With the Wii-U now out on the market, focus has once again returned to the next-generational offerings from Sony and Microsoft. The expectation from everyone is incredibly intense, but unfortunately I happen to believe we will all be a little disappointed, because it always sounds better in our heads…
These are the two code-names for the machines that will, eventually, become competition to Nintendo in the ‘Next Generation Wars’, a cyclical battle of wits and cunning that takes place every six years or so when a new wave of technological advancement kicks in and we need new machines to take advantage of the advances. Nintendo have already chipped in early with it’s own approach, the Wii-U. Something that has room to grow, certainly, for we’ve seen that when used correctly it can produce some stunning titles. Will it be indicative of the approach that Sony and Microsoft take? Who knows? It’s not unreasonable to suggest that perhaps the silence on the next-generation consoles might be because the two quiet ones are watching to see how the world reacts. And it’s been a mostly positive launch, with some grumbles to underline the worst excesses. That the last time they dismissed Nintendo casually, out of hand, and ended up having to catch up with a system that was substantially weaker than their own offerings. The Kinect and the Move are examples of companies pressured into following the trends set by a rival dominating its own little sphere.
Even if Nintendo is not their DIRECT competition, they are still competition. And this time you can be sure that neither Sony nor Microsoft will be taking them so lightly.
But even with the thought that they wanted Nintendo to do their thing on the catwalk yeah, on the catwalk first, the silence that has been surrounding these new machines, especially considering Nintendo’s next-generational offering is already on the market now, provides a curious dilemma to people who are perhaps unsure as to what is happening, or when such a thing will happen. Some arguably want to wait and see what Microsoft and Sony have to offer and right now, that is kind of hard with very little information to go on.
I say very little. I didn’t say none!
For example, Microsoft. Many have based their assumptions on a PDF that was doing the rounds earlier this year which was full of hyperbole, corporate cheering and the like but light on anything that telling, considering much of it was written in 2010 and therefore arguably deliberately more vague on the specifics and didn’t promise anything much. The likelihood is however that from what has been circulating, the Kinect is likely to be bundled with the machine – itself massively upgraded from its original format, into the Kinect 2.0. With a rumoured 4GB Memory thrown in (which is actually substantial for a games console!), and a heavy emphasis on the apps, the paid TV services and other middle-ground money spinners, the real concern from those who follow Microsoft is that they may be a little light on the CPU (rumoured to clock in at a mere 1.6GHz CPU!) and the GPU (Likely to use two simultaneously, but not be as potent).
Many will argue this is a little different from the Devkit leak we say a couple months back and there’s a good reason for that, in that devkits tend to be more powerful than the consoles because a devkit has to actually do a little bit more than run the games. It will have to compute and compile and operate arguably as a base games creation unit. Basing your ideals on the rumoured devkit specifications is always a problem, devkits are costly – very costly – because they are a professional toolkit. The Durango – or “X-Box” as it is now known to be called (yeah, didn’t we already do the X-Box?) – will need to be mass manufactured and done so quickly. When you consider devkits may only recently have been doing the rounds, it might even be some of the final specs aren’t even nailed down yet.
What we can assume though is Microsoft are going for a much more media-hub kind of approach; from the PDF to the “sources” of other gaming sites, and even the direction of Microsoft in recent years, there is a far greater emphasis in that the games console needs to be the heart of the home, the media hub, the thing everything revolves around. Smartglass, the Dashboard upgrades, the Kinect enhancements and the apps and software available for use with the Kinect all presume and indeed, assume that it will be the main machine in the home, and therefore it needs to be somehow capable of multitasking. Which would explain the talk and rumours of increased memory and the double-GPU issue. That games are a part of a whole, part of a greater scheme for Microsoft.
Will it pay off? That’s a good question. My personal feeling is… no, actually. But I’d sure like to see them have a go at it! It will all depend on the cost. After all, the Wii-U can multi-task. As can most tablets and laptops and even mobile phones. Multi-tasking isn’t really a thing we should be hailing as progress. I’d also prefer Kinect 2.0 to not be a default part of it, as Microsoft might be forgetting that a big chunk of its market are just gamers. We just want a games machine, not a media hub. We have plenty already doing that. If Microsoft can price it cheaply – $350 or so – then that would be a good starting point, but for that price I doubt we’d be looking at anything technically substantial in the finalised CPU/GPU specifications. Certainly nothing that most would consider next-generational, at least. If it prices it closer to $450, it might be able to push the higher specs – but it might risk alienating itself, creating a confusion as to what it is and does, and at such a price point that’s not always a comfortable place to be seen in.
Until something more concrete sets in, we simply can’t tell. On the flip-side, Sony is a much easier beast to understand.
I’ve obviously spoken recently about Sony and its financial woes but those financial troubles at least spell out a much more straight course of action for the Orbis – which may now be called the PS Omni (as the number four in Japan is pronounced “Shi”, which is the same way as the word for Death. Superstitions are kind of important in some cultures!). What we do know is Sony are aiming for a $350 price point and planning their own little Kinect offshoot, the Omniviewer (creepy!), which is effectively once again a massively upgraded Eyetoy concept. But hey, if it works for Microsoft… oh wait…
The aim is to be as competitive as possible. It’s very likely the actual base specs will still be better than the Wii-U, but again, perhaps not by as significant a leap as others are expecting. There’s a good reasoning for this too, and that is simply Sony cannot afford any extra fat on its next-gen console. The machine cannot be sold as the PS3 was, at an incredulous loss that frankly wasn’t very sensible in terms of business practicality. It’s the same line the Vita took, but perhaps the Vita had a better reason to loss-lead so heavily; Nintendo dominate the handheld market. But of course, the high-risk gamble with the Vita hardly paid off, with Nintendo holding over 80% of the handheld market (which is greater than when it was the DS vs PSP). Sony can’t afford to throw in any surprise extras. There can’t be any strange quirks. There can’t be a cell processor, or the pushing of new media concepts. Sony know that the PS3 has taken a right hammering throughout its career, and the PS4 has to be better as well as cheaper. Those pockets are not as deep as they used to be.
