The State of Gaming and the Next Generation Console Wars…

Computer games made a humble start as an industry, way back when computers were plugged into TV’s computer games began to occupy our time. The democratization of computing power, making computer power ubiquitous, has now taken the humble computer game to every corner of the world and every aspect of our lives. Creating an industry that now generates over $68 billion a year.

The next generation consoles bring with them a new battle to dominate and a new wave of change, a potential shift of power . Before the wave of next gen consoles roles in it is the perfect time to settle bets and close off the books on the current generation, the soon to be previous gen.

With the release of the next generation fast approaching it is also the ideal time to set the scene, asses the current state of gaming and prepare for what is coming. As the console wars prepare to heat up once again we all prepare to indulge, here’s what you need to know.

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The closing off the books on the current generation of consoles sees the end of an incredible period for change to computing as well as computer games. When the Xbox first appeared in 2005 Netflix were still posting DVD’s, Twitter was still under construction by creator Jack Dorsey and Dropbox hadn’t, well, dropped in yet.

A period of gaming history that saw the gaming market eclipse the movie industry in terms of revenue. A period of record sales for console and PC games.

The Black Wii
The Black Wii

Usage models have evolved drastically since the dawn of the current generation; the Wii saw the rise of the party gamer who gets their console out just for special events. Casual gamers and gamers on the go have become a major market with more options than ever. The hardcore gamers have become more numerous driving massive sales numbers for AAA titles, helping to pay for those big budget games.

The Numbers

According to recent unit sales statistics reported by VGChartz (May 2013) if the winner of the console wars had been declared today the Wii would have won. Having sold over 102 million consoles the Wii leads the PS3 and 360 by 25 million units. The little console burst onto the scene (November 19 2006) with incredible sales early on and very poor sales late in its life. The Wii saw it all, highs and lows but ultimately it would become the console most likely to end up in the cupboard.

According to Nielsen’s demographic study (2009) the Nintendo user base was dominated by children aged between 6 and 11 along with women aged between 25 and 34. Also the number of women over 35 using the console is much higher than either the 360 or PS3.

The PlayStation 3
The PlayStation 3

Unit sales of the PS3 have in recent months overtaken those of the 360, but there is life in both current generation consoles, it’s probably too early and too close to call. Xbox sales by June had reached 77,311,669 units while the PS3 has reached 77,313,472 units. Only 2,000 units difference over 7 years of sales.

The PlayStation 3 started strong after being released on November 11, 2006, a year after the 360. Always seeming to be playing catch-up with the 360 the PS3 suffered many hits to its sales thanks to Sony’s tendency towards Three Stooges management techniques. From hacked networks, buggy games to changing the paid content of a game after its release, Sony had it all to lose and they very nearly did.

Saving Sony’s bacon were two small but very important facts; the PS3 has by far the highest quality output of all devices and it looked good, odd maybe but very slick. It wouldn’t play half of your files and Sony would change something every time you restarted but when it came to image and audio quality the PS3 was unbeatable. Provide it with high quality digital content and it will make any TV and speaker setup shine. Game quality was also exceptional at times but difficult to achieve due to the complex nature of programming on the PS3’s.

According to the demographics the PS3 was the adult’s console, both men and women between 18 and 24 dominating the user base, not a teenager or child in sight.

Chrome Xbox 360
Chrome Xbox 360

The 360 finishes up in third place, but not by much. This is however in spite of a year’s head start (launched November 22, 2005) and better marketing when compared to the PS3.

Microsoft wasn’t short of dramas during the early days of their consoles life. The red ring of death haunted early models of the 360, an overheating issue that caused the chips to meltdown and de-solder themselves, ultimately causing the 360’s power ring display to glow red as the console sat lifeless. Millions of consoles were recalled or repaired over the life of the issue.

The demographics suggest the Xbox 360 was the teenager’s console, with the largest number of males between the age of 12 to 17 along with a large user base of women between 25 and 34.

Microsoft’s greatest success with the 360 though has to be the immense catalog of excellent games available for the console. When a dry wind and tumbleweeds were blowing through Sony’s bare online game store Microsoft had numerous AAA big name games along with an impressive collection of indie games.

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The Release Price and Date Rumors

Microsoft and Sony are both being a little coy when it comes to official release dates of their consoles. Microsoft is officially stating that the Xbox One will be released in November. Sony is simply saying the PS4 will be released during the ‘holiday 2013’ period. Here at Highpants we are hoping for late October release of the PS4, we have a feeling Sony is being cunning.

