Here’s where we come to a rather powerful catalyst. And when I say “rather powerful catalyst”, I’m talking Caesium-meets-water here. You see while the Wii U’s currently-unknown power makes it debateable as a direct rival for Microsoft and Sony – indeed, debatable as even a success for Nintendo, as I've espoused at length myself – it’s very probably a fundamental force in deciding – and spurring on - the two other platform holders’ next generation plans.
Above: Scarier than you think
Nintendo you see, is now what is technically known in business circles as a deceptively scary bastard. Once perceived as the bumbling sleepy granddad of the games industry, shuffling through its crazy but inoffensive actions in a haze of well-meaning senility, Nintendo’s shake-up of the first half of this console generation now has it flagged up as an very unpredictable threat. Like a teleporting ninja or something.
Remember when Microsoft didn’t see Nintendo as competition? Remember when it happily invited people to buy a 360 and a Wii instead of a PS3? Remember how that sort of talk vanished into the breeze as soon as the Wii started selling faster than meths at a hobo cocktail lounge? While the Wii U has definite audience perception issues at the moment, and isn’t necessarily being taken seriously across the board, don’t forget that the Wii was in a very similar situation immediately after its announcement. Microsoft might currently be claiming not to be in competition with Nintendo, but it cannot be disregarding the issue in private now that there's precedent.
Above: "Let them point", thought the Wii. "Let them point and laugh. My revenge will be swift and bloody". And it was
Put simply, neither Microsoft nor Sony wants to risk letting the Wii U gain any sort of long-term traction against its own console. Microsoft especially will want to shut down the Nintendo threat as quickly as possibly, given that the casual home entertainment market it looks to be heading into itself now is exactly the same one sewn up by Nintendo with the Wii. And there’s one very obvious way to do that. By jumping ahead of the Wii U’s presumed ‘gen 1.5’ hardware with a genuine next gen console sooner rather than later. By making the Wii U immediately obsolete in terms of hardware specs, leaving Nintendo knee-deep in yet another game of eternal catch-up, lolloping along the track behind its big two rivals again like a tired dog with ever-shortening legs.
But it’s not just Nintendo who is pushing Microsoft and Sony to act. No, you see they’re doing that themselves now too. Whether they're intentionally doing it or not.
If Microsoft is jumping ahead, Sony will have to as well, whether it wants to or not. Between the start of 2011 and late November, Sony went from flat-out disregarding talk of the PS4 to having its European boss Jim Ryan state that “we would consider it undesirable to be significantly later than the competition [with the next generation]”. What changed in that time? Well Nintendo announced a new machine, and then a load of rumours kicked up about the next Xbox. Coincidence? No.
Both platform-holders have now learned how important an early start can be, Microsoft by gaining one and Sony by missing out. And in light of the Wii U, each knows that gears must be turning within its rival’s next gen machinery now. Thus, both companies have been pushed into a cold war, forced to jostle against each other by the potential rise of a third rival in Nintendo. Only this time the weapon stock-pile is consoles instead of nukes, so that’s sort of nice.
But whatever's going on internally, there's a very clear and overt signifier than things are moving on. One that you can see every day as a core gamer.