On the plus point however, that’s usually where real innovation comes into play. It’s when you have to do so much more with so much less that you can find real genuinely important things, and make them an essential part of your machine. Much like Jaguar, for a while they were strapped for cash so arguably a lot of what they got was older or recycled or just dirt cheap off the back of a lorry, but it’s how they used it and what they made the parts do that effectively saw their resurgence. Sony are in a similar position in terms of technology; no, they don’t have a lot of options open to them and no, they don’t have much money left over. But if the people putting things together are passionate enough and determined enough to make the best from a bad lot, you can surprise everyone with making a silk purse from a sows ear. For a very long time, Sony have overspent and overindulged in the technology department, thinking it could buy its way into the hearts and minds of the world this time because it needed no more than its old smile and charm. The Blu-Ray gamble is unlikely to ever pay off, and the Vita is precariously on the edge of just sinking without a trace. With not much left to work with, it will take brains rather than money to shape the next PlayStation, and that’s usually when something rather interesting happens.
I personally can’t wait to see what Sony come up with, partially because I’m really curious and partially because I happen to like a good comeback. All of this said, my overriding point is those ideas in your head of what the next-gen is, or will be, are unlikely to be the reality.
I don’t think they will follow Nintendo, and its example of affordable gaming concepts, but the talk that the Wii-U will be as different in generational terms as the Wii was versus the PS3 or X-Box 360 is all pretty much hyperbole. You might be looking at 20%, perhaps 30%, faster in some respects and yes, arguably with more memory. But the gap won’t be as big as it once was. Nintendo’s gamble – and rather a smart one – was to effectively settle in early with a fairly rudimentary start of the next-gen. It sits now, quietly awaiting the arrival of its competition but arguably already laying down the seeds of doubt. The system is a worthy Next-Gen contender, but it’s more than just that. Nintendo are banking on the fact that Microsoft and Sony are watching, with interest, at how the Wii-U goes down.
And it’s likely a lot truer than most give them credit for. For all the images and talk of what the next-gen might offer, the reality is that some of the more real-time demonstrations of next-gen middleware solutions aren’t exactly pushing the boundaries. Because it takes time for that to happen anyway, so when Sony and Microsoft do get to the market, Nintendo has not only a years head start pushing its own hardware to the best of its ability, but knowing that the games that will come first won’t be a significant upgrade from what we will see next year in Watch Dogs or Remember Me anyway. Not to start with. Not for a few years. The differences will be pretty negligible to start with.
Not that any of them will be able to shout out much. The era of PC Parity is very much going to be over, the PC as an entity will eventually simply technically overshadow the console market as a whole. It would be a challenge if the PC held itself back simply for the sake of a few console ports (which might become harder with more integration with their own little gimmicks and gadgets anyway). It will be interesting to see how this pans out as well – for the PC is itself a platform, and one that freed from the shackles of its console brethren may find itself either blossoming on its own merits, or running itself into debt trying to see how fast it can push the technological barriers.
But the next gen isn’t going to be all sweetness and light. We will see lesser specifications than we expect, which means the generational leap will appear much smaller. There will be a much larger divide between consoles, largely as each one aims to push its own technical gimmicks. This will of course push prices up for developers who will find it harder and harder to simply do a cheap port job with such expectations to use what each system is known for. We will see the PC forge ahead as its own self, its own platform, because it won’t have the concern of straight-ports to worry about. It will likely also involve a lot more micro-management and a lot more cost to us, the consumer, in terms of what games will cost and in terms of the services that will be provided, and possibly consumed by the companies in question.
We can all look forward to the excitement the next-gen offers. As long as we temper it with a little realism – that picture in your head? Of the chap with the blowtorch? Cutting through the wires? Sorry, it ain’t going to be that. I’m guessing that’s more likely to be more achievable on a more reasonable budget in the next-next gen. The upcoming next gen isn’t going to see any technical surprises. What we will see are three companies trying their damned hardest to differentiate from each other, to be seen as doing something different, to be moving away from that middle ground consensus. All three will be trying to stand on their own, avoid being compared directly to their rivals. Which sounds wonderful, and it might be. But for developers, publishers and independent games-makers, this will no doubt prove a nightmare in the making, pushing up the costs. It may even end up with a more dominant console in the marketplace than we have ever seen before, as to cut costs they may simply flock to one and leave their rivals to it. If Nintendo is one of these, then they can at least survive on their own steam and games in much the same way they always have. If Sony or Microsoft find themselves in this position… it could be brilliant. They might try harder. But I’m not so sure right now.
This upcoming next-gen is going to be important. Not because we’ll see good hardware, or good games. We know we will. We’ll see them make full use of whatever they get to the market.
It will be important because all three will be very, very different beasts despite their similarities. The era of two comparable games isn’t going to survive… and no offence to those who actually do these things on the internet and YouTube, but good riddance as well. Because hopefully now it will be about quality of games, rather than getting pissy about a 2-frame drop in the heat of combat. When all the games will have to be so different to take advantage of such different ideologies and concepts and gadgets and gizmos, comparing like-for-like is simply not possible.
That’s the next-gen I see. A risky one. But a necessary step onwards, to shake up the industry and see if anything comes loose in the process…