Other rumors suggest the PS4 may appear as early as the eclipse on November 3, tying in with the eclipse appearing in their commercial. Meanwhile Toy’sR’Us hit publish too early on its product sheets for the next generation consoles. In the processing leaking the UK release dates which were quickly shared around the web, the site listed November 29 for the Xbox One and December 13 for the PS4.

highpants-next-gen-gaming-sadboxPre-orders have been so brisk for the PS4, so much so that all online retailers are no longer willing to guarantee delivery on release day one. Pre-orders are still being taken (as of mid-August) for the Xbox One but demand is also brisk on the Xbox side. Some reports are suggesting that the PS4 will initially outsell the One by up to 2:1 that may just be Sony marketing talk however.

Microsoft is setting pricing differently around the world; the One will cost $499 in the US, £429 in the UK and $599 in Australia. For your money included in the retail box you will find the latest Kinect HD sensor, gaming headset, 4K ready HDMI cable and the black box that is the Xbox One.

The PS4 will undercut the Xbox One on pricing with the console costing $100 less in the US. For US fans of the PlayStation the console will cost $399, UK gamers will pay £349 and Australian gamers  will pay just that little more for no apparent reason with the console costing $549. The retail PS4 will include power, HDMI, wired headset and brand new dual shock controller. The cheaper price looks to be partly due to the lack of PlayStation Eye (Kinect equivalent) .

The decision of which next generation console to buy will be made by millions of gamers in the next six months, a lucky few will dodge the question altogether and buy both. If the look or a preference for Microsoft or Sony games still leaves you wondering which to get consider this; do you use the apps a lot on a console or only do you only play games?

If you use apps on your console consider the One as the console of choice. Microsoft has always done an excellent job of signing up big names to their console, turning it into a platform in its own right On the other hand if you predominantly play games go with the PS4.

The Xbox One

Xbox One in real life
Xbox One in real life

Microsoft have slowly been tweaking and tuning the Xbox One over recent months but having recently (see above video) revealed to the world the retail box contents we can hope this has come to an end.

Hopefully the final controversy to engulf the One revolves around Microsoft’s great firewall in the clouds, the requirement to have a paid Xbox Live Gold membership in order to access even basic features like Netflix or web browsing on the One.

To be fair even the PS4 will have some features set aside for paid Platinum members but it is few and far between.  Almost all functions on the One will be limited in some way without a Gold pass. Game recording using the integrated DVR functionality  is limited to only Gold members and will be limited to just 5 minutes at 720p.

Watch the reveal video (above) and you may be surprised to see that styling is definitely the biggest disappointment for the new Xbox.  The rectangular slightly curved edges of the case represent the least amount of character in any console design in history, excluding the Amiga CD32..

Microsoft does Operating Systems; it’s their bread and butter so the operating system will be one of the highlights for Microsoft’s new console. Three operating systems will be present on the One, taking multitasking to new levels for a console. A hypervisor OS will control the system and assign the game and app operating systems varying amounts of processor time and resources. Switching between various  modes is instant thanks to the new OS.

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Xbox One internals

Integration into our living rooms is the name of the game for the One, think of it as one device to rule them all. Essential to achieving this goal is the HDMI pass through, allowing the picture from closed cable, satellite or free to air set top boxes to become integrated into the Xbox experience.

Using the Kinect’s gesture control along with voice recognition Microsoft will introduce a number of new ways to work with the windows that fill our TV’s. Instant Switching and Snap Mode allow the user to choose what to display and how. Flick between movies, gaming or TV. Divide the display into a split screen mode.

Early on Microsoft made the tough decision to include the new HD Kinect with every Xbox, a tough decision that does mean every game developer can count on a Kinect being present. The new Kinect is being touted as being sensitive enough to pick up your heart beat and smart enough to know you weight. Capturing 2GB of data per second the Kinect is now even better at capturing your gestures. With full 1080 HD video camera’s the Kinect will even know when you’re watching a TV commercial, it may also reward you for not changing channels too apparently.

The Xbox One Guide provides the latest TV Guide technology including favorites and trending just in case you’re curious as to what everyone else is watching.

Under the hood the Xbox One CPU will feature 8 customized Jaguar cores running at 1.6GHz. There were rumors early on that the faster FX desktop CPU cores would be used (Piledriver) but it seems that Jaguar won with much lower power usage. The faster more powerful Piledriver cores may have helped Microsoft catch up with the PS4 a little, performance wise anyway. Stories have also surfaced in recent weeks suggesting that Microsoft has designed the Xbox One to have a ten year lifespan; they may have gone for reliable over pure performance.

