The surest guide to tell that the next-generation of video game consoles are on their way, outside of official announcements and specs, is that flagship series’ hit their stride and trilogies are wrapping up. Case in point, we just battled through the last horde as Marcus Fenix in Gears of War 3 and, next month, we’ll assume the role of Nathan Drake in Uncharted 3. Whether or not Epic Games and Naughty Dog continue to develop these hugely successful IPs, the teams are likely to be experimenting with next-generation hardware long before we see the fruits of their labor.
In fact, Epic Games is experimenting with next-generation technology right now given the fact that president Mike Capps told Industry Gamers that “We’re very interested in the Wii U.” Nintendo’s 2012-bound console was unveiled at this year’s E3, and speculation has it that E3 2012 will be the trade show where Microsoft announces the successor to Xbox 360 and Sony reveals the tech specs for PS4. Until that time, precedence from the last two console generations tells us a lot about what to expect from the next-generation console launches.
With slumping Wii sales, Nintendo fired the first shot in the eighth generation of consoles by announcing the Wii U on July 7, 2011. That’s right, despite being the last system out of the gate in 2006, the company will buck its own trend of bringing up the tail, as it did with the Wii, GameCube, N64, all the way back to the SNES, and launch the first console entry in 2012. This won’t come as a surprise to knowledgeable Nintendo fans, however, because its launch window only follows another release date trend: waiting five years between every console since N64. So it’s not Nintendo that has changed, it’s everyone else.
A month ago, a rumor that Nintendo has been having issues with the new hardware implied a possible delay from the internally scheduled Summer 2012 launch window to September 2012. Even if that is true, the system is set up for an open field - a wide open field. Unlike the Wii, the Wii U will have a monopoly as the newest system on store shelves in 2012. Heck, it may still be fresh throughout all of 2013. That’s quite a headstart.
Controller & Console Design
A weird name, an abnormal controller and a lot more questions than answers was how the Wii U looked to me at the end of Nintendo’s E3 2011 press conference. Pleasantly surprised was how I felt after demoing it later that day. It was E3 2006 all over again. But not everyone could share my playtesting appointment, and that’s clearly been reflected by unconvinced hardcore gamers and Nintendo’s stock holders.
The biggest question mark in gamers’ minds has been Wii U’s controller, so let’s start there. With a 6.2-inch touchscreen embedded into the tablet-like gamepad, it’s certainly different from everything else out there. Combine that with Nintendo’s proven track-record for motion sensing, a microphone, a front-facing camera and wireless connectivity, and the company delivers a second-to-none suite of innovative hardware. Now it’s up to creative developers to take advantage of it outside of a few tech demos.
The Wii U’s white body looks an awful lot like the original Wii. In fact, many people mistook the system’s announcement for a tablet accessory to be used with the current console. From what I can glean from spyshots of the system’s rear, the ports for the power cord, A/V cables and Motion Sensor Bar are exactly the same. There’s even a pair of USB ports beside the back fan. There’s only one noticeable upgrade - and it’s a big one - an HDMI port so that the Wii U can display up to 1080p video.
Under the Hood: More Tech Specs
On the inside, the Wii U is a completely different story; you can tell it’s a brand new console just by looking at the custom-built 45 nm microprocessor. Nintendo, for its third console in a row, chose IBM as the CPU manufacturer. Not only is this POWER7-based chip more powerful than the original Wii’s Broadway processor, technology blog Engadget relayed IBM’s claim that it’s based on the same CPU technology as Watson. Yes, IBM’s human-beating Watson supercomputer from Jeopardy!
Sticking with that three-in-a-row theme, Nintendo once again brought on board AMD. This time, the GPU manufacturer will be powering Nintendo’s graphics with a custom Radeon HD chip that is capable of displaying 1080p. Mario will finally be able to triple-jump in purified high-definition.
More to Come from Nintendo?
"This isn't the final design yet" seemed like the unofficial slogan of Nintendo’s reps at E3 2011 whenever I asked them a question about the console. Specifically, I was wondering about a possible rear-facing camera in addition to the front-facing one on the Wii U controller. Given the popularity of the 3DS’ augmented reality games and the fact that one of the demos had you hold up the tablet-shaped controller to act as a shield for your face, this almost seemed like a no-brainer. The other details I was pressing for regarded 3DS connectivity with the Wii U and a more unified online interface. Yes, Wii friend codes have got to go.
We may end up just getting a sturdier-looking Wii U controller, as Nintendo has been known to tweak the design of its prototypes in the final stages following initial feedback. But, even then, there is still more to come from Nintendo. After all, the company has yet to announce a price or a release date beyond 2012. Expect that to happen by the time we get our next playtest with the system at E3 2012.
What’s the best way to tell that the next Xbox console unveiling is imminent? By seeing if Elijah Wood’s schedule is blacked out for any MTV hosting duties. The Lord of the Rings actor helped Microsoft make a big splash in 2005 by hyping the Xbox 360 on the channel just four years after the original Xbox made its debut. Somehow, instead of feeling cheated, Xbox gamers seemed to embrace the concave and, notably, more compact system.
