We're only twelve days into 2012 and already I've read several unconfirmed reports of the Xbox 720 being in the hands of developers. There were rumors of an Xbox 720 reveal at Microsoft's CES keynote this week, and there's been plenty of speculation that the 720 will premiere at E3 this year. I don't understand what everyone's hurry is! I've lived through every videogame console generation since the Atari 2600, and taking the next step up is always an expensive pain in the ass. The only way I can get excited about a new console generation is if it's going to be upgradeable.
The lines between console gaming and PC gaming have blurred with this generation. Cross-platform development is the rule more often than the exception. No longer is the choice strictly between dependable consoles with lower visual fidelity and temperamental PCs with clearly superior performance. For the gamer who can afford multiple platforms, this is heaven. One can keep a PC for massively multiplayer online role playing games and real-time strategy games, i.e. the experiences that demand a keyboard and mouse setup for governing complicated control schemes, and run everything else on a console for ease and convenience.
I'm therefore always happy to read interviews where developers are quoted as saying they haven't reached the limits of what the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 can do. I'm only just beginning to see how consoles are falling behind in the hardware department, as exemplified by my experience with Battlefield 3. Even at low graphics settings, the PC version clearly outshines the Xbox 360 version. 64-player battles on the PC are a glorious exercise in chaos that make 24-player battles on the 360 feel tame.
On the other hand, online play on the 360 is much less of a hassle. I don't have to sift through servers and worry about hackers and cheaters, and the Friend and Party integration is smooth and easy. What if I could give my Xbox 360 a better CPU, GPU and a little more memory?
There are three angles to the question: financial incentive, engineering feasibility, and developer buy-in. I asked Michael Pachter of Wedbush Associates to comment on the financial considerations. "[MicroSoft] could absolutely make [the Xbox 720] modular if they wanted to," he said. "My guess is it will be a modular 360 which is launched at the same time as they offer you a faster CPU and a faster GPU if you choose."
There's a sound financial argument for modular consoles. This generation is in its seventh year, and Microsoft has no incentive to launch a new platform with the Xbox 360 selling 10 million units annually. Pachter also estimates that they're making $150 per Xbox at this point. "They will not launch the 720 until sales levels decline pretty dramatically," he said. "I'd say when they get down to 5 million a year." That could take a while, and every year the potential power of a new default chipset for the next generation of consoles is greater, which could make for an even longer, new console cycle. The sale of GPU and CPU upgrades could become an entirely new revenue stream for console manufacturers, who could also skip the early years of an entirely new platform where they might be losing money on each unit.
There may be a financial opportunity, but is a modular console a feasible option in terms of the engineering challenges? I asked Lee Machen, Intel's Director of Visual Computing Developer Relations. "Us hardware guys can build pretty much anything," he said. The Xbox 360 Slim currently features an integrated CPU/GPU chipset. Could someone theoretically replace a single element in a videogame console that upgrades both processing and graphics power simultaneously?