Issue: Volume 36 Issue 3: (Mar/Apr 2013)

Console Wars Redux

By: Karen Moltenbrey

Most of us probably do not remember the first generation of video game consoles, or the second for that matter. In all likelihood, the third generation (the Nintendo Entertainment System) kicked offconsole video gaming for the majority of us in the mid-1980s, introducing us to Mario, Luigi, Zelda, Donkey Kong, and other fun, beloved, pixelated characters. A few years later came the fourth-generation consoles, and approximately five years after that, the fifth generation, which included the Sony PlayStation and Nintendo 64.

Thee sixth-generation game consoles – surprise – rolled out nearly five years later (notice a trend?). Theese are the systems that helped define a totally new era in gaming, starting with Sega’s Dreamcast, followed a year later by Sony’s PlayStation 2, Microsoft’s Xbox, and Nintendo’s GameCube. With this hardware, and with the seventh-generation systems (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360) a halfdecade later, gameplay moved into a whole new realm thanks to highde finition CGI delivering amazing effects, realistic, emotive characters, and jaw-dropping environments. Nintendo, however, took a different route, as the Wii focused less on gaming realism and more on fun via motion tracking and sensing.

It’s now been seven years since we have seen a major upgrade in terms of gaming hardware. But, the time has now arrived and we are seeing the first embers of the next round of console wars, which will be heating up in the coming months.

The Big Three

First to market in the eighth-generation console war was Nintendo, with its Wii U in late 2012, although some do not consider the Wii U part of this next generation. Thee Wii U is the first Nintendo console to support highdefinition graphics (so seventh generation) capable of producing video output up to 1080p. It also sports 2 GB of RAM, with half of that dedicated to the console’s operating system. Thee Wii U ships in two versions: one with 8 GB of internal flash storage, and another with 32 GB. Thee system’s Wii U GamePad controller contains an embedded touch screen for gameplay when the television is off. Thee system also connects to the Nintendo Network – Nintendo’s network infrastructure answer to the Sony PlayStation Network and Microsoft Xbox Live (again, so last generation, but a necessary catch-up to the last-gen consoles).

Without question, the feature that is getting the most attention is Wii U’s touch-screen controller. The 6.2inch screen is about the size of a tablet computer. However, that is where the comparison to a tablet ends, as the screen in no way functions like a tablet computer. The display on the Wii U controller, though, can work in a few different ways. It can be used to add extra information or control options to a game that is being played on a television screen; it also can display the same information shown on the TV. And, it can serve as the only gaming screen in use when the system is in “Off TV Play” mode.

Alas, the system did not meet with the fanfare that the original Wii did back in 2006, when many shoppers were lured by the unique gameplay of the system and its lower price in comparison to the PlayStation 3, released in the same timeframe.

The Wii U may have gotten an early jump in 2012, but it appears that 2013 is gearing up to be the big start of the next-generation rollout. And, in all likelihood, there will be some new players in both the console and handheld sectors. To this end, expect E3 to be a very busy place, as companies unveil their plans and provide a look at their new wares.

The market is ripe with talk of Microsoft’s next-generation Xbox console, expected sometime this year. Details, as you would expect, are slim – well, practically non-existent.

The same holds true for Sony’s PlayStation 4, also estimated for a late-2013 release. Speculation on whether either system will have 3D stereo capability has been rampant but un-substantiated.

With few hard facts, the industry has been anxious to learn more about Sony’s or Microsoft’s new gaming vision. Which one would throw down the gauntlet first and reveal details about their offering? The answer: Sony. In a press conference at the end of February, Sony revealed plans to roll out the next generation, indeed called PlayStation 4, in time for the holiday shopping season. “It redefines rich and immersive gameplay with powerful graphics and speed, intelligent personalization, deeply integrated social capabilities, and innovative second-screen features,” stated Jack Tretton, president and CEO of Sony, in a recent blog. “When we designed PlayStation 4, we focused on building an architecture that will allow the greatest game developers in the industry to push boundaries and dig deep within their imaginations to create the most immersive and unique games for you to enjoy.”