Xbox One system
Xbox One system

Responsible for pushing all of those pixels around the screen the GCN GPU will sport 768 stream processors and run at the new recently upgraded speed of 853MHz, a 53MHz bump from the original spec. This will provide 1.33 TFLOPS of processing power for graphics.

System memory will consist of 8GB of DDR3 RAM clocked at 2133 MHz, providing 68.3 GB/s of bandwidth. Microsoft has added 32 MB of internal eSRAM with 192 GB/s to help speed up the situation.

To aid integration into the living room the XBox One is loaded with input and output connectors as well as moving from DVD on the 360 to a slot loading Blu-ray driv.  Connectors around the back include the HDMI Input and Output, USB 3, Gigabit Ethernet and Kinect connector. There are also a multitude of wireless standards integrated into the box; WiFi, WiFi Direct and Bluetooth.

The game controller still bears a strong family resemblance all be it with redesigned D-Pad and new styling.  It is said to be light and comfortable, those who got very used to their 360 controllers won’t be disappointed.

While the One may be slower on paper than the PS4, especially playing games, it will excel in every other department, shuffling into place at the centre of our entertainment centre. Games, movies, music, web and now Skype and TV all delivered with the Metro look and feel.

Also interesting are the rumors of a smaller satellite Xbox One, placed in other rooms around the house connected to the other TV’s. The One may just be the first of a new generation of Xbox.

The Playstation 4

Out of the box the PlayStation 4 grabs your attention with its sharp lines and good looks. Looking not unlike a modernized PS2 the console drops the curves of the PS3 in favor of the straight lines of its grandfather. Suffice as to say here at Highpants it is unanimous, we all think it looks damn good.

PlayStation 4 and the new Dual Shock
PlayStation 4 and the new Dual Shock

As with the Xbox One the PS4 will use 8 Jaguar cores within its CPU. There is speculation suggesting that the cores may run at 2.75GHz, a major speed increase from the initial PS4 specification that suggested a 1.6GHz CPU. The graphics processor will include 1152 GCN stream processors .giving the PS4 a definite graphics advantage with 1.84 TFLOPS processing power, 50% higher than the One.

The memory subsystem will also go a long we to providing a better gaming experience for the PS4 relative to the XBox One. The 8GB of GDDR5 RAM is clocked at 5500 MHz and sits on a 256-bit wide memory bus provides a total of 176GB/s of bandwidth. Built using AMD’s new HUMA memory technology both the CPU and GPU will be able to work together like never before. (See here for more information). Reports from various developers are indicating that Sony has gone from being very difficult to develop for (PS3) to being a breeze, with many going on to describe the system as a beast.

Connectors around the back include USB 3.0, Gigabit Ethernet, WiFi, Bluetooth, HDMI, and Digital Optical Audio with Analog AV out.

PS4 standing.
PS4 standing.

Most of the PS4’s new functionality will be available to all users. Unlike the Xbox One game streaming and live recording on the PS4 will not require the paid PlayStation Plus premium membership; the share button will be available to all in the PlayStation universe. Sharing games will be taken to a new level with the ability for a friend to take control of your current game remotely. Remote Play will also now be available on smartphones, tablets and the PS Vita.

The shift to AMD and X86 processor technology has allowed Sony to shift the PS4’s operating system to Linux. This latest OS has improved background multitasking to allow more control of background tasks, including downloading.

As with previous generations Sony will keep the PS3 alive as long as it is making money for them. There are plans for a 2014 revision that will see the release of the super slim PS3 hopefully dropping well below $200.

 

PC Gaming for the Hardcore

While the death of the desktop has been greatly exaggerated of late there can be no denying the desktop PC market is changing. Gaming PC’s it turns out are the savior of the PC industry. It is in fact the only sector of the traditional PC industry that is expected to show continued growth for the next decade, according to John Peddie Research.

As Clancy Wigam would say ‘Nothing to see here’, the PC gaming market will continue to be the core gaming market, with the fastest hardware running the latest games at the ridiculous speeds. Leading edge technology is at the heart of PC gaming, 4K resolution, dual GPU, water-cooling, high performance CPU’s; these are next generation technologies in use today.

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Gaming Frontiers: Portable gaming and the Android Consoles

Bluestacks Gamepop
Bluestacks Gamepop

Handheld consoles, smartphones, tablets and now Android consoles are all currently at war for the fastest growing gaming segment, cheap and quick casual gaming. All of these devices actually compete in only one way, price. With low game prices and cheap hardware prices most require little investment of time or money.

The PS Vita and 3DS are the exception in this segment; they are expensive as are the games, still cheaper than PC or console games though. These are still the devices that lead the portable gaming market and will continue to do so for a while yet. The quality of the best games on Vita and 3DS is still well beyond anything available on Android and iOS gaming.

