Consolation Prizes
Issue: Volume: 27 Issue: 12 (December 2004)

Consolation Prizes

The "big three" next-generation consoles—Microsoft's Xbox 2, Nintendo's GameCube 2, and Sony's PlayStation 3—are expected to ship in 2005, or perhaps even in 2006. Though these units are frequently discussed and anxiously awaited by the gaming community, hard details are limited; the consoles' names and even their existence are officially "unofficial." A few particulars are considered common knowledge (see "Machines of Mystery," pg. 37), but for the most part, information about the next generation is being gleaned from a number of uncertain sources such as the companies' job postings for software engineers and the like.

At press time, software development kits for the new platforms were either unavailable, top secret, or both. But the situation has hardly slowed game development. New titles ship every week, and highly anticipated games, such as Halo 2 for the Xbox, continue to generate extraordinary end-user excitement, as seen in the first-day sales of the title, which reached $125 million.

For now, users' voracious appetite for computer games is being satisfied by the current generation of consoles, which are still evolving. Sony's PS2, for example, has a new, slimmer profile, while Microsoft continues to push online gaming with its Xbox-based subscription service, Xbox Live. This fall, Sony and Microsoft announced US price decreases for their systems—both are now available for about $150, and some experts were predicting further price drops in November.

Perhaps some of the most exciting developments in game consoles are in the handheld arena, with Nintendo's DS and Sony's PlayStation Portable (PSP) poised to do battle with each other. Pre-existing products—Nintendo's GameBoy Advance and Nokia's N-Gage game deck, for example—have their niches as well. GameBoy obviously takes advantage of Nintendo's extensive and popular software library, including the Mario and Final Fantasy series, and the immensely popular Metroid Fusion. The N-Gage, sometimes referred to as a "game phone," features online 3D multiplayer gameplay over Bluetooth wireless technology. And Tiger Telematics' Gizmondo, released in the UK last month, is a sort of do-it-all entertainment device that features MP3 and MPEG 4 video playback, a digital camera, and gameplay, with multiplayer gaming supported via Bluetooth. Last month, Tiger completed a deal that will bring many titles from Microsoft Game Studios to the Gizmondo handheld, including Age of Empires.
Nokia's N-Gage game deck offers 3D graphics on a 4096-color screen, and multiplayer gaming via Bluetooth technology.

Adding interest to the current development scenario are two new categories of console-type entertainment that aren't really consoles—Infinium Labs' Phantom, best described as a game subscription and delivery service, and the EyeToy, a camera-and-software package that works with Sony's PS2 to deliver a new kind of interface between the game and the player.

So, while the next-gen consoles are on the far horizon, content developers have plenty to concentrate on in the here and now, as online gaming, downloadable content, and hard-drive interaction serve as the current buzzwords in console gaming.

Microsoft's Xbox is based on a custom-designed 233mhz Nvidia graphics processing unit, which is a programmable 3D processor containing more than 60 million transistors. According to the company, polygon performance equals 116.5m/sec, with a pixel fill rate for textures equaling 3.7g/sec. All this contributes to the console's admittedly impressive graphics. The Xbox's built-in hard drive, claims a Microsoft spokesperson, "enables game developers to create larger, richer, more detailed worlds and game environments." Moreover, the Xbox's compatibility with Microsoft's Direct X API makes it especially attractive to PC game developers.

A major emphasis of late, as evidenced by Microsoft's vigorous Xbox Live campaign (there are nearly 3 million connected consoles to date), is online gaming. "Xbox," notes a company spokesperson, "is the only video game system designed from the ground up to harness the future of broadband online gaming with its built-in hard disk and Ethernet port."

Comparatively, Nintendo's GameCube is powered by IBM's customized Power PC chip, called the Gekko, which runs at 485mhz. Image-processing capabilities include fog generation, sub-pixel anti-aliasing, bump mapping, environment mapping, MIP mapping, bi-linear filtering, tri-linear filtering, and anisotropic texture filtering. The GameCube handles polygons at the rate of six million to 12 million per second. Rather than a CD-size hard drive, it has its own 3-inch Nintendo GameCube Game Disc system, which holds 1.5gb of information.

Meanwhile, Sony's PS2 is getting slimmer, as the company announced a lighter version of the machine that's 2.8cm thick, compared to its former 7.8cm size. The PS2 now comes with a built-in Ethernet port for online gaming, feeding Sony's online console community of 1.4 million users, which the company claims is the largest in North America.

The PS2 is powered by a 300mhz CPU it calls the "Emotion Engine," and also by its own Graphics Synthesizer chip, capable of processing 75 million polygons per second. Complex graphics features like Z buffering, textures, lighting, and alpha blending have the Graphics Synthesizer outputting a sustained rate of 20 million polygons per second.

