Console war, the next generation at last
Five years after the last post about the topic, the state of the everlasting commercial and technological war between gaming consoles couldn’t be more different: the machine which seemed to be done (PS3) recovered brilliantly, the Nintendo battleship is living a new difficult moment in its troubled history and the eighth generation of home console has been finally deployed in full with the PS4 and Xbox One debut. But the market is pretty different compared to the past as well, while everyone’s expectations - for publishers, analysts and players - have grown a ton.
Where we left off
This past November was one of the most important months for the gaming market recent history, a month that marked the simultaneous arrival of the aforementioned PS4 and Xbox One seven years after the debut of the previous generation of home consoles. Before talking about the new machines, however, it’s worth closing the seventh generation cycle doing some numbers: Nintendo Wii reached 100 million units sold worldwide, Microsoft Xbox 360 arrived at 80 millions (overtaking the Wii in the USA) and Sony PlayStation 3 reached the same goal of Xbox 360 a year in advance.
The seventh generation of home consoles was the most successful one, while the PS2 (the absolute champion of the sixth generation) achieved the title of best selling console ever despite the availability of the PS3. Wii, PS3 and Xbox 360 are anyway included in the Top 10 of the best selling consoles, even though the incredible popularity of the PS2 seems to be unattainable for anyone now as in the upcoming years.
An evolving market
The new gaming consoles arrive in a particular historic period, when the time users spend on gaming - both “hardcore” and casual - is being shared among the domestic TV-set, the smartphone, the tablet and the PC. Taking for granted that the typical console buyer has very little interest in spending too much energies on mobile gadgets (that will die from saturation anyway according to the opinion of the Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell), even for choosing a machine to put under the TV the situation couldn’t be messier with “alternative” consoles based on Android (Ouya, GamePop), Valve’s Steam Machine and strange crossbreeds which stream from the PC to a portable micro-display (Nvidia Shield).
The seventh generation lasted for too long, Ubisoft’s CEO Yves Guillemot stated, and this is a pretty popular opinion among publishers. The video games industry still depends - largely but not exclusively - on the moves by the big players Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo, and in two out of three cases the big players have decided that the next-generation must embrace the x86 PC architecture turning to AMD - that will surely thank them in the future quarterly results - for being supplied with custom APUs (Accelerated Processing Unit) with CPU and GPU combined on the same central circuitry.
Maybe the new consoles will not be capable of reaching the visual complexity levels of Avatar like someone says, and perhaps digital delivery isn’t the forthcoming future of the market as someone else states; what seems certain is that the particular transition moment experienced by the gaming business will keep the seventh generation of home consoles alive for some more years and publishers will have two different generations to support with many “intergenerational” releases. Nothing strange, anyway, considering that the swan song of PS3 and Xbox 360 includes sales monsters like Grand Theft Auto V.
The eighth generation of home consoles began with the arrival of Nintendo Wii U during the past year November, even though very few people noticed it: the console follows Nintendo’s tradition of creating not particularly powerful machines with poor hardware specs (and hardly comparable to competing products) which bet everything on price cheapness, retrocompatibility, the classic characters from the Japanese squad (Mario, Zelda&Link etc.) and the novelty of the control system which in this case includes a GamePad (joypad+tablet) with second-screen functionality, touch controls and games streaming in place of the TV (Off-TV Play).
The first Wii closed its manufacturing cycle (at least in Japan and Europe) selling 100 million units, but the revolution of the console devoted to motion control, “party gaming” and the strategy known as “blue ocean” (going for the new markets unexpressed potential) has seemingly been a temporary revolution and now monthly sales of the Wii U are only a dim memory of the millions of Wii boxes delivered to users during the past years. Publishers have started to label Nintendo as an “irrelevant” hardware manufacturer, but Nintendo still believes in its role as a maker of gaming machines admitting at best that the company had initially underestimated the work needed to produce high-definition graphical contents.
The new PlayStation
The real “next-gen” began to take form the past 20th of February, when Sony Computer Entertainment unveiled its new platform during a press event in New York City: PlayStation 4 was shown to the world starting from its basic philosophy, ie a machine equipped with PC hardware (AMD x86 APU with an eight-core CPU+custom GPU, 8 Gigabytes of GDDR5 RAM, 2 Teraflops of computing power) focused on players first of all and then everything else.
