While the PlayStation 3 has played host to its fair share of genre defining titles, it’s hard to shake the feeling that it’s still missing its most important release. The hotly anticipated Team ICO title The Last Guardian was officially announced almost four years ago, but despite receiving a release date in 2010, its troubled development remains something of a mystery.

Most recently, Sony Worldwide Studios president Shuhei Yoshida noted that the team was “working very hard on the game”, including creative director Fumito Ueda, who was subject to speculation that he had left Sony in 2011. The affable executive added that the adventure remains a PS3 game – but we don’t believe him, and these are the reasons why.

Been there before

The Last Guardian’s prolonged development is not a new concept to Team ICO. Back in 1997, the newly formed studio – constructed by Sony Computer Entertainment Japan to bring new types of experiences to its burgeoning PlayStation platform – started work on a three-dimensional adventure for the PSone. The game was ICO, but after two years of production, development was halted. The studio ran into technical difficulties on the aging hardware, and faced a crossroads: terminate the project entirely, adapt its original vision to suit the constraints of the available technology, or switch development to the vaunted Emotion Engine of the unannounced PlayStation 2. The team opted for the latter.

History shows that creative director Fumito Ueda will not adapt his vision to accommodate the hardware

The situation is not too dissimilar to the predicament that The Last Guardian faces today. Shuhei Yoshida has reiterated in multiple interviews that the game’s frequent delays are due to technical issues. “The team is still working on [the game]," he told Eurogamer.net in August 2012. "There are certain technical issues they've been working on. That's the period of time when the game, looking from the outside, doesn't seem to be making much progress. But internally there is a lot of work going into creating the title."

Yoshida added that the game was playable at one point, but that the “engineering team had to go back and re-do some of the work they’d already done”. There were even rumours that the platform holder had pulled in its top technical teams from Europe and North America to support the production of the project, but an unnamed SCEJ employee summed up the situation more succinctly in an interview with Kotaku last year. “It is a very ambitious project,” he said. Could it be too ambitious for the aging PS3 hardware to cope with?

History shows that creative director Fumito Ueda will not adapt his vision to accommodate the hardware, and with the PlayStation 4 supposedly much more powerful than its predecessor, it’s not hard to imagine the project being moved onto Sony’s next generation platform. The company can’t acknowledge that, of course, because that would be admitting that it has a new system in the works. But perhaps once the manufacturer’s 20th February press conference has revealed the future, we’ll start to learn a little more.

Core appeal

Shuhei Yoshida has already warned fans not to expect The Last Guardian to hit in 2013, suggesting that it’s tracking towards a 2014 release date at the earliest. If it really is still in development for the PS3, then that means that it’s almost guaranteed to arrive after the PS4’s launch, which simply doesn’t make sense for a title with such a hardcore fanbase.

What sets Team ICO apart is its ability to step outside of the boundaries that are ordinarily associated with video games

As the next-generation nears, Sony will almost certainly start to promote its existing console as a more mainstream machine. In fact, it’s already started to happen, with the likes of LittleBigPlanet Karting, PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, and Wonderbook: Book of Spells dominating the system’s line-up in 2012. We imagine that such an emphasis is only going to get more pronounced, and releasing The Last Guardian as part of that catalogue simply doesn’t make sense. The game would be much more suitable on PS4, along with the early adopters who are die-hard fans of the brand.

Furthermore, seeing as the platform holder’s next system is unlikely to be backward compatible, the company could also severely hinder sales of the title if it releases the game on PS3. Much of the title’s target audience is likely to upgrade to the PS4, potentially selling their existing games and consoles to help fund the transition. While Team ICO releases are not historically big sellers, given the title’s six year development cycle, the company will want to make back as much money as it possibly can, and thus it will need to ensure that it’s reaching the right market with the game.

Sitting on the bench

For every Killzone game, there is a Halo. For every Gran Turismo game, there is a Forza. For every Uncharted game, there is a Gears of War. But what sets Team ICO apart is its ability to step outside of the boundaries that are ordinarily associated with video games – and that could be an enormous asset for the PS4.

The Last Guardian would draw serious attention to the launch window line-up of the PS4

While it’s true that the developer’s titles haven’t always achieved the commercial success that they deserve, they almost always bring attention to the platforms that they belong to, and there’s no reason to believe that The Last Guardian will be any different. Its release as a launch window game would draw serious attention to the PS4, and would probably have a bigger impact on the platform’s commercial prospects than any of the aforementioned established brands.

In addition, innovation is important. Microsoft has always tried to match Sony’s biggest franchises toe-to-toe, but Team ICO’s titles are impossible to replicate. Releasing the studio’s latest adventure on the PS4 would not only add an exclusive game to the burgeoning platform’s catalogue, but also an exclusive experience, the kind of which that would be unavailable anywhere else. Benchmark titles are rare in any generation, but having one ready within the ordinarily barren launch window would give the platform holder’s next console a huge advantage early on. And you can bet your bottom dollar that the publisher knows that, too.

Do you think that The Last Guardian will release on the PS4? Are you still looking forward to the game? Let us know in the comments section below.