Next-Generation Console Battle Lines Drawn17 May, 2005 By: John Gaudiosi
From left, Microsoft's Xbox 360, Nintendo's Revolution and Sony's PlayStation 3
Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo used their pre-E3 press conferences in Los Angeles to set the table for the next battle for consumer game dollars.
Microsoft will get a head start this November with the launch of Xbox 360, but Sony countered with a pre-emptive press conference that focused on PlayStation 3, which will ship in spring 2006 (likely in Japan first with a U.S. date later, but Sony did not specify regional rollouts). Nintendo has a new Game Boy Micro handheld shipping this fall and its next-gen console, Revolution, is set for a second-half 2006 release (which could come as early as next summer for Japan). All three hardware manufacturers showcased the boxes for their next gen consoles, while Sony showed tech demos of PS3 in action and Microsoft showed clips of Xbox 360 games in development.
One theme among the three competitors, each of which had a distinctive message and style of presentation, was the importance of expanding the gaming audience beyond the male hardcore gamer.
“The hardcore gamer is going to buy all three of these systems. The key for these companies is to find their place in the digital home of the future,” said P.J. McNealy, video game analyst, American Technology Research.
Billy Pidgeon, video game analyst for Go Play Research, said that having the Xbox 360 launch this year puts Sony in a defensive position — a position that Microsoft was in five years ago when it touted specs and tech demos in an attempt to ask consumers to wait a year for its Xbox.
Sony's PS2 shipped a year before GameCube and Xbox. It looks like the wait won't be as long this year, as both PS3 and Revolution could ship before the next holiday season in the United States.
PS3, which will feature Blu-ray Disc technology for its games, is currently the only next generation console that will support the new high definition disc format. While that format still remains in turmoil with two competing factions, Sony's sleek new entertainment device will play new Blu-ray movies, as well as current DVDs and CDs, and all PS3 games will be in HD with a minimum of 720p. (PS3 will support CD-ROM, CD-RW, DVD, DVD-ROM, DVD-R, DVD+R and Sony's high-definition Super Audio CD.)
“Over the long haul, the Blu-ray Disc will have a definite positive effect for PS3, but not as important a factor as DVD compatibility with PS2,” said John Taylor, video game analyst for Arcadia Research.
While HD Gaming was the theme for Microsoft, Sony's “digital era” has a major HD focus. Sony's new console will support 2k x 1k resolution, the highest resolution possible today. With its cell processor, PS3 will be 35 times more powerful than PS2 and twice as powerful as Xbox 360, according to Sony Computer Entertainment America president and CEO, Kaz Hirai.
“With PlayStation 3's support of next generation video like Blu-ray Discs and the digital panels of the near future, your living room will never be the same,” said Jen-Hsun Huang, president and CEO of Nvidia, the creator of PS3's proprietary RSX Reality Synthesizer GPU. The RSX is more powerful than two high-end Nvidia GeForce 6800 Ultra PC graphics cards.
PS3 will also come with dual HD outputs, which means gamers with two HD TVs can play games in 32:9 ratio. Masa Chatoni, Sony's chief technology officer, said that a second HD monitor could be used for live video chat with players you're competing with online or to track your real-time statistics in a sports game. PS3 will also connect to Sony's new HD 1P camera, which will allow gamers around the world to set up their own HD broadcasts for the next evolution of today's Internet home page.
PS3 has six USB 2.0 slots and slots for Memory Stick Duo, SD, and compact flash memory cards. The new console will support a 2.5-inch hard disc drive (which is a similar approach to Xbox 360's upgradeable HDD), but Sony did not say if the HDD will come standard as Xbox 360's 20 GB HDD will.
One of the many tech demos at Sony's press conference took Sony Imageworks' digital Spider-Man and inserted him seamlessly into the next generation Vision Gran Turismo racing game. Sony said PS3 will allow game developers to synthesize movie-quality graphics in real-time. A digital Alfred Molina from Spider-Man 2 was also shown to showcase the potential of future Hollywood-licensed video games, as well as the next generation appearance of actors' likenesses in original games.
Games in development for PS3 include: EA's Fight Night Round 3, Koei's Oni, Konami's Metal Gear Solid 4, Capcom's Devil May Cry 4, Bandai's Mobile Suit Gundam, Namco's Tekken, Sega's Fifth Phantom Saga, Ubisoft's Killing Day, Incognito's Warhawk, Evolution Studio's Motor Storm, and Sony's Formula 1 and Killzone. Insomniac is working on a new first-person shooter and Rockstar Games has a Western game.