Microsoft built the console to last this time - uhhh unless you got one of those Red Rings - because the Xbox 360 is still holding strong against PS3 six years later. Exclusive games and content (from the Gears of War series to first access to Call of Duty maps) and Xbox Live are credited for attracting a hardcore gamer foundation. On the other end, Kinect is credited for extending the life cycle a bit further, at least according to Microsoft.
"We’re more than halfway through,” said Microsoft VP Chris Lewis to Metro.co.uk. “But given we are still growing, I think we’re at a healthy part in the life cycle still because we’ve pumped this adrenaline into the arm of the business with Kinect and the scope and scale of what that means for publishers and developers I think is huge.”
The next Xbox’s launch date greatly depends on whether or not Kinect gives the company that desired shot in the arm. Can the controller-free device really extend the console’s life three more holiday seasons? The theorized 2014 launch means that Xbox 360 would’ve lasted nine years, more than double the life cycle of the original Xbox. I know one thing: Microsoft is going to want to get another beneficial jump on Sony, so pressure from that camp may be the biggest aid to determining whether the launch is in 2013 or 2014.
Controller & Console Design
One thing is almost certain about the next Xbox’s design: it won’t have a touch of red anywhere, inside or outside of the console. Microsoft doesn’t want anyone to fear the disastrous RRoD during another launch, so sticking with a purely green-lit system is probably a wise bet. It’s also a pretty easy assumption that the new console will be about the same size as current iterations, but get sleeker and sleeker as time goes on. It’d only get bigger in the Bizzaro world.
Enough of the safe guesses. Nintendo started a trend toward motion controls in 2006 and Microsoft and Sony followed four short years later. So I fully expect the next Xbox to attempt another coup with its own touchscreen controller. Only, it’ll do what Nintendo didn’t: appeal to the hardcore crowd by keeping the 360’s controller design relatively intact. Now, you may say that Microsoft would never copy Nintendo’s controller idea so blatantly. To give you a mental image of what a standard 360-like next-gen controller would look like, just imagine a Dreamcast pad with a color VMU. Got it?
From safe guesses to educated guesses to wild guesses, trying to predict what the name will be on the outside of the console is almost impossible. Microsoft is in a funny position choosing a name to succeed Xbox 360. The company was clever to use “360” because Xbox 2 would've looked inferior to PS3. Where does that trend leave them for the next Xbox? 720? Live? Zune?! To rival PS4, Xbox 4G would be the ideal name and spur an interesting feature to develop around.
Under the Hood: Tech Specs
Like Nintendo, Microsoft has gone with IBM for its CPUs, a 3.2 GHz Tri-Core Xenon for Xbox 360 and, before that, a 733 MHz Intel Pentium III for the original Xbox. But there’s nothing out there that says Microsoft is siding with IBM for its next-gen multi-core processor. Quite the contrary, actually. Two years ago, IBM was rumored to be working with Sony, not as its CPU partner for PS4, but GPU supplier. That opens up the door for AMD, which has been in the running considering the company already supplies Xbox 360’s 500 MHz ATI Xenos GPU. The lack of deal news about the next Xbox’s own CPU, either official or rumored, only further leads us to believe the next Xbox 360 has a 2014 launch.
A lot more to come...
Microsoft is at a crossroads when it comes to two emerging but highly suspect technology trends, both backed up Sony. First, does it want to support Blu-ray discs with a disc drive? Next-generation games certainly can’t survive on DVDs alone. The latest game to come out on multiple discs is Rage. It probably won’t be the last. An alternative is for Microsoft to jump into the data “stream” with both feet and put out the first console to require games be downloaded via digital distribution. This is the future, after all, and a fail-safe way to overcome the threat of used game sales. But it may come at the loss of some of those casual gamers.
The other emerging trend that feels dubious is 3D. Do we really want consoles to travel down that path permanently? Gamers haven’t fully embraced wearing glasses to make console graphics “pop” (it’s more like a “fizzle”) and haven’t shown exceptional interest in glasses-free 3D on handhelds either. At the same time the next Xbox may seem like it has one less feature without 3D when compared to a last-generation console like PS3.
DVR-like functions for the next Xbox would allow Microsoft to corner an area that Sony and Nintendo haven’t been able to tap into yet. Given Microsoft’s reported (but still unconfirmed) deals with Comcast and Verizon FiOS last week, the company might be getting a headstart. All of a sudden, I want more than this fall’s dashboard update.
PS4 will be the last to the market, and for three good reasons: the PS3’s 3.2 GHz Cell processor, its high-capacity Blu-ray optical drive and the fact that developers are just starting to tap the full potential of the system. Still not convinced? Take the word of SCEA President and CEO Jack Tretton, who said, "PlayStation 3 is really just hitting its stride. And technologically, I don't think it's possible to provide any advancement beyond what we have."
Tretton went on to say that PS4’s release date wouldn’t be effected by the Wii U announcement. However, I suspect that Sony executives are going to be closely watching the words and actions of Microsoft leading up to the company’s E3 2012 press conference. If Microsoft does intend to unveil the next console, Sony may move up its announcement of PS4 just to steal some of the E3 limelight. Regardless of this tit-for-tat, expect the PS4 release date to be a one of these two: “Q4 2013 inevitably delayed to First Half of 2014” or “First half of 2014 inevitably delayed to Fall 2014.” You know Sony.
