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2012: The year of PlayStation 4?

Why next-gen begins at E3: PSM3 investigates PS4...

Sony won't confirm it or deny it, and you'd be ridiculed for making the claim in 'informed' internet circles - but the race towards PS4 has begun, with the evidence pointing to a June E3 2012 reveal.

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PS3 is only five years into its ten-year life cycle - "I think ten years is the minimum", confirmed outgoing SCEE boss Andrew House in June 2011 - but rumours suggest PS4 development is being fast-tracked with Sony and Microsoft locked in a next-gen 'arms race'; both terrified of what the other may, or may not, be ready to show.

Bottom line: by killing the original Xbox prematurely, Microsoft was able to launch the 360 in Nov 2005, twelve months before PS3 hit Japan in Nov 2006. Only now, five years on, has Sony been able to match 360's installed base, selling PS3 at a loss for years in a bid to catch up - not a scenario they'll be keen to repeat.

The tone was set in March 2011 with Epic Games' next-gen Unreal engine demo. The company passed it off as a hypothetical showpiece - but a deeper strategy is at play. Epic has emerged as the force in current-gen graphics, with its Unreal Engine tech powering series such as Mass Effect, BioShock and Batman. Epic's demo was the first shot in the battle for next gen 'middleware' development tech.

PS3 games are already hard to make, and crafting PS4's ultra-detailed, huge scale, 3D worlds will be even harder. Devs need smart next-gen tools, and whoever leads the way stands to profit for years to come.

Next came E3 in June and - just as it had done six years earlier - Nintendo put a rocket under the industry. This time it announced Wii U, its better-late-than-never HD console.

Despite Nintendo's huge market reach, it's not an overt threat to an established high-end tech player like Sony - in fact, Sony America president Jack Tretton went on record saying they'd not be pushed into a more powerful PlayStation by this new rival. But in hindsight, Wii U still looks like the catalyst for the next chapter of the story.

Spanner in the works

Interestingly, Ubisoft boss Yves Guillemot contradicted Tretton in at least one interview. "(Wii-U) is sending the message the new transition is going to happen - and we're going to have new machines coming soon." Ubisoft was the first third-party company to demo games on 360 with Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter suggesting Guillemot's claims shouldn't be dismissed.

In August, Square Enix joined Epic by announcing its own next-gen engine. A supposedly internal demo video appeared on YouTube, showing off some truly amazing lighting effects.

By November 2011, insider chatter was of a next-generation Xbox launch in 2013.
On November 13, Edge magazine claimed that Ubisoft (yes, again) were working with next-gen Xbox dev kits, while Sony had shifted one of its internal studios onto PlayStation 4.

Most tellingly, in late November Sony Europe boss Jim Ryan stated: "I think it would be undesirable to be significantly later than the competition (in relation to the next PlayStation console)".

So, in six months between May and November, Sony had shifted from publicly pooh-poohing the idea of a new console to asserting the need to arrive early in the next generation. We now have a console cold war, with Sony and Microsoft locked in a stand-off over who will be the first to commit. One side has to blink first, and sooner rather than later.

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