“Visually, there's a larger jump from PS2 to PS3 than Xbox to Xbox 360,” said Pidgeon, who noted that Microsoft's first console was more powerful than PS2 and that game developers have had more time to work on Xbox 360 games. “Both Microsoft and Sony need to get the graphical improvements of these consoles out to consumers and big box retail is a great way to package HD TVs with these consoles to show what they can do.”
Nintendo's new console will feature several firsts. It will support Wi-Fi and a broadband game service similar to Xbox Live. While Nintendo has ignored the multi-purpose box in favor of a pure gaming machine, Revolution will support an add-on device (at an additional cost) that will play DVD movies. HD gaming was not part of Nintendo's details on Revolution.
Revolution will feature 512 megabytes of internal flash memory, with a slot allowing owners to expand the space with SD memory cards. Games will come on proprietary 12-centimeter optical discs. Revolution, which features an IBM processor and an ATI graphics chip, will produce graphics two to three times better than GameCube. (Microsoft has said Xbox 360's visuals will be 10 to 12 times better than Xbox and Sony said PS3's graphics will be 35 times better than PS2.)
Satura Iwata, president of Nintendo, said that Revolution will be less expensive than any other next generation system (no prices for any next gen consoles have been released) and easier to develop for. He added that big ideas will prevail over big budgets.
“The game experience will separate Revolution from the others,” Iwata said.
Revolution games for key Nintendo franchises such as “Mario,” “Legend of Zelda,” “Metroid” and “Super Smash Bros.” are in development, as well as a new Wi-Fi installment of Square Enix's Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles game. And the creator of Mario is working on a brand new game franchise to debut with Revolution.
There are 160 Xbox 360 games in development and Microsoft will have 25 to 40 games ready for its launch window later this year. Microsoft announced several new games for Xbox 360, including: Tecmo's Dead or alive 4, Epic's Gears of War, Ubisoft's Ghost Recon 3, Activision's Call of Duty 2, Bethesda Softworks' The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and Square Enix's Final Fantasy XI. In addition to the six launch titles (Tiger Woods PGA TOUR 06, FIFA 06, Madden NFL 06, NBA LIVE 06, Need For Speed Most Wanted and The Godfather), EA has 19 Xbox 360 games in development. Every Xbox 360 game will be in 16:9 and at least 720p.
Backwards compatibility was a resounding theme from all three competitors. PS3 will play Sony's entire library of 13,000 PlayStation and PS2 games. Microsoft said Xbox 360 will play all current Xbox games. And taking things a step further, Revolution will play all current GameCube games, as well as allow gamers to download virtually every title from Nintendo's 20-year catalog of console games.
All three next generation consoles will upgrade to wireless controllers as standard. Nintendo's GameCube currently has first-party wireless Wavebird controllers and third-party companies make wireless controllers for Xbox and PS2. PS3 will use Bluetooth to support up to seven controllers (up from its current two-controller standard) and Xbox 360 and Revolution will support four controllers each.
Broadband online gaming will play a key role in all three next generation consoles. Microsoft will offer its Xbox Live Silver for free to all consumers. Sony talked about a connected world in which PSPs can wirelessly connect to PS3 from anywhere in the world.
Taylor said Microsoft will use the male as the beachhead into the home and then use new Xbox Live casual games and content to lure the sisters and moms away from the PC and onto Xbox Live.
“Microsoft made Xbox Live a priority for the first Xbox and now Sony has changed its agenda and is looking to make its PS3 network a broader concept than what Xbox Live already is,” McNealy said.
Sony will release PS3 in three colors (black, silver and white), while Nintendo, which has always offered multiple colors for consoles and handhelds, showed several potential colors (red, blue, white, black, and silver) for Revolution. Microsoft will allow consumers to create their own custom “skins” for Xbox 360, which comes as a base white.
On the handheld front, Nintendo will ship Game Boy Micro this fall. Slightly larger than an iPod (4 inches wide, 2 inches tall, 0.7 inches deep) and weighing 2.8 ounces, the Micro will feature an improved screen and will play all current Game Boy Advance titles. This new portable is an extension of the Game Boy brand, but not a successor to GBA SP or Nintendo DS.
Nintendo DS will support free Wi-Fi gaming both at home through a wireless network and on the road through hot spots. Nintendo said 25 publishers are working on Wi-Fi-enabled games, including a new “Tony Hawk” game from Activision and a new “Mario Kart” and “Animal Crossing” game. Nintendo expects to get 90 percent of DS owners to make the jump to Wi-Fi gaming by offering a diverse range of games.