Nintendo already unveiled its next-generation game console, the Wii U, earlier this year. But what about Microsoft and Sony? We asked PCWorld's four biggest gaming geeks to make predictions on what the next Xbox and PlayStation systems will look like.
Hardware Specs: Smarter and Speedier
Jason Cross (laptops editor): The sort of hardware we can expect in next-gen consoles will be very much determined by their release date. As the years roll on, silicon manufacturing processes become finer, which results in more transistors in a given area. That means cheaper, lower-power chips (or, conversely, more performance within the same area, power, and cost).
The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 originally came to market with CPUs and GPUs created in 90-nanometer manufacturing processes. If the next-gen systems ship in 2012, their chips will come from relatively cost-effective 32nm manufacturing; that means about eight times the computing power and cache in the same-size chip. Should the systems arrive late in 2013, there’s a chance that the chip makers will use a 22nm process, delivering 16 times the transistors per square millimeter as in the original Xbox 360 or PS3 chips. Of course, the Xbox 360 and PS3 had issues with cost and reliability at launch, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see both Microsoft and Sony back off a little on the size and power draw of the chips in their next systems.
So what does all this mean? It’s easy to speculate about exact CPU architectures and the like, but that's mostly irrelevant if you’re not a developer. Expect an honest fourfold increase in CPU performance from the new machines. The graphics will probably be eight times as powerful, if not more. Compared with current consoles, which use graphics chips essentially meant for DirectX 9-level graphics, the next consoles will utilize chips that meet the spec for DirectX 11.1. The key benefits, beyond fancier shaders and such, will be that the graphics chips will be flexible enough for a lot of general computation jobs. You can expect many of the next-gen console game engines to compute physics, AI, and even things like audio DSP on the graphics core.
Memory is always a tough issue. You can never have enough, but it’s difficult to sell a game system for $399--and drop the price rapidly--when you load it up with RAM. I can’t imagine either Microsoft or Sony being so stingy that they wouldn’t put 2GB of RAM in the box, but we should really hope for 4GB or more. Over the life span of a system, it would make a major difference in what game developers can create.
The real question will be the mass-storage medium. Whether game makers distribute their titles only as downloads or in physical form in stores, players will still have plenty of stuff to download--other games, themes, add-on packs and downloadable content, avatar clothing items, and more. It would be great for consoles to ship with solid-state drives. If developers could rely on caching their game data to a really fast solid-state drive, the I/O throughput would be so much higher that it would change the way games are made. But with downloadable games, demos, and content growing larger, I’m not sure the cost of SSDs will be low enough. A large standard hard drive will probably have to suffice, but with any luck we’ll see some sort of flash-cache optimized hybrid product.
Game Distribution: Discs or No Discs?
Patrick Miller (how-to editor): The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 introduced the console gaming world to large-scale digital distribution. Although you can complain all you like about having to download patches or being nickel-and-dimed for DLC (I certainly do), Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network have given gamers everywhere a chance to play games that wouldn't cut it on a retail shelf, such as offerings from independent developers, older big-budget games that don't show up in stores anymore, and remakes of classics that probably wouldn't happen if the publishers needed to pay for packaging and production. And since we're all PC gamers here, we're fervently hoping that the next generation of consoles takes a page out of Steam's book and goes for a download-only distribution model.
Unfortunately, it isn't going to happen. For starters, broadband still isn't widespread enough for everyone to depend on downloads for all game sales--especially broadband connections fast enough to download a game ranging from 8.5GB (the capacity of one dual-layer DVD) to 25GB (the capacity of a single-layer Blu-ray Disc). For someone stuck on a measly 1-mbps DSL connection, a game could take a whole day or two to download.
Also, even if everyone had Google fiber lying in their backyard tomorrow, the console gaming world isn't quite ready for a download-only business model. That's because gamers still buy their consoles from retailers, not from Sony or Microsoft or Nintendo itself. The retailers don't make much from selling the consoles; they keep those big boxes on shelves because they make their money off the peripherals, add-ons, and games that people buy with the console. Until this model changes--which it may, toward the end of the next console cycle--you can expect to see console downloads restricted to older games, demos, and download-only smaller games, as things are right now. Of course, I expect Blu-ray to be the gaming standard for both the Sony and Microsoft next-gen consoles.
Nate Ralph (desktops editor): We really need to get over this whole “physical media” thing.
I hear you: DSL connections suck, Comcast has saddled you with a 250GB bandwidth cap, and you want to play Space Shooter Du Jour 3 right now.
