Full Circle

1st July 2005

In just six months the Xbox 360 will be with us; Microsoft's sophomore effort; the 'difficult' second console. Actually, scrap that last one I can't think of any console manufacturer making a mess of their second piece of hardware. The SNES, the Megadrive, the PS2; even as far back as the Atari 5200 the major companies have understood that all they need to do is build on the foundations they've already laid. Provide more of the same, with a bit more power, and the fanbase will lap it up. And, to be fair, the 360 seems very much a direct successor to the Xbox: that's not what I'm concerned about. No; I'm worried they're releasing it too early.

As much as we all might like to pretend otherwise, it's Sony who runs the show these days. Whether or not the Playstation 3 has the best software line-up, it will dominate console sales the way the PS2 has (we hungry gamers have bought 90 million PS2s so far, compared to 20 million Xboxes), and as such the 'next gen' begins only when Sony say it begins.

This time around it's Spring 2006: an unusual time, considering nearly all console launches for the last twenty years have been in the Autumn. Nevertheless, what are Microsoft doing springing the 360 on us five months early? Getting the drop on their rival, apparently: the thinking is that everyone in the market for a new console will splurge on a 360 at Christmas and forget about the impending world-conquering PS3 launch.

Well, that's what Sega did with the Dreamcast: launched a year early, thinking they could snatch Sony's captive audience. Unfortunately most people saw the DC as a stop-gap system and decided not to buy one, preferring to wait until the real thing showed up. Of course the early launch wasn't the only thing wrong with the DC, and the Xbox brand is in a much stronger position than Sega ever was. I'd be astonished if the 360 went on to be a flop, and despite its earliness the pre-Christmas slot is not to be sniffed at. But I wonder whether Microsoft realise that, even after ten years, you still shouldn't underestimate the power of Playstation.