Since Square Enix, THQ and Take-Two are content with moving some of their heavy hitters into early 2013, it's likely with the expectation that they won't be drowned out in a din of new console buzz and technologically superior launch games for some time. Meanwhile, the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 (and possibly Wii U) will remain the most affordable and commercially viable platforms for a few more years, long after they've gotten long in the tooth. Stuck with a measly 512MB of memory, the most ambitious developers must feel like they're wrestling sabretooth tigers at this point.
Though it doesn't yet seem like major franchises are stepping away from the current lineup of consoles, there are signs of preparation, more so than there was before we bid adieu to the Xbox, Gamecube and PlayStation 2. The PC, always a few steps ahead of consoles, has been used as a lead development platform for games that run on more sophisticated engines (including Capcom's MT Framework and EA's Frostbite 2 engine), and then get pared down for consoles. The hardware to support advanced rendering, lighting and physics simulation is there; it just hasn't been squeezed into an affordable box yet.
Publishers are pairing major franchises with new engines – Assassin's Creed 3
gets Anvil Next, Hitman: Absolution
runs on Glacier 2. These seem to shine brightest on PC, or a console of similar capability. If games are to continue on their bigger-and-better Hollywood trajectory, these new development toolsets can be seen as prudent attempts to satisfy current audiences and smoothly transition into the next round of consoles. They'll look good on your Xbox 360, but the technology is designed with more breathing room in mind.
New consoles represent a longterm financial headache for developers and publishers, who are asked to spend more in order to pursue smaller audiences. As such, we can expect this current-gen rollout of adaptable next-gen engines to counter a full stop in 2013 or beyond – instead, I'd expect there to be some degree of deliberate co-existence between the old and new for several months, if not years. If we assume these engines can scale well between older and newer hardware (with the PC as a rough guideline), we can take another step and suggest that individual games might exist on multiple platforms.
Whether or not an "enhanced" version of Halo 5
or Assassin's Creed 4: Fatal Fraternity
will be enough to lure you into an upgrade is a more complicated matter, but it's an analogue solution aimed at those who are truly in power. Customers are likely to respond more positively when presented with a gradual transition, and publishers don't have to bet everything on a new game that's only available to the smallest hardcore market. Manufacturers will do their best to lock exclusive games to their new hardware, but in the early days they'll have a tough time convincing third parties to join them in the smallest, most expensive pool.
Of course, all this speculation is going to be a waste of time if 2012 is the last year we get. Let's hope the gods, Mayan or otherwise, help us play some of the good stuff before they smash us into specks of mildly surprised carbon.
Ludwig Kietzmann is the Editor-in-Chief of Joystiq.com. He's been writing about video games for over 10 years, and has been working on this self-referential blurb for about twice as long. He thinks it turned out pretty well. Follow him on Twitter @LudwigK.