animefringe september 2003 / editorial
Next Gen Gaming - The Battle Begins

As gamers eagerly await the next big titles for their favorite machines, the game companies are hurriedly working on their next platforms. It's hard to imagine now as we wait for the titles announced at this year's E3, but this generation of consoles is coming to an end as Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony prep their new machines to do battle. The stakes are high and each company is going to have to do something different to get the attention of game players. I'm going to run down what I think gamers can expect in the next video game generation. Keep in mind, these are the conjectures of a rambling old school gamer and even confirmed announcements are subject to change (yes, I'm talking to you, Nintendo release dates).

The current generation of consoles, the Sony Playstation 2, the Microsoft Xbox, and the Nintendo Gamecube, are definitely more evolutionary than revolutionary. Just like the 16-bit machines, the SEGA Genesis and the Super Nintendo, this generation of consoles is really building on what was done in the previous generation. It's hard to think of a game that is really startlingly new for this generation. However, logic dictates that in the upcoming generation, things will heat up, as it's time for innovation and no company can be left behind in this race.

Despite scorn from many (but not all) hardcore gamers and a slow start, Microsoft's Xbox has managed to find a definite market share. The machine is number two, behind the PS2, in the U.S., but a close third worldwide. A lot of this has to do with Microsoft targeting casual gamers and PC gamers, both of which have found a niche on the Xbox. Unfortunately, the machine is regarded with no small amount of disdain in Japan, meaning that they've sold very few consoles in the land of the rising sun and Japanese developers are not keen to work on the machine.

Microsoft will most likely leverage its Xbox Live feature into the Xbox 2 (or so I'm calling it until MS says something different). Xbox Live is the Xbox's online component and is the best developed online strategy of the three console makers (not surprising, as this is Microsoft). Live on the Xbox 2 will probably introduce new features (most likely some kind of simple e-mail or web browsing), but keep the flat rate that Microsoft has levied for the service. I also suspect it will become nearly mandatory for a game to have Live support of some kind - either downloadable content like extra characters or levels, or online play versus other human opponents (or both).

A few high profile Japanese titles are coming out now for the Xbox, but Microsoft doesn't seem to be in a major hurry to enlist more. Thus, the Xbox 2 will have mostly American titles, especially sports and PC ports, which do especially well in the U.S. Japanese support will be low, so don't expect to find Final Fantasy or other Japanese games on the machine. If and when the Xbox dominates the market, Japanese gamers and developers will be dragged into supporting the console kicking and screaming. I do expect more exclusive titles for the Xbox (as opposed to titles that see release both on the Xbox and PS2) - Microsoft is busy enlisting third party developers, including former Nintendo love child, Rare. Banjo and Kazooie might become an important platforming title for the current and the next Xbox.

A major development for the Xbox in the last few months has been a hack that allows gamers to run unsigned code on the Xbox. This allows them to run emulators, programs, Linux, and even pirated games on the machine. While Microsoft has been quick to speak out against this, I suspect the Xbox 2 will be as easily hackable. Like the Xbox, it will probably run on some kind of Windows (the original Xbox uses a highly modified version of the Windows 2000 kernel). Whether MS admits it or not, even if people buy the Xbox just to use as a Linux box or an emulator, the fact is it sells more machines. Even at a loss, the company can use those console sales to attract developers, who will make more games.

A number of other improvements and changes will most likely be a part of the Xbox 2. The hard drive will almost certainly be bigger and Microsoft has announced an end to the partnership with Nvidia and will be going with ATi to produce the graphics engine for the Xbox 2. The console itself may see some kind of redesign, but I expect it will remain similar to the enormous black and green Xbox. However, the controller will probably either be the S type Japanese controller - which has become standard for the Xbox in the U.S. - or a slimmed-down redesign. The Xbox 2 might be backwards compatible, but at this point, it's unclear whether MS will take that route or not. However, considering that the enormously important True Fantasy Online (a Japanese MMORPG) is coming out so late for the Xbox, signs point to the Xbox 2 being compatible with both the game and the Xbox's Original Live online service.

