'Microsoft need to announce the next Xbox now'

Opinion: Michael Gapper says Microsoft could get left behind

Nintendo made their SNES for 13 years, shelving the console in 2003, though the last big games landed in 1996 shortly after it was replaced by the N64. Six years is long enough for any console - it was long enough for the PS1 (1994- 2000) and PS2 (2000-2006), the Mega Drive (1988-1994) and DS (2004-2010), and it's long enough for the 360.

When the clock strikes midnight on 16 November the 360 will head into its seventh year, with dozens of games still to come. This isn't the usual console life-cycle; by now the big games should have dried up, with only one or two first-party essentials tiding players over until Microsoft release their next console, which would typically be revealed in the middle of the predecessor's fifth year.

Instead we're looking forward to a year with Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, the rebooted Tomb Raider and Bioshock Infinite - and the beginnings of an eighth year where we'll see the likes of Halo 4.

The 360's longevity has set developers free to push the hardware further than anyone ever thought possible. This was the generation game development got stupidly expensive; teams grew, deadlines moved into the distant future, budgets inflated.

For a long time studios were happy with the power the console offered, and software solutions from Crytek and id have milked the last drops of power from those half decade-old processors.

Not until this year have prominent voices in the industry started demanding more. Crysis proved the 360 was outgunned by the PC back in 2007, but building a machine to run Crysis on its highest settings was beyond the bank accounts of most players. Crysis was a 'what if?' kind of game and it sold poorly, but four years on that Crysis-capable PC isn't such a pipe dream.

Cosmetics matter, and high-end PC mods for GTA and Crysis show what the next generation of games deserves to look like. Hobbyists are modding games to look near-photorealistic without the support of major publishers, while cutting-edge developers are once again looking to the PC to lead the way. The technology powering Epic's Unreal 3 'Samaritan' demo isn't some pipe dream; it's here now, in the modern PC.

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It's personality that counts, of course, and developers need more power for that, too. Battlefield 3 looks smoother and prettier on a heavyweight PC, but the lack of grunt provided by the PS3 and 360 cripples the basic mechanics of the game - online multiplayer is capped at 24 on consoles, 64 on PC, just as it was in Bad Company 2.

Speaking to Gamesindustry.biz Ubisoft Montreal's Yves Jacquier bemoaned the current generation's inability to do the things Ubisoft Montreal need - beautiful graphics, complex sound, large scale, and smart AI - all at the same time.

"We're extremely limited in what we can do," he explained. "It's a challenge for the engineers to provide everything with a small amount of memory and computation time. We think that the next generation of consoles won't have these limits any more. What's the value of making something more realistic and better animated if you have poor AI?"

The Xbox 360 is a 2005-spec PC in a slimline box at a consumer friendly price, and the next Xbox will likely follow the same model when it arrives in late 2013, but building the next generation will be a challenge for everyone.

For Microsoft, the challenge is selling such a monster machine at the right price; for developers, it's creating so many HD assets in such a volume, on time and on budget; for the tech experts, it's everything from finding the right storage media to worrying about whether broadband data caps will kill the dream of a fullydownloadable future.

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Until it's settled, games on console and PC are hamstrung by the needs of a generation long past its sell-by date. Years seven and eight will be fruitful but filled with envy - that feeling you get when L.A. Noire stutters to around 20fps on 360 while the PC version blazes along at 60fps will become all too familiar, as developers reach for the stars with a boat anchor around their ankles.

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