Nintendo DS, the vendor's latest handheld, which is to ship in November, has a two-panel display that incorporates a built-in stylus for use with the device's lower touch screen, a microphone for voice recognition, and wireless capabilities via local network and Wi-Fi. With two screens, players can experience the game from two perspectives at once. In a role-playing game, for example, action might take place on the lower screen while the player's tools appear on the upper one. So, in a football application, the whole field might be visible on the top screen, and the immediate action concerning the player might appear on the bottom. In the future, notes the manufacturer, titles could be created that allow users to play games on one screen while text-messaging a person on the other. Meanwhile, each backlit screen provides 3D viewing.

"Graphics on the DS will be better than those on the Nintendo 64 in terms of quality," notes Anka Dolecki, director of public relations for Nintendo of America. Games will run at 60 frames per second, and allow details such as fog effects and cel shading. Those developing content for the DS can utilize the dual-display capability or simply generate content for the single screen.
The Nintendo DS mobile gaming device features two screens for options such as simultaneous bird's-eye and close-up views of the action at hand.

Meanwhile, the new handheld player on the block, the PSP from Sony, will run three-dimensional CG games that incorporate high-quality, full-motion video similar to that of the PS2, according to the company. The PSP will feature the UMD (Universal Media Disc), Sony's newly developed compact storage media, which is 60mm in diameter and can hold up to 1.8gb of digital data. Besides game content, a range of digital entertainment such as music video clips, movies, and sports programs can run on the UMD.

The PSP's shipping schedule includes an end-of-year launch in Japan, and release in Europe and the US in early 2005.

A novel offering, The Phantom Game Service from Infinium Labs is not a console, but rather an on-demand game distribution system designed to appeal to casual as well as avid players. "The thing we hear over and over is that people like gaming but don't want to make the commitment," says Infinium Labs president Kevin Bachus. That's especially true, he notes, when it comes to buying a game, learning its ins and outs, and so forth.

With the Phantom, which consists of a keyboard, software, a receiver that sits atop the TV, and a networked library of games accessed through a broadband Internet connection, a person can download a game and play it on the television at will—once or many times. "Think of it as iTunes for games," Bachus says.

Users will pay a monthly fee of about $30 for the service, set to launch in 2005, which includes access to the Phantom games library as well as the hardware.

The Phantom is not really a new platform for content developers, as it makes use, at least for the time being, of existing content and supports multiuser play. Getting that content ready for streaming represents the R&D challenge, according to Bachus. Using proprietary algorithms, Infinium Labs analyzes the software registers, graphics structure, stability (with regard to crashing), and more of each game and prepares it for optimal streaming to users.

"It takes 10 or 15 minutes of buffering for players to get started, and then the rest of the game file streams during play," says Bachus. "It's completely transparent to the user." Once a game is downloaded, it resides on the Phantom receiver and no longer needs to be streamed.

The other novelty item, the EyeToy from Sony, consists of a little camera that sits on the TV and EyeToy software (a PlayStation 2 is also required). To use the device, a game player stands in front of the TV, while the camera picks up the person's image and projects it on the screen amid game imagery such as attacking ninjas, as occurs in Kung Foo, part of the EyeToy: Play Pack of Games. The person uses his or her hands and arms to interact with objects on the screen by "swatting" them—in this case, batting away the marauding ninjas. Though most gamers seem to regard EyeToy applications as "party fodder" rather than serious gaming, the interface is unique and seems to beg for rewarding content.
The EyeToy from Sony uses a camera on top of a TV (right) to film a player who interacts with software imagery on screen, as in the current EA title Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

The diversity of current gaming hardware—whether updates of pre-existing products or new handhelds, or even new game distribution systems—demonstrates that innovation and evolution are present in the marketplace, despite the hurry-up-and-wait atmosphere surrounding the next-generation consoles. The new offerings are also whetting the appetites of game players looking for something, anything, new and exciting in this space until the big three manufacturers release their next big things.

Jenny Donelan is a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World. She can be reached at

Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony haven't had much to say about their next-generation consoles—the so-called Xbox 2, GameCube 2, and PlayStation 3. And in the absence of official announcements, the following speculation thrives.

Xbox 2: Microsoft chairman Bill Gates is scheduled to deliver the keynote address at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this January, and many experts believe he will reveal the company's plans for Xbox 2 at that time. Meanwhile, one unsubstantiated but far-flung notion is that the company will use chips of its own design in the new console, rather than the silicon from Intel and Nvidia it employs in the current Xbox. Other sources say the company will switch to IBM processors, while others maintain the company will stick with its original Xbox sources.

PlayStation 3: Sony Computer Entertainment's next console will almost certainly utilize the new Cell (also an unofficial name) processor from Toshiba and IBM. The Cell, which is made up of many small processors and is said to handle up to one trillion floating-point calculations per second, will also be used to power a variety of other electronic devices, including household appliances. Many experts believe that the PS3 will incorporate a broadband modem and a hard drive, underscoring manufacturers' recent emphasis on downloadable and online gaming.

GameCube 2: Little is known and even speculated about Nintendo's next-gen gaming console. The company is making no announcements at this time other than to drop hints that consumers should get ready for "something brand new."