How long can Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 survive on life support?

Your first car is as special as your first love. Whether you purchased it after years of working after-school jobs, or it was a graduation gift from thrilled parents, that otherwise soulless piece of machinery takes on the characteristics of a beloved pet. You name it, we dress it up, you let it become an inextricable part of our personality, and you have trouble letting them go. Even after the thing has become a leaky, noisy, smelly hazard to the health and safety of everyone around it, you still hold onto it for long after it should have been retired.

As we endure the Next Great Recession and are forced to make our possessions last longer, I wonder if the same sort of attachment will apply to home video game consoles.

At the E3 Expo last year, Sony Computer Entertainment America's Jack Tretton said the PlayStation 3 is on a ten-year life cycle; and at this year's event, Microsoft executive Shane Kim said the same of the Xbox 360. Not only will these devices be supported for ten years, they will be the primary video gaming vehicles for Sony and Microsoft for twice as long as most other video game consoles in history.

Power Up with Tim Conneally feature bannerMy peers have fond memories of the Nintendo Entertainment System, but by the time we were all about to enter high school, there were newer and better things to look forward to. By Sony and Microsoft's timelines, a kid who got a PlayStation 3 in the second grade will theoretically have that console until he's a freshman in college. That may not seem like a very long time to an adult who finds himself saying the Berlin Wall was knocked down "not that long ago," but to a kid and computer alike, it's forever.

In the United States, every fifth autumn for the last 24 years has brought the market at least one new major video game console. These releases are preceded by months of concept art, tech demos, and early launch title name-dropping. Following this cycle, the next console-bearing season will come in 2011. The period of time when we'd normally start seeing the first wave of hype for the next-generation consoles is right now. Instead, we've got companies showing off flashy new accoutrements for the current generation.

Rather than debut a brand new car, they're offering improved steering.

By concentrating primarily on new peripherals and software support, gaming companies can save themselves the short-term risk and expense of console development in this unforgiving economic climate. But as a result of this choice, manufacturers are kicking console gaming behind PC gaming -- which continues to advance unencumbered -- by another generation.

Already, EA Europe Senior Vice President Patrick Soderlund has said the Xbox 360 has been "maxed out", and Nintendo game designer Shigeru Miyamoto said the Wii has reached the point where games are getting too demanding for its limited resources.

While the current generation of consoles is indeed the most computer-like, they are still considered "closed box systems" -- that is, their components cannot be upgraded. If these systems are intended to last for ten years, there will have to be some hardware acceleration to keep up with developer and user performance demands.

But we've seen what happens when game companies try to accelerate a closed system with add-ons...You get the 32X CD system, or the video game world's equivalent of adding a huge aftermarket spoiler to a Nissan Sentra.

For consoles to truly make the jump from the sentimental kid's toy to the first car, a degree of openness and upgradeability needs to be planned into their development. As we learned to change our own tires, oil, filters and such to keep our beloved beaters running, so too will kids learn to chain multiple GPUs and optimize the airflow in their video game systems to keep them going for ten years or more.

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