Amazon and Google have both recently announced their intentions to enter the console market, both with new Android devices. This may simply be a knee jerk reaction to a similar announcement from Apple, with Apple TV being replaced with an Apple console.

BlueStacks have taken an innovative approach to gaming by introducing a subscription model. For $7 a month subscribers will get access to 500 games to play anytime. They even offer a free or paid option for the hardware. Those wanting a cheap option can use the free Gamepop Mini while those wanting a bit more grunt can buy the Gamepop cube console for $129 USD. The Gamepop consoles are similar in many ways to Ouya, a compact and cheap Android based consoles. Also like Ouya its success will come down to the quality of the games available.

The BlueStacks Gamepop systems are expected to be available towards the end of 2013.

The Ouya Android console
The Ouya Android console

The Ouya console has finally made it to market, becoming one of the first casual gaming consoles available. So far most reports suggesting that the console comes up short as a gaming solution, with the quality of the games still low. All of this will improve over time of course, as long as Ouya can hang in there.

Hardware wise the Ouya is a $99 console, the Tegra 3 chip runs at 1.7GHz but is still slow even for an ARM processor. The 1GB of RAM and 8GB of Flash for storage should be ample but not excessive.  Connectors include all of the basics; USB for storage expansin, WiFi, Ethernet, Bluetooth, HDMI and Micro USB for connect the Ouya to a PC. While none of these specs will make Ouya leading edge it is ample for the games, most of which are pretty simple.

Part of the initial appeal of the Ouya was its open hackability, the developers would allow users to turn it into anything they want. Every console sold has the dev libraries installed, turning it into a full dev box in the blink of an eye. Developers now have consoles and hopefully this will help to improve the quality and quantity of the software available.

Making Ouya interesting XBMC and Plex are now available, each of which will turn your Ouya into a powerful media centre. BBC iPlayer, TVCatchup, Netflix, Hulu, Dropbox, uTorrent and  other apps can also be side-loaded, they don’t have official version yet but there are known versions that will work now.

Simple issues such as games that use the controller buttons differently are a constant issue at the moment, the pause button being different on many games doesn’t sound like much but it is frustrating.  While the console is cheap at $99 USD without compelling games Ouya will be a hard sell.

NVIDIA Shield
NVIDIA Shield

The Nvidia Shield is another Android gaming system trying to carve itself a place in the gaming market. Appearing to be a slightly chubby game controller the Shield is in fact a complete Android gaming console along with batteries and a 5 inch IPS screen. Large fast and unusual enough to be interesting the Shield is an impressive multi-talented portable gaming gadget.

Weighing in at 579 grams this is no light-weight, NVIDIA have shrunk a console into a single game controller after all. NVIDIA’s Tegra 4 chipset and 2GB of RAM keeps the action moving on the 5 inch 720p. All up the batteries will keep you gaming for 10 hours on a single charge.

Game options include a number of Android titles that work well with the controller along with streaming PC games to the unit. Media playback is a strength for the Shield, with the bright and clear screen along with plenty of grunt under the hood it will keep any movie buff happy.

Competing with the PS Vita and 3DS is no easy task and NVIDIA have done an admirable the first time around, for those serious about playing good quality games on the go the PS Vita is still the leader of the pack. In fact it still rules the entire portable gaming scene, Android or not.

The rules in the portable gaming world are just the same as in the console or PC gaming worlds; those who have the best games will win. This above all will dictate which gaming systems survive this next round of the console wars.

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Conclusion

The frontiers of gaming are pushed back constantly, the cloud is pushing hard to find its place in gaming and it may just provide the greatest change in coming years. Both Microsoft and Sony are experimenting with the delivery 4K content and games via their cloud services. Sony is also making previous generation games available via emulation that is run on the cloud.

The numbers argument may per-occupy many in the lead up to the release of the next generation consoles but here at Highpants we like to be far more superficial, as far as we are concerned the console designs signal the end of the wars for us. While the Xbox One looks like the descendant of a Betamax video recorder (a Sony machine ironically) the PS4 is stunning, looking just as a next generation console should.

Leaving only the games, both Sony and Microsoft will have their favorite franchises lined up ready to help sell the new hardware. Exactly which games will make release day one will have to wait until we are a little close to the big day.

Start saving your penny’s or pestering your parents, whatever it takes to be prepared as the time of the next generation consoles is almost upon us.

Reference: Xbox One
Reference: PlayStation 4
Reference: BlueStacks Gamepop
Reference: Ouya
Reference: NVIDIA Shield