Friday, May 13, 2011

The Next Generation of Gaming Consoles

(original post 5/12/2011)

The current generation of gaming consoles - PS3, Xbox 360, and Wii - have been out for a few years now. The old way of thinking is that they should be long in the tooth by now. Since the 1980's, gaming consoles have enjoyed a generational refresh typically every 3-5 years. But that all changed with the Playstation 2.

The Playstation 2 is still the best selling console of all time, with over 150 million units sold (source). It's life cycle was over 10 years long, producing some 10,000+ games for the platform. Why did it stay on top so long? What changed?

This ten year console cycle was no accident on Sony's part. They deliberately spent much forethought into future-proofing their hardware. Microsoft caught on to this before releasing the Xbox 360. They too, went to great lengths to ensure a longer life cycle for their current console. It's easy to see why the console producers want a long life cycle. They can produce the hardware cheaper over time and increase their profit margins more and more as they approach the end of the cycle. The cost of manufacturing drops precipitously as manufacturing technology increases at a steady clip. We've all heard references to Moore's Law of transistor technology. Eventually, at the end of the cycle, sales start to die off, and the cost/benefit ratio of producing a new generation console tips towards a refresh.

So what's in the ten year plan for us, then? Technology progresses so rapidly that hardware becomes quickly outdated after just a year or two (compared to PC gamers' rigs). I, however, will actually agree that a ten year cycle is a good thing. The most obvious reason, for consumers, is that we won't have to drop 600 USD on the latest console every few years. I simply would refuse to do that. I personally wait a couple years after a console comes out for the price to drop back down to earth before purchasing. If the cycle was only three years, I would be buying something that may become obsolete in a matter of months!

The other reason a ten year cycle is a great thing is that it allows developers to perfect the platform. Just look at the PS2. The games that came out at year ten look a hell of a lot better than the games that came out at year three, when the developer's were claiming that they reached the console's limit. They simply weren't coding as efficiently in the beginning as they were towards the end. The launch game titles look way under par when you compare them to God of War 1 & 2, Ico, Okami, Resident Evil 4, etc. Game developers are ALWAYS complaining about not enough GPU, processing power, memory, etc. Some of them are just lazy and won't be bothered to write code efficiently unless they have to. Something along the lines of what Plato said: "Necessity is the mother of invention". Or something like that. Consoles will always have limits and constraints that developers will have to work with. Whichever developer is the most talented at working within those constraints will produce the best games.

A third argument for the ten year cycle is simply e-waste. Less console generations means less dumping of the older consoles. Sure, there's a few people out there who like to collect consoles, but they are in the minority. I acknowledge the fact that most people don't give a flip about the environment. But that doesn't mean its not a real problem that we are eventually going to have to deal with.

Let me put it this way. If Sony didn't push for a future-proof console with each iteration, those of us that chose to buy would be spending hundreds of dollars for mediocre hardware that would be behind the technology curve by the time you took it home and opened the box. In other words you would have a Nintendo Wii!

**Begin Rant/Tangent/Sidetrack**

The Nintendo Wii IS NOT a current generation gaming console. It is a gimmick for kids, the elderly, the technologically inept, and drunks. There. I said it. I think I can speak for the majority of serious gamers when I say this thing is nothing more than a party favor. The graphics are horrid (most games feature heavily pixelated protagonists or cartoonish characters). It almost seems as if the graphics have gotten worse instead of better. The processor is woefully underpowered. And 88 MB of memory? Are you serious? It has an outdated architecture 90nm processor, which means it consumes more power per floating-point calculation than its competitors, so it doesn't even have that going for it. The games are short-lived fun, which I guess is okay if you're ADHD. "You wanna play Wii? That was fun. You wanna go ride bikes?"

The "revolutionary" controllers seem to always be low on batteries. And those controllers aren't even that precise. I must be an old codger or something, but I can play a shooter more accurately using my "sticks and buttons" controller. It has no hard drive. It has no Blu-Ray drive. It has no HD visual or audio output. It can't even play DVDs! That's laughable. Even a a PS2 can do that and it was released a full six years earlier.

But hey, 87 million people can't be wrong, right?

**End Rant/Tangent/Sidetrack**

In the news recently, Sony and Microsoft have both stated that they will hold off on releasing their respective next generation consoles until 2014. This will no doubt make for some irate developers and early-adopter consumerists alike.

Personally, I am okay with this for the PS3. The games coming out this year look better than ever. Exclusive PS3 titles are hitting their stride with no sign of slowing down soon. A few examples that come to mind are Uncharted 3, Killzone 3, and Infamous 2. Additionally, on top of the nonstop barrage of awesome games that keep coming out, I have a backlog of games that are still laying in a stack with shrink wrap on them.

The Xbox 360 may not have the legs to stand for that long without an upgrade. Since they released their console earlier in the 7th (current) generation, their specs are not quite as up to date as Sony's. I'm hoping the Xbox 360 holds its own long enough to release their new gen equipment around the same time frame as Sony so we don't get too "uneven" with platform capabilities. That would make life harder for the game devs.

The wild card in all this is Nintendo, who announced that they're working on "Project Cafe," their next-generation console. Oddly enough, I don't think this will cause Sony or Microsoft to compress their development/release times for their 8th generation consoles. The specs for the new Nintendo console are already outdated and it hasn't even been finalized for production yet, which is now typical of Nintendo. Nintendo relies on sales gimmicks and "innovation," rather than acceptable hardware. It has, roughly speaking, the same hardware specs as a 7th generation gaming console, even though they are marketing it as an 8th. In fact, I will go so far as to say they will only just barely eclipse the 7th generation performance-wise, just as a bullet point that says they're the most powerful hardware available when it releases. Never mind the fact that the consoles they're competing with were designed 6-7 years ago. This will allow developers to easily port multi-platform games over to the new Nintendo console for little cost to them. Also, expect to see another "innovation" that will drive sales, like a small screen on the controller or something equally appalling.

I think the real danger is that Nintendo's Project Cafe console will be a success. This will drive home the fact that dumbed-down consoles can sell better and turn a higher profit more easily than serious gamer consoles. Since the casual gamers could possibly make Sony, Microsoft, and 3rd party developers more money for less work, there will be a gold rush to push out crappy games in bulk to garner the most amount of that money pie. Which, unfortunately, leaves the more serious gamers out in the cold. The PC will have it's hardcore gamer devs and the Wii-like consoles will have the casual gamer devs, which leaves hardcore console gaming in purgatory. The budget-conscious "hardcore" gamer will find Wii-like consoles unsatisfying and dedicated PC gaming rigs far too expensive for us mere mortals.

This is my concern, dude.

I like the fact that we still have a fair amount of competition in the gaming world. Sony's missteps in the Playstation network will undoubtedly cause some gamers to switch platforms in the next generation. I may be one of them. I try to choose the best platform, with no conscious brand loyalty. For now, I'm sticking with the PS3. But as for the next generation: let the best console win.

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