Controller & Console Design
The PlayStation controller has stayed pretty consistent from the original DualShock in 1997 to the DualShock 3 today. It’s comfortable, it’s familiar, it works. And, correct me if I’m wrong, the last time, Sony tried to radically redesign its controller, it turned out to be shaped like a silver boomerang. Like Nintendo, and I suspect Microsoft, Sony may opt to add a touchscreen to its potential DualShock 4 because it has wanted to use a second screen ever since Sony President and CEO Kaz Hirai showed off the “Grand Turismo rearview mirror” using a PSP. That E3 2005 tech demo never came to fruition, but it was an interesting idea that more developers besides Polyphony Digital might want to run with.
As for the system’s design, with the economy the way it is (and may be in 2014), Sony may opt to launch a toned-down console that reflects the current Slim design. When PS3 first came out in 2006, it had unnecessary bells and whistles like a multi-memory card reader as well as extras we did like - namely PS2 emulation - but Sony didn’t enjoy. That was axed for cost purposes (read: “Buy more of our current games”). Hopefully, PS4 is backward compatible, even if it means releasing a higher-end SKU.
Finally, fully expect a 3TB or 4TB hard drive to store all of your PSN downloads. 3TB sounds like a lot right now, but it currently costs $120. Imagine those prices (and the size of PSN files) by the time 2014 rolls around. Despite the larger drives, though, expect Sony to unwaveringly support Blu-ray, as it has invested too much money into the high-def optical disc drive to move onto full digital distribution.
Under the Hood: More Tech Specs
PS4 is almost certainly going to be the more powerful system of the three, and while there are fewer rumors about the next Xbox’s tech specs, forums and unscrupulous sites are filled with supposed “leaks” about Sony’s next-gen console. The reason behind this may be because of Sony’s use of the Cell processor. It makes it easier to guess the PS4’s configuration. Sony likes to stick with things to the end (Cell, 3D, Blu-ray, i.Link), so a shrunken version of its current microprocessor is expected. You may recall that PS3 Fats started out with a 90nm Cell CPU, and now PS3 Slims are packing a 45 nm microprocessor. A 32 nm processor is the next progression, so depending on the shrinkage over the next two to three years, expect 32 nm or smaller.
In case you’re wondering about the difference, smaller chips lead to lower power consumption and a cheaper manufacturing process. Seeing the success of Nintendo’s Wii strategy where it actually made a profit off of systems, Sony will be inclined to do whatever it can to reduce the losses it’ll incur by selling PS4 hardware.
The last thing Sony can do under the PS4 hood to improve its chances of success is prevent developers from having to retrain on the unfamiliar system. It’ll want to keep the changes developer-friendly, something the company failed to do according to multi-console teams that claim to have more trouble making games with PS3 included in the mix. Sony, after all, not only makes money from its own games, but receives royalties from third parties with each game sold.
A lot more to come...
Expect Sony to continue to make a big deal about 3D gaming, maybe even go as far as to pack a pair of 3D gamer-marketed glasses with the PS3. After all, that sort of push worked when it needed to sneak Blu-ray into a majority of high-definition households. The real question is whether or not PlayStation Move will come as an integrated part of PS4 or if an enhanced version of motion control accessory will be announced for the system. I was already duped into Wii MotionPlus, I don’t need a PlayStation Move Plus in 2014.
More than 3D and enhanced Move support, Sony has bring a sense of security to its online network so that gamers are reassured its safe this time around. Although free, PSN’s 24-day outage was a letdown and not knowing if everyone’s credit cards were compromised was a confusing experience for a lot of users. That being said, once security it up in place, PS Plus benefits may make their way to the mainstream, non-paying crowd by the time PS4 rolls around. I can’t imagine not being able to download in the background in the year 2014 or being cut out of the cloud saves phenomenon. Unless “The Great Gmail Loss of 2013” occurs, I fully expect cloud saves to be embraced by everyone in the next few years.
Finally, PSN could use cross-game chat and clan support. We recently found out the much-requested cross-game chat feature is impossible on the PS3, so building PS4 with this in mind would be a smart idea. Likewise, cross-game clan support would allow a tight group of gamers to eschew forming a clan in each and every game and encourage friends to pick up new games once more clan members move to the next multiplayer experience.
The Next Generation Is Already Here
Whether or not you’re ready, the next-generation technically started earlier this year when the Nintendo 3DS became the first handheld of the eighth console generation. It’ll continue when the PS Vita launches next year (or, this year in Japan... if the December 17 release date sticks). But don’t worry if you’re not ready to switch over just yet. PS3 and Xbox 360 remain strong. And given the 3DS’ lackluster launch, all three companies may wait until they have the software to back up the hardware. That should give you just enough time to finish at least half of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.
Matt Swider has been writing about video games for 12 years and is now based in Los Angeles where he is actively expanding GamingTarget.com and his freelance opportunities.