Those are all fixable problems. Take a look at Valve’s Steam, the populist choice for digital distribution on the PC. Want to play an upcoming, hotly anticipated title on the day it’s released? No problem: You can start preloading the game well in advance of its release date, and it’ll unlock the moment that date comes.
Worried about tying up your bandwidth? I’m a PlayStation Plus subscriber. Every night, my PS3 turns itself on, checks for any patches or downloads I need, and gets to work. I can also queue up a stack of downloads and tell it to shut itself off when they’re done, and go about my business.
This isn’t future stuff--this is right now. Imagine the next generation of consoles, with larger hard drives (320GB is the upper limit today, but that’s undoubtedly going to change). And with media streaming over the Internet already pretty much the norm, ISPs have no choice but to keep up--improving their infrastructures to meet demand--or risk the ire of the general public.
What about the retailers' cut? Well, Best Buy sells iPads, and that store chain doesn't make a dime off of software (since it's all in the App Store). But once Best Buy has folks in the door, the company can upsell them on the incidentals: extra controllers, gold-plated HDMI cables, Geek Squad protection plans, and the like. The next-generation Xbox and PlayStation consoles will be popular, and where there’s a will to make money, there’s a way.
It’ll take time, sure. But the next consoles are still a few years out, and technology isn’t slowing down. Jason Cross: We've heard good arguments for both disc-based and download-only game distribution, but there is a third option: cartridges. Not the big plastic carts of the 8- and 16-bit era, but smaller cards perhaps twice the size of an SD Card. Think of the advantages. With a proprietary format, piracy would be a little harder. Put most of the high-performance controller circuitry inside the console itself, and the game cartridge becomes little more than a specialized dumb flash drive.
A good flash-drive design would offer the kind of performance that a Blu-ray disc or rotating hard drive could only dream of. We’re talking about an end to long load times, and streaming worlds with a lot more fidelity and variety. The cost wouldn’t even be that bad. Sure, 16GB of flash costs something like $18 in bulk, but the prices are constantly dropping at the rate of silicon production. By late next year, it will probably cost $10. By the time the next-gen consoles are three years old, the cartridges will cost maybe $4 to $6 to produce.
Controllers: 'Accessibility' Is Not a Four-Letter Word
Alex Wawro (editorial assistant): Game controllers haven’t changed much since the Atari 2600 debuted more than 30 years ago. If you were playing a console game before 2006, you were probably playing it with a gamepad sporting some combination of joysticks, buttons, and triggers. That all changed when Nintendo released the Wii console in 2006; although hard-core gamers had previously dabbled with motion control (never forget the Nintendo Power Glove), the startling success and widespread adoption of the Wii proved that video games don’t need complicated controllers to be fun. Microsoft and Sony soon marketed motion-control devices of their own; and while most PC games still rely on the stalwart mouse and keyboard combo, it’s clear that the future of the console is controller-optional.
That’s great news for anyone seeking to share their passion for gaming with family and friends, because a gamepad with dual joysticks and ten or more buttons is awfully intimidating to anyone who didn’t grow up playing games. Innovative input devices such as the iPhone and Wii Remote make video games readily accessible to a wide audience of potential players, which is ultimately a good development for the game industry and gamers everywhere.
Of course, we’ll never abandon physical controllers completely. Touchscreens and motion control offer exciting new possibilities for player input, but they still can’t duplicate the accuracy and precision of an analog controller. We already know that the controller for Nintendo’s upcoming Wii U console incorporates a touchscreen, motion sensors, and dual analog joysticks in an effort to make the Wii U appealing to hard-core and casual gamers alike. In the future, Microsoft and Sony will take a similar approach and introduce gaming devices that offer more input options to accommodate a broader audience of players. Whether it’s tapping a screen, waving a remote, or speaking into a microphone, the next generation of home consoles will offer you plenty of new and exciting ways to play games.
Mobile Gaming: Is It Dead Yet?
Nate Ralph: The handheld console is dead. We killed it.
Don’t pat yourself on the back just yet--we had plenty of help. Apple’s brushed-aluminum wundergadget laid the deathblow, serving up dirt-cheap entertainment to the masses. I’m not one to ascribe any real credit to piracy, as cheapskates who downloaded a game very likely weren’t going to buy it anyway. That said, you can’t fault developers for steering away from platforms that weren’t moving many units of software, as opposed to the comparatively low development costs to get a game in front of the droves of iOS- and Android-device owners.
