Taking perspective on hardware launch stories - why do we think 2012 is a console announcement year?
Here's a cheerful thought, as you make your way through January - you're going to spend the next five months or so listening to a cavalcade of theories, rumours, revelations from trusted yet anonymous sources, and (perhaps most of all) theories and rumours disguised as revelations from trusted yet anonymous sources, all regarding the content of Microsoft and Sony's E3 briefings in June.
It's a fairly inevitable thing, although that doesn't make it even remotely a more palatable prospect. After all, Nintendo leapt out of the blocks at last year's E3 with the Wii U unveiling, and thus, conventional wisdom is that PS3 and Xbox 360 replacements must be on the cards this time around.
The UK's MCV magazine reckons it has a source that's confirmed that both Sony and Microsoft will unveil consoles. Kaz Hirai has outright denied that Sony will reveal anything at E3, prompting Internet wags to declare themselves terribly clever by pointing out that Sony's conference is always held before E3, rather than during the show itself. Then Gaikai's Nanea Reeves pronounced that one or the other of Sony or Microsoft wasn't going to do another generation at all, effectively bowing out of the market.
In this market, the idea of nice, neat, concurrent console generations is a meaningless one.
All this, and we're not even halfway through January. How ludicrously contradictory and intolerable are the next five months going to be? (Actually, it's more like six months, but I'm assuming that one or both of the platform holders will stick to tradition and manage to leak the main contents of their E3 conference a week or two before the show, at which point perhaps everyone will shut up.)
Yet with press and soundbite-generating execs tripping over themselves to demonstrate the most acute cases of premature speculation, something that's desperately needed is a quiet moment in which we can sit down and ask why, exactly, anyone thinks that 2012 is a console announcement year.
The answers are incredibly simple, and therein lies the problem. People assume that PS4 and Xbox Whatever are going to appear at E3 because Wii U appeared last year, and because it's been six years since the start of this generation of hardware, so it's "time". Additionally, their belief that E3 is a console announcement show this time around is reinforced because, in its usual manner, the media has spiralled the story from "hmm maybe" to "YES DEFINITELY" in the space of a few short months, without anything approaching an injection of new facts or information along the way. Everyone's talking about it, so it must be true.
Let's approach those rationales one at a time. Firstly, the question of Wii U. The assumption is that Sony and Microsoft will not allow Nintendo to have a new console on the market "unopposed" for a long period of time. It's an assumption grounded in the notion of the console war being defined in strict generations - each company launches hardware of broadly similar specification within a time window of two years or so, they duke it out, and the winner goes home to a Scrooge McDuck style swimming pool full of money.
That kind of conventional wisdom is rapidly becoming meaningless, though. Yes, the Wii launched at around the same time as 360 and PS3, but its hardware specifications were a several years behind those consoles, and its subsequent sales curve was wildly different from theirs. Wii sold on a sharp, aggressive curve, and cut its price deep along the way. It's now absolutely a console in the very late stages of its lifespan, much more so than 360, despite actually being a year younger than Microsoft's offering. Meanwhile, in the time that the present generation of consoles have been around, iOS and Android devices have appeared from nowhere and rapidly iterated through multiple generations, even proliferating new form factors like tablet computing. In this market, the idea of nice, neat, concurrent console generations is a meaningless one.