A couple of truisms are attributed to Microsoft. One is that it takes three versions for MS to make a really good product. It's certainly true of Internet Explorer, Windows, and Office. I suspect the same will also hold true for the Xbox 2, and Microsoft will be looking to the machine to rival Sony and to dominate Nintendo. Secondly, Microsoft is known for throwing money at rivals until they go away. Internet Explorer (and even early versions of Word and Excel!) was given away. Though Microsoft is selling Xboxes at a loss, they see it as an investment in market share.

Sony has the most to lose in the upcoming generation, and is going to have the hardest time developing something new. Sony is the unquestioned market leader, but one of the Playstation 2's major selling points was its out of the box DVD playback. At a time when DVD players could be $400, the PS2 was welcomed as an affordable solution and both for the American and Japanese launches, the PS2 was often purchased to be more a DVD player than a game console. While the Playstation 3 will definitely have DVD playback, that is not the selling point that it was at the PS2's launch (especially if the Xbox 2 or Nintendo Nexus have out of the box DVD playback as well, though even if they don't it still won't help the PS3 much) since so many people already have a DVD player. It's hard to think of any feature that is so hi-tech and cool, but easy to use as DVD playback, both of which are now integral to a game console.

Another huge selling point for the PS2 was backwards compatibility with the original Playstation library. Some people think it doesn't matter, but it did. Imagine that you didn't buy a Playstation in its heyday, but were interested in some of its games. The PS2 was the first next-gen console to come out and if you got it, one had access to a myriad of (now cheap) PS1 titles. It was a no-brainer. Sony is here, too, in a tough spot. I've heard the PS2 jokingly called a "Playstation painted black with a DVD-ROM." That's not completely fair, but it does hit home - the PS2 is not too different from the PS1 architecturally, allowing backwards compatibility pretty easily. However, to keep up with the Joneses, Sony is going to have to change the architecture for the PS3 making backwards compatibility much harder. However, if anyone could pull it together, it's Sony's R&D; and there have been rumors that instead of similar architecture, Sony is planning to have the PS3 emulate the PS1/2. However, it's obvious that backwards compatibility is a feature Sony can't give up.

Sony will definitely be banking on its major franchises to help sell the PS3. Final Fantasy, Metal Gear, and other titles appear first (or only) on Sony and gamers wanting to play those games will have to pony up for a PS3. I expect in several months, Sony will begin buying stakes in third party developers, guaranteeing games for their new console. However, Sony doesn't have many real second party developers (developers outside the company, but tied to exclusively to it for development and publishing). The major companies, like Capcom, Namco, SEGA, and Square are becoming much friendlier with Nintendo and even SEGA has put out a few Xbox titles. The PS3 will, like the PS2, have the widest range of titles and more games that American gamers like (i.e., sports and Grand Theft Auto).

The machine itself will be different from the PS1/2 line. I suspect that Sony will begin to incorporate its SD memory sticks (used in their cameras, high end VAIO PCs, and the robotic dog Aibo) into the PS3 as well. It might have slots for both traditional memory cards and sticks or some kind of adaptor for memory cards, but Sony's Computer Entertainment wing is running behind the rest of the company in not moving to the sticks. As ham-fisted as Sony is, the console might, like the PS2 only have two controller ports, but might feature a built in hard drive and wireless adapter for broadband net play. Final Fantasy XI for the PS2 already requires the PS2 hard drive, and I expect more games will follow suit.

Finally, Nintendo has a lot to fight in the upcoming generation. While the Gamecube is doing better than the Nintendo 64, it still lags behind the Xbox in the U.S., and is at a very tenuous second throughout the world, except in Japan. Problem number one for Nintendo is image. It was a bad idea to have the Gamecube's "default" color as purple and design it to look like a lunch box. While I suspect the next Nintendo console (code named Nexus now) will perhaps share a toy-like design with the Gamecube, it will almost certainly be either black or silver/platinum. Nintendo heavily promoted the black Gamecube after the machine's launch, and now the platinum machine is the "default" color. This, along with the success of the Silver Gameboy Advance SP points to a silver machine.