Tretton promises that the PS4 will change the way gamers interact when playing with friends. Embracing the social media phenomenon, PlayStation 4 will let players instantly share images and videos of their favorite gameplay moments on Facebook with a single press on the DualShock 4 controller’s “share” button; they can also broadcast while playing in real time through Ustream, so friends can comment or jump into the game in new ways. “Leveraging PlayStation Network with Gaikai technology, PS4 will make it easier for you to play your favorite games and access content wherever you are. We see PS Vita as the ultimate companion device for PS4, and it’s our long-term vision to make most PS4 games playable on PS Vita, so you can bring your favorite games from the bigscreen TV to your PS Vita over Wi-Fi,” he noted of the Remote Play feature.

Also on tap is a PlayStation app for iPhone, iPad, and Android devices that acts as a second screen, “allowing for unique gameplay possibilities, such as viewing maps during an adventure game or remotely watching friends play during an epic battle – right from a smartphone or tablet,” wrote Tretton.

In terms of specs, the PS4 will have an eightcore 64-bit x86 Jaguar CPU from AMD, with a next-gen Radeon-based GPU comprising 18 “compute units” capable of handling 1.84 tera? ops. Moreover, the machine will have full-3D support with 4?/2? compatibility. It will also support 3D Blu-ray. So, what is the price of the PS4? ˜ at is still unannounced.

New Kids on the Block

All eyes are not solely on Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony. There are new contenders vying for attention – and a piece of this lucrative market. Expected this summer is an inexpensive console from Ouya that runs a revised version of the Android operating system. The system boasts 8GB internal flash memory and 1GB RAM. The Ouya also will offer users access to the OnLive streaming game service and to an Ouya store for game purchases. Another big attraction, aside from its $99 price tag, is the ability to easily access the hardware for game development, without having to pay for developer kits.

Is an inexpensive, independent system ready to take on the Big Three? Only time will tell, but many are betting on the Ouya, which was the brainchild of Julie Uhrman of Boxer8 and funded via Kickstarter. In fact, the fundraising goal of $8 million to spur development was achieved in less than eight hours.

Another new and rather unique “console” expected this year is called GameStick, also an Android-based, crowdfunded project via Kickstarter from PlayJam, a casual games company. The new device will connect directly into a television via the HDMI slot and run Android games. It also ships with a Bluetooth controller. For gaming on the go, the GameStick slides sideways into the controller for portability to a new location, where the player just plugs the GameStick into a TV and the console is connected and ready to go. Again, the public supported this venture, as well, providing more than six times the requested $100,000 Kickstarter funding goal, and that original goal was obtained within 30 hours.

To augment the GameStick, UK-based PlayJam will utilize its smart TV technology, allowing players to download content and network with GameStick users.

A quote from the GameStick Kickstarter page sums up why this system has potential: “There are over 1,416,338,245 TVs in the world but less than 1 percent of them are used to play games! Crazy. We think that’s because traditional games consoles and content are too expensive. So 12 months ago, we set out to challenge that by making the most affordable, open, and portable TV games console ever created. At $79, GameStick offers the most affordable route to playing games on your TV.”

Basically, the company is following the successful model of its casual games business with its use of open platforms via Android. As a result, developers would be able to create games faster and cheaper, and this would open up game development opportunities for studios of all sizes.

The GameStick has an Amlogic 8726-MX processor with 1gb DDR3 memory and 8gb flash memory, and contains a content download manager with cloud storage system for games. It also supports full 1080p HD video.›› See a Q&A with PlayJam CMO Anthony Johnson about GameStick, accessible under “Extras” in the March-April 2013 issue box on CGW.com.

Who knows more about gaming than a game developer? Nearly a decade ago, Valve Corporation (Half-Life, Team Fortress 2) unveiled Steam, a digital distribution, digital rights management, multiplayer, and communications platform. In essence, Steam is used to distribute games and related media online, and last year, it started including non-gaming software, as well. Steam was initially developed for use on Microsoft Windows, but has expanded to OS X and Linux (public beta), with limited functionality on the PlayStation 3 console and iOS and Android mobile devices. With such solid infrastructure in place (serving an estimated 50 million users), the next step seems almost obvious: building a game console. And that is exactly what Valve has planned.

Dubbed “Steam Box” by the industry, the concept is a hybrid PC/game console. This unique hardware would be tuned to run Steam – and, in turn, the games and media already available through the robust service.

All indication is that Valve will offer three tiers, or versions, of the box: good, better, best. These will be priced accordingly based on the components and geared for the casual gamer, the typical gamer, and the hard-core gamer, respectively. While the operating system is still anyone’s guess at this point, there is speculation that it will run Linux and would be able to handle Windows.

