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Straight Shooting on the Next-Gen Console Wars

Straight Shooting on the Next-Gen Console Wars

Rise of the Machines: Machine vs. Machine vs. Man vs…

Despite the long and illustrious history of consoles, arguably starting with the Fairchild Channel F system in 1976, there have been only a few scattered times in that history where any one company has held a clear and decisive lead in terms of technology and market share. In fact, only two companies in the competitive market subsequent to the Fairchild have held a market share greater than seventy percent and those laurels rest squarely on the shoulders of Atari for their 2600 and Nintendo for their NES. The market we have all benefited from since then has been one of heated arguments, razor-thin profit margins, FUD, nonsense, pontificating CEOs, and forum posts that could only be defined as barbaric disrespect for the English language. As E3 fades into memory and summer presses forward, we begin to get a feel for this year’s players in the battle for supremacy set to unfold in the Christmas season. Nintendo’s Wii, Sony’s Playstation 3 and Microsoft’s XBoX 360 are all pining to siphon your hard-earned Yule bonus. Permit me, then, to deck your halls a few months early with predictions on the winner, loser and in-betweener of the seventh generation of the battle of the consoles.

“Yeah, but I shoot with this hand”

In the name of objectivity, I will disclose that I have owned an Intellivision, NES, Genesis, Sega Saturn, Sega Genesis, Playstation and most recently a Playstation 2 that I have not touched since 2004. I am, in the end, quite firmly planted in the PC gamer camp. “Straight-shooting on consoles from an avid PC proponent?!” you cry? I a man of the x86 faith, this much is true, but it is my indifference to the console market puts me in a unique position to analyze it without any attachment to a particular brand, past or present. In my affection for the PC, I hate all consoles equally; it is in that equal-opportunity hatred that I feel no alliance to any particular brand, and therefore can evaluate each console based upon three factors:

  1. Market timing.
  2. Price.
  3. Availability.

I am not here to quibble with graphical superiority, the perception of game maturity, or any other subjective facet of console arguments that plague any and all forums that post on or have a section dedicated to platform gaming. While those variables are all well and good, they play a second fiddle to the ability to even purchase the console in question, in addition to what organ must be black-marketed to afford it.

“Grab cash with both hands and make a stash”

Undoubtedly you’re familiar with the offerings being presented by Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo in the Gen. 7 slugfest; the Nintendo Wii offers a classic, needle-fine focus on platform gaming. The XBoX 360 offers media interconnectivity with a robust subscription-based online gaming service, and the Playstation 3 offers more cutting-edge technologies than Computex and CeBit slugging it out Godzilla-style in downtown Tokyo. Each of them offers something unique in terms of visual quality and game-play that appeals to different crowds, but what about what really counts? Can you buy them? Will they or do they ship in volume? Will you have to sell your big or little brother to Russia to make the deal?

I scream, you scream, Wii all scream…

Codename: Revolution, Wii, “The new Nintendo console.” Whatever you want to call it, it’s hard to deny that Nintendo may have finally gotten it right in the platform world. A line estimated at a thousand strong for their hands-on trials and presentation at this year’s E3 drowned any criticism that their peculiar naming convention would spell destruction for the console’s success. Nintendo is offering an interesting platform in a market where the Swiss Army Console is quickly growing to be the standard; it just plays games and employs Opera to browse the internet. It probably won’t have an emphasis on 1080i/p graphics, or 5.1+ sound encoding. It won’t interface with your TV or PC in any other capacity but gaming. In fact, the Wii’s design is almost elegant in its simplicity. Apparently, simplicity is a successful formula. One part absurd name, a dash of innovative controller design, a pinch throwback family-oriented game play and teaspoon of Italian master plumber in the starry sky, and you’ve got the Wii.

I think it’ll clock in at numero dos, and here’s why:

  1. At an estimated $200, it’ll lure in even the most frugal of this year’s console buyers. Anyone on the market for a new platform, but is undiscerning and parsimonious is going to have a hard time denying the attractive package Nintendo is offering.
  2. Nintendo games attract a wide audience; from late-twenties and early-thirties adults who adored the NES to their offspring which grew up hearing tales of Mario’s pipe-hopping prowess, Nintendo has had an audience that has spanned two decades. Not too shabby, and certainly not a longevity any of Nintendo’s competitors can meet.
  3. It’s expected to have a significantly superior market volume to the Playstation 3, but less than that of the XBoX 360 which has already had more than six months to come on and off the shelves time and time again. A powerhouse though Nintendo may be, it’s hard to compete with Microsoft which has had better than half a year to seize the market solo, generate word-of-mouth interest, and refine product yields to ship even more units in the fa-la-la time of the year.

The verdict: Great price, wide audience, but market volume alone will destine this console for second place.

1, 2, skip a few, 259, 360!

Despite a name that baffled more than a few market onlookers, analysts and reviewers at large (XBOX 2 WRU???), the XBoX 360 has quickly become an ubiquitous quantity in the minds or homes of the platformer, particularly in North America. The original XBoX was undoubtedly a success, and it is clear that Microsoft has learned from the mistakes made on the original XBoX and improved upon them extensively in the new version while leaving the good juju in their original formula well alone. Boasting smaller controllers, significantly improved aesthetics, better visual quality, true high-def integration, a better dashboard, and refined all-round ergonomics, the XBoX 360 is a worthy contender in the brewing storm.

Like the XBoX that preceded it, it offers a robust web-based gaming service courtesy of XBoX LIVE!, a large library of quality games, DVD playback and hard drive storage. Unlike its progenitor, the XBoX 360 has support for 720p or 1080i out of the box with the “XBoX 360 System” package, has a richened 5.1 audio experience, and support for Windows XP MCE streaming.

By no means is the XBoX 360 a revolutionary device, but it is important to note that it doesn’t have to be, because the XBoX was a fine console, particularly considering it was Microsoft’s first foray into the console market which had been dominated by Sony, Sega and Nintendo since the mid-nineties. In sum, the XBoX 360 is an eye-catching system at an acceptable $299 or $399 (Depending on the accessories package).

What makes the XBoX 360 a serious contender, like the original XBoX is largely due to Microsoft’s impeccable release timing. If you’ll recall, the fatty XBoX struck the console market while Nintendo’s release of the Gamecube was some months off, and Sony’s Playstation 2 was beginning to get long