Problem two for Nintendo has been its relationship with third party developers. While, again, the situation is better on the Gamecube than on the Nintendo 64 (where Nintendo was practically the only company making games), Nintendo is going to have to do a lot to woo back developers. Now that Nintendo poobah (and certified nut) Hiroshi Yamauchi (not so affectionately known as Mother Brain) is gone, Nintendo's relationship with companies like Capcom, SEGA, and Square has become much better. It will also be important to move to a medium that third party developers like. Nintendo has previously used cartridges to practically extort money out of developers; since there are other players in the console business these days, Nintendo can no longer do so. Third parties like the GC discs better than Nintendo 64 ROM cartridges, but they like DVD discs even better, since DVDs are cheaper and offer more storage space. However, Nintendo is known for doing things its own way, and it might stick to some proprietary format - an improved minidisc, perhaps.

Nintendo has been toying with many different kinds of technology in this generation, and I'm sure we'll see at least some of it in the upcoming generation. First is the Wavebird, the wireless Gamecube controller. Nintendo designed an extremely solid wireless solution - and was the first to do so - and it would make sense for the company to be the first console to pack in wireless controllers. In the Game Boy Advance SP, Nintendo has begun to use rechargeable lithum ion batteries; these too could be put into Nexus wireless controllers. The only major drawback to wireless is the "cost" of force feedback. The current Wavebird doesn't feature rumble vibration, but I think Nintendo can find a way to incorporate it, if they decide to go this route. Also, within Animal Crossing Nintendo has played with two features that may see life in the Nexus. One is the use of SD memory sticks (incorporated into Animal Crossing e+, a Japanese re-release of the game) which seems extremely likely, and more use of old NES and possibly even SNES games as freebies and extras in current games. I also expect a lot of compatibility with the Game Boy Advance (or its successor) and accessories like the e-reader. There has been some talk of Nintendo incorporating some kind of flip-top LCD screen into the machine. While I agree that Nintendo definitely needs to do something different like that, I don't see it as a very likely scenario.

It is pretty unlikely that the Nexus will have backwards compatibility and unless it uses the DVD format, it won't play DVDs. Nintendo likes redesigning architecture and backwards compatibility just seems like a very unlikely move for Nintendo. So, Nintendo's launch titles are the most important to any game company. The Gamecube's lackluster launch titles didn't help it much: the games that should have launched the machine, Pikmin and Super Smash Bros. came out months after launch. For the Nexus, Nintendo will need very strong titles. I think it will need something along the lines of a traditional, magical Mario title (not like the glorified tech demo that was Luigi's Mansion), along with something from Square (a Final Fantasy Gaiden of some kind), and maybe party and sports titles. An absolutely killer lineup for the Nexus would have a good Legend of Zelda, eschewing a straight Mario title (and a Square RPG, as no one would want to release an RPG on the same day as Zelda) that would really move machines.

More than Sony or Microsoft, Nintendo has a history as a game developer and I think it needs to recall the early days of gaming. Like the NES and SNES, Nintendo should, ideally, not only bank on classic characters, but on the way it used to behave. Both the NES and SNES came with two controllers - Nintendo should do likewise with the Nexus (because no one else will). A pack-in game (or a coupon for a launch title) would also do more to sweeten the deal, even if the machine costs a bit more for it. Since DVDs (and even minidiscs) are relatively inexpensive, Nintendo would do well to either pack in a demo disc or have a mail away promotion for classic games (similar to the promo it had with Super Mario All-Stars for the SNES). Nintendo has a lot of goodwill amongst gamers and moves like that, while unlikely, would help gamers recall fond memories of the old machines. Nintendo has set a launch for 2005 (though there are already rumors that Nintendo will miss that date) so it should be the first next-gen console out, giving Nintendo a lot of leeway in what gamers will expect. In fact, Nintendo's president Iwata has said a major aspect of the PS2's successes was its early release (he seems to forget about SEGA's Dreamcast...).

As you can tell, the game wars are going to be hot in the next generation. But because of the competition, the winners are us gamers, who will have access to better machines, better games, and better prices -- because these three behemoths are going after each other.