Our strongest ally, however, was the inexorable march of time.
Dedicated gaming devices have come a long way--you need only look at your ancient Game Boy to see that. The Game Boy was compact for its era, with a running time that was essentially unlimited (provided that you were armed with a sack of AA batteries). It also helped that Nintendo was pretty much the only worthwhile portable player in town.
Once the Nintendo DS arrived, we saw a new golden age. The tiny cartridges stacked well for transport. The handheld offered up a novel control scheme, and provided an innovative design platform for creative developers. How could things go wrong?
We wanted more. We clamored for games that were fun, but also demanded graphical fidelity that Nintendo simply wasn’t known for. And we were sick of toting carts around--give us downloads!
Sony made a bold attempt with the PSPGo. But it was, to be blunt, stupid expensive, costing about $50 less than the Blu-ray-slinging PlayStation 3. And don’t get me started on the average gamer’s inability to understand that downloading a 4GB game over an 802.11b/g connection wasn’t a bright idea. We rightly raged at the price, and wrongly raged at the lack of UMDs, scaring developers away from a system that was perhaps simply ahead of its time.
It would be only a matter of time before Sony would correct that mistake (see the PlayStation Vita), so Nintendo had to act first.
The company gave us the Nintendo 3DS. You want graphics? How about 3D graphics! You want fun? It has more features than you can shake a reasonably large stick at! You want downloads? Err...we’ll get right on that. Promise.
But it’s too little, too late. Smartphones are svelte by nature, and always with you, and they give you access to a wide array of digitally distributed titles. And no complaints about downloads here: Most titles are exceptionally small files, and phone owners are used to syncing via computer to get their music collections on there anyway. The 3DS, by contrast, is bulky and nonessential, and it requires you to carry a stack of cartridges to swap between games. You might be concerned about battery life and using your phone for, well, phone stuff. But with the abysmal battery life on the 3DS (and the upcoming PS Vita), that gadget that’s taking up extra space is also likely to be dead, too.
More important, in an era of 99-cent, disposable entertainment, the $40 blockbuster of yore simply has no place. It's simple math: Will you get more out of a single 3DS game, or 40-plus iOS titles (many of which are free)?
Developers see it. Take a look at the titanic list of titles available on Apple’s App Store, and compare that with the paltry list of upcoming titles on Nintendo’s end.
My honest opinion? Good riddance. I’m still likely to pick up a PlayStation Vita, in spite of my unused PSPs and Nintendo DSs (I’ve unwisely bought several over the years). A dedicated gaming console will still offer an unparalleled gaming experience, in much the same way that curling up with a book is probably more aesthetically pleasing than reading on my iPad. But it boils down to accessibility: My $250 iPod Touch puts 32GB of music, books, and games right at my fingertips, all day. My 3DS (also known as my Pokémon Delivery Station) just can’t compete.
Online Services: Welcome to FarmVille
Patrick Miller: Xbox Live and PlayStation Network are arguably the two defining features that separate the current generation of consoles from the previous one. Game distribution, downloadable content, online multiplayer, and messaging are a huge part of modern console gaming. (Unfortunately, so are legions of trolling teens determined to ruin your impeccably crafted multiplayer experience.)
Trash-talking aside, we've seen that Xbox Live and PSN are great for connecting people who are playing games, but they haven't really become a destination in their own right. PlayStation Network tries with PlayStation Home, a neat virtual-lobby service that lets PSN users socialize and play games, but it's simply not quite there yet. Xbox Live TV might be able to further attract users with streaming TV shows that can supplement their downloadable video content, but that will depend in large part on Microsoft's ability to land the right programming.
My prediction: The killer app for our next-generation game networking services will be social games. Hate on FarmVille all you want, but the fact is that these games are very good at making money and getting people to visit a site more often. I like to think that I'd be above watering plants to earn in-game currency to buy a new hat that I can wear on my Xbox Live avatar (or worse, paying $5 outright for the hat), but I don't think I'd be able to resist for long. And if there's one game I can beat obnoxious trash-talking teens in, it's Words With Friends.
Once Xbox Live and PSN start tapping into the same addictive design that keeps me visiting Facebook every hour, Microsoft and Sony will be able to turn their respective services into social networks, video-delivery networks, and anything else they'd like. They might as well own my TV by that point.
What do you want to see in the next generation of gaming consoles? Sound off in the comments!