Wii U (Nintendo)Historically, gamers get new consoles every five or six years. Like cell phones, game systems have a planned obsolescence -- and each subsequent generation offers eye-popping new features that reinvigorate sales.
But as the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 start to get a bit long in the tooth, neither Microsoft nor Sony has uttered a word about their plans for new systems. And while Nintendo's Wii U will hit stores next year, there's a considerable amount of debate over whether that machine is truly "next gen."
While the companies themselves may not be making any statements, the grapevine has plenty to say.
The hottest whisper these days is that the next generation Xbox will be the first of the new consoles to debut. Rumor has it that the company will announce the console at E3 2013, with a retail release perhaps coming that holiday season (though early 2014 is also a possibility).
Indeed, developers -- who aren't able to go on the record, for obvious reasons -- tell Yahoo! Games they are already at work on next generation games for the Xbox, though they haven't provided timelines for release.
Sony itself has confirmed that a PlayStation 4 is in the works, albeit in a very unofficial manner. In a May conference call with investors, Sony's executive vice president and chief financial officer Masaru Kato confirmed that work on a "future platform" to follow the PS3 had already begun.
"For the home equipment the PS3 still has a product life," he said, "but this is a platform business, so for the future platform - when we'll be introducing what product I cannot discuss that - but our development work is already under way, so the costs are incurred there."
That flew in the face of earlier comments by SCEA president Jack Tretton.
"PlayStation 3 is really just hitting its stride," he said in June. "And technologically, I don't think it's possible to provide any advancement beyond what we have...so, I wouldn't look for any discussion of a next generation PlayStation for quite some time."
Some analysts think it's possible the PS4 could land at roughly the same time as the Xbox 720 (or Xbox Next, or whatever Microsoft decides to call this thing). It might even beat it to market.
"We believe that Sony is also developing the successor to the PS3, with a release in 2013 at the earliest (more likely 2014)," says Colin Sebastian of Robert W. Baird & Co.
Nintendo certainly would like to position the Wii U as the beginning of the next generation of consoles. The system will be the company's first foray into the world of high-definition entertainment and will incorporate a tablet-like controller into gameplay.
Not everyone's convinced, though. Michael Pachter of Wedbush Securities thinks the system will simply be a home for Xbox and PlayStation ports among third-party publishers, and is mainly a stopgap measure that the company hopes will offset rapidly diminishing sales of Nintendo's other products.
"The Wii U is a pretty ambitious undertaking," he says. "It's a new console, with new controls and architecture, but it's not quite 'next' generation. Developers have to contend with differences between the Wii U and current generation consoles, then have to figure out what to do with the controls."
There are arguments against a looming next generation, of course. Price points for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 are still pretty high, given their age — and there's still a considerable percentage of the mass market that doesn't own one. In fact, it's usually the later half of a console's life cycle that is most profitable for the manufacturers — despite price points of $149 and $99.
That's why Microsoft and Sony are so quick to shut down conversations about their next-gen systems. There's still money to be made on the current systems and by discussing what's next, it distracts today's shoppers.
Also, with the quality of games coming out for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 this holiday season, they're in no rush to move on. Neither are publishers, given the state of the economy and the increased cost of development.
Don't let the smokescreens fool you, though. Successors to all of the major consoles are on the way, though not imminent. At the very least, you can start making your 2013 and/or 2014 holiday lists now.