Portables on the Rise

Meanwhile, the portables are experiencing an update, as well. More than a year ago, Sony released the PlayStation Vita, with front and rear cameras for augmentedreality experiences, and a touch screen. The device is also cross-platform compatible with the PlayStation 3, so games can be started on one system, saved, and continued on the other. However, sales of the Vita (originally priced at $249 and $299 for a Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi/3G version, respectively) were dismal during its first year on the market. As a result, industry pundits expect the price to be reduced this year.

The PS Vita competes against the Nintendo 3DS, which was released in the spring of 2011. A successor to the popular Nintendo DS, the 3DS brings the novelty of autostereo to the screen – meaning no 3D glasses or other devices are needed for the 3D effects. The 3DS has three cameras: one in the front that captures standard 2D images, and two rear-facing cameras on the back that can be used to capture 3D images.

Apparently many were not ready to pay $249 for stereo on a handheld, and less than six months after its release, the price was slashed to $169 in light of anemic sales. Last July, Nintendo released an updated version, the 3DS XL, which sports much larger screens and longer battery life – and a larger price tag ($200).

What some were hoping would result from the Wii U controller – that it could be used independently of the Wii U console itself, as its own gaming device – can be found in the Wikipad gaming tablet. A newcomer on the scene, the Wikipad is larger than the Wii U GamePad controller, though it boasts similar gameplay features that include an analog stick controller and control function/input buttons to the side of the screen. However, the tablet is detachable from the controller base, automatically becoming a seven-inch Android tablet. Furthermore, when the tablet is attached to the controller base, it can still function as a tablet computer.

The tablet, attached or detached, contains an Nvidia Tegra 3 processor and 16gb of flash memory, and runs Google’s open-source Android operating system. So, rather than described as a game controller that functions as a tablet, the Wikipad is better described as a tablet computer that can also act as a game controller. Well, sort of.

Most of the Triple-A console games require the stick and buttons on the sides of the Wikipad device to control gameplay, as opposed to using a tabletlike swiping motion. Conversely, most Android games were developed for touch-screen input and do not support typical console controllers (joystick, buttons). Nevertheless, there are a number of mobile titles that, in fact, do support game controllers. And, the Wikipad runs Sony titles developed for the PlayStation mobile platform – that is, the PS Vita.

Another tablet device that is expected to debut this year is the Razer Edge Tablet, which will run Windows 8. Purported to be a high-end gaming system packed into a tablet, it is powered by Intel Core processors and Nvidia GeForce graphics cards with Optimus, and boasts 8gb DDR3 RAM plus a 10.1-inch HD multi-touch display.

Razer describes the device as a tablet that is also a full-fledged mobile gaming PC. Indeed, the Edge is a full-functioning Windows 8 tablet that is compatible with Windows 8 applications and games. When the tablet is attached to a keyboard dock, the device becomes a notebook-style PC. When it is attached to the gamepad controller, the tablet functions as a mobile PC game device, with the buttons and joysticks on the side of the gamepad used to control the PC game action. The docking station connects to a desktop display and peripherals or hooks up to an HDTV for larger-picture gaming. Without question, the device is extremely versatile. But, it carries a high price tag. The standard Razer Edge with an Intel Core i5 processor and 4gb of DDR3 RAM will sell for $999, while a Core i7 version with 8gb of RAM will carry a $1,299 price.

Another entry into the mobile gaming market is Nvidia’s Project Shield, an Android Tegra game device with an attached five-inch, 720p display. For open platforms, Project Shield is an Android portable game player. And, like many of the newcomers, it has an additional function – here, it is a wireless client to a GeForce GTX PC. (For an in-depth look at Nvidia’s Project Shield and what it means for Nvidia and the industry, see “Staying on the Grid,” page 20.)

Without question, 2013 will be a huge year for gaming – machines, titles, and player experience. Expect Sony and Microsoft to up the ante, but also expect the rise of the Android and open systems to expand game development into studios that could never get a seat at the exclusive development kit table. Once the domain of simplistic-looking casual games, the Android operating system is on the verge of revolutionizing the industry for even the most serious gamer. Also, the cloud is helping to lighten the load for new consoles and devices, making them more powerful and more portable than ever before.

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of Computer Graphics World.

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