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E3 2012: The end of hardware

Have we arrived at the point at which new game consoles are not required?

Libe Goad/Dan Ackerman

E3 shows tend to fall into two categories. Those that are about hardware, and those that are about software.

Last year, at E3 2011, hardware was king, with the first look at the new Wii U console, as well as Sony's PlayStation Vita. Along for the ride was Microsoft's Kinect camera and the Nintendo 3DS, which, while not brand-new last year, were both finally coming into their own as commercially viable products.

Other than that, it's been a while since hardware was king at E3 (and we're not counting the missing in action Wii Vitality Sensor).

The big stories since the mid-2000's have largely been about the latest Halo, Gears of War, God of War, or Call of Duty games. And with good reason, as these are guaranteed hits -- virtually review-proof games (which is not necessarily meant in a pejorative way). Coupled with that were genuine original works of gaming genius, such as Bioshock, Dragon Age, and Little Big Planet.

Aside from a more fleshed-out look at the Wii U console and tablet, expected to hit stores late in 2012, this is shaping up to be another software-driven year for E3, if only by default.

That may not be a bad thing or a sign of an industry in trouble. Instead, we maybe entering what I would call the post-hardware age. The fact is, the current generation of HD game consoles -- the Microsoft Xbox 360 and the Sony PlayStation 3 -- is still good enough for most gamers, and these consoles are even continuing to find new audiences.

Nintendo's new GamePad. Nintendo

I can't think of a single person who has said to me over the past couple of years that they're itching to invest in a PlayStation 4 or an Xbox 720 (or whatever one would call it). Current games have gotten to the point where, from a technical level, they're simply good enough -- as evidenced by successive years of Call of Duty games, which simply iterate some of the details, while managing to look pretty much the same year after year.

No one should be more excited about this than the console makers themselves. There's a real argument to be made for adding new features, such as live TV or Amazon Instant Video, and the occasional accessory (Kinect, PlayStation Move), rather than taking the very risky move of launching an expensive new console.

Sega did great in the console business, until it didn't. Nintendo hit the ball out of the park with the Wii, but that followed the GameCube and Nintendo 64, neither of which dominated their respective generations. If the Wii had flopped as well, would that have been the last Nintendo console?

Plus, as streaming game services such as OnLive or Gaikai, imperfect as they currently are, continue to improve, the need for specialized or limited-lifespan gaming hardware in the home may be a thing of the past.

Game companies should be more excited than ever about this evolving landscape -- they're close to finally evolving out of their decades-old business model. Forget the razors; now they're just selling the blades.