In New York the PS4 wasn’t even physically present, and all the hardware shown by Sony was the Dualshock 4 controller redesigned to honor the PlayStation tradition with the addition of a central touchpad, a new pair of function buttons (”Share” and “Options”) and the usual amount of buttons, joypads, analog sticks and side triggers. The new PlayStation is an important investment for a company forced to deal with a very difficult period of its history, a machine that adds a new chapter to the PlayStation family without completely replacing the PlayStation 3.
Sony says it has learned from the many mistakes made with the aforementioned seventh-generation console, a platform primarily built around new technologies (Cell CPU, Blu-ray optical format) and marketed as capable of “only doing everything”. Contrariwise PS4 is devoted to the players, while its basic technology elements - shown in detail by Sony’s engineering director Yasuhiro Ootori for Wired - have been chosen to ease the developers work. And the developers have liked it praising the hardware, the GPU (AMD Radeon “Liverpool”) and the availability of a big amount of very fast GDDR5 memory that high-end PCs can still dream of.
PlayStation 4 will be supported for 10 years and will improve the gaming software way beyond what’s possible with PS3, Sony promises, without leaving place to some obscure cloud computing platform so soon considering that one of the games available on day one (Killzone: Shadow Fall) takes up 40 Gigabytes on a Blu-ray disk and could have taken up even much more space. Unlike what happened with the PS3, the adoption of the PC architecture let Sony save money while investing in the PS4 hardware: the Japanese corporation talks about extremely limited losses for selling every console, a fact supported by the last IHS iSuppli analysis which estimates a manufacturing cost 18 dollars below the PS4 retail price.
Xbox One in the cloud
The debut of the new Microsoft console took place exactly three months after the PS4 one and was a true, embarrassing disaster: Xbox One shares the same PC basic architecture of the competing machine, is equipped with a Blu-ray reader and a 500 Gigabytes HDD, 8 Gigabytes of RAM, HDMI input and output; but Xbox One is very different from PS4 as well, it is a console for “all-in-one” entertainment focused on television contents, streaming services, exclusive partnerships for the USA market.
Xbox One is a console with three operating systems, Microsoft explained, a setup designed to smoothly manage applications in Windows 8/Metro/Modern style, video games and the instantaneous switch from an environment to another. Xbox One is sold together with a more modern and capable version of the Kinect sensor, but above all Xbox One is a console with its head in the cloud computing: the Xbox Live infrastructure servers have been multiplied (from the 15,000 of Xbox 360 to 300,000), the Internet connection is mandatory (so as the games installation on the internal HDD) with a forced on-line authentication every 24 hours.
A disaster, indeed: on the arrival Microsoft’s next-gen was welcomed with criticism and very harsh controversy, and Redmond rapidly earned the reputation of “anti-consumer” company that wants to sweep away the used games market, lock down users in its always-on DRM and wants to permanently turn video games into a time-limited service rather than a product owned by the customer. The June E3 conference in Los Angeles did nothing but confirm all the doubts on Xbox One, maybe dispelling some clouds over Microsoft’s weak interest in games - which are certainly here - but leaving unchanged the cry of dissatisfaction against the new policies that the company passionately defended until it could do so.
Sony concurred to worsen an already bad situation for the new Xbox when at the aforementioned E3 it finally showed the PS4 hardware - surprise, it’s a black box - confirmed the possibility to enjoy games on Blu-ray disks purchased anywhere in the world and above all the company made clear the will to go in a completely opposite direction to the one chosen by Microsoft: the new PlayStation doesn’t need the Internet to work, it supports used games lending and reselling exactly like in the past generation, it will use the cloud only when it’s needed, does not have a videocamera always watching the user (the PlayStation Camera gadget must be purchased separately) and it costs 100 dollars/euros less than Xbox One. Checkmate, goodbye Microsoft and welcome to the hysterical actors with millions of polygons hired by Sony to show the remarkable brute power of PS4.
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