all - of the next generation of console hardware at E3 in two months' time, that hasn't done much to clog up the gears of the frantically whirring rumour mill. Every couple of weeks brings a new dump of information from purportedly excellent sources, often conflicting, regularly controversial, rarely entirely believable.
If anything, you could view these various collections of guesswork and speculation as an interesting window into the issues that are really concerning the industry right now. Much as literary critics point out that science fiction is a useful way of discussing present-day issues at arm's length, rather than really being fiction about the future, rumours about the Xbox and PlayStation successors are largely a reflection of today's news agenda rather than tomorrow's consoles.
The next Xbox will lack a disc drive? That's a story tapping into consumer (and retailer) fears of an entirely digital future. It'll have always-on DRM? Another hot topic, and one guaranteed to set the more reactionary corners of the Internet ablaze. Both Sony and Microsoft are planning anti-resale systems that'll clamp down on second hand sales? There's another recurring story for you - barely a week goes by in which second hand sales aren't in the news in one form or another.
Rumours about the Xbox and PlayStation successors are largely a reflection of today's news agenda rather than tomorrow's consoles
This isn't to say that their newsworthy nature necessarily means that these stories are made up. After all, these issues are pressing for publishers and platform holders, too, but they fit a bit too neatly into the existing news agenda to be entirely credible. Furthermore, this doesn't mean that the news sites that report them are lying. They may, indeed, have heard such things from reputable sources, but game developers aren't all privy to insider information, are just as prone to gossip and speculation as everyone else, and tend to read the same news sites as everyone else. A rumour that starts off on a blog, gets reposted to a developer forum and embellished a few times ("I know a bloke who was talking to a bloke who's signed a Microsoft NDA, and...") and as soon as you know it, a major, reputable news site is reporting it as coming from an excellent source.
Under those circumstances, what's to be believed? Well, nothing, frankly. There's not a single word of any of the Xbox / PlayStation next-gen rumours that is actually believable, in a 'yes this is definitely what's happening' sort of way. The whole situation is complicated even further by the fact that Microsoft and Sony have both reportedly been approaching publishing and development partners with a variety of different next-gen ideas, sounding them out for responses on a number of different technologies and strategies. That makes sense - it's a standard consultation procedure for products whose success will rely so heavily on third-party support - but it does mean that features and concepts are being touted around which may not actually make it anywhere near the final console hardware.
If I were to guess, I'd say that the "driveless Xbox" rumour probably stems from that - Microsoft touting an idea around its partners and seeing what they think (then almost certainly scrapping it after universally negative feedback from key developers). I'd imagine that other ideas - always-on DRM, anti-resale systems - have also emerged in discussion with publishers, but remain, at least 18 months before either of these consoles actually launches, very much up in the air, and probably unlikely to see the light of day.
A sanity check always helps when you consider these rumours. Rather than thinking, 'my god, Microsoft is doing X, what does it mean?', it would be useful if journalists and commentators would think instead 'so it's claimed that Microsoft is doing X - what's the logic behind that? What are the costs and benefits? How likely is it in the real world?' Although I suspect that option A, as well as being easier, is also better for page impressions.
Take always-on DRM, for example, a system that would essentially mean that every Xbox in the world has to be connected to the Internet at all times. The immediate problem with that idea is glaringly obvious - broadband connections are still, in many cases, a bit rubbish, especially in Microsoft's home territory of the United States. In many areas it's slow or heavily congested. For other users it's capped at very low traffic levels. For some it's just expensive, and for a lot, it's provided through modems that only link into one computer, without the wi-fi or cabling required to distribute it throughout a household. In a great many places, broadband is unreliable, suffering from frequent outages.
Now of course, for the majority of users broadband is absolutely fine - fast, reliable, sensibly capped (actually, that one might not be true for a majority right now) and distributed throughout the household. However, a console can't just be designed for a majority of users. Microsoft will be working with stats that show them what percentage of users would be impacted by various types of always-on DRM (which could range from an authentication stage, which would almost certainly be broken by pirates at some point, to a policy of storing chunks of game logic code on servers, which would be almost unbreakable but also hugely expensive and difficult to execute over weaker broadband connections). Will it discuss those ideas with publishing partners? Sure. Will it, ultimately, make a decision that potentially prevents a significant number (and remember than even 1 per cent of Xbox owners represents over half a million consumers) of people from using their consoles and playing the games they've bought? No, it won't. Unless it's insane. Which it isn't.
Rather than thinking, 'my god, Microsoft is doing X, what does it mean?', it would be useful if journalists would think instead 'so it's claimed that Microsoft is doing X - what's the logic behind that?'
In other words - they're probably talking about it, they're probably researching it, but that doesn't mean they'll do it. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Of all the rumour-mongering that has been done in the past couple of weeks, in fact, there's only one which I think deserves serious consideration as a contender for genuine accuracy - and that's the talk of Sony abandoning the Cell processor architecture and moving to a solution built by AMD. This has a ring of truth, for me, not least because it's exactly what you'd expect Sony to do in its present circumstances and with its present management. PlayStation Vita represented Sony's first console design since the departure of Ken Kutaragi, whose engineering-led approach created the technically fascinating but developer-unfriendly architectures of the PS2 and PS3. Vita largely employs off-the-shelf components that help to drive down costs and make things accessible for developers, and PS4 will be absolutely no different.
Still, dumping Cell will be a symbolic (and costly) move for Sony. It was a bold and fascinating architecture, one that remains potentially powerful and useful today - if Sony wanted to, it could certainly build a PS4 around a Cell chip running at a higher clock speed and with more SPUs on board, and it would be extremely competitive with anything any rival could put on the market. But Sony doesn't want to. It wants to build a console that developers can use easily and whose components are cheap, enjoying powerful economies of scale and the support of a world-class manufacturer. It won't have escaped the notice of Sony's top executives that, compared to Nintendo, Microsoft and Apple - world-class rivals that release hugely successful hardware without ever actually building any chips of their own - the whole Cell experiment, exciting and visionary as it was on a technical level, reeks of hubris from a business perspective.
So there - a rumour that actually makes sense. But then again, that's a rumour you could probably have guessed accurately even before you heard it. The news cycle churns. The blogs recycle and reiterate each other's rumours until everyone's tricked into thinking they're fact. Two months to E3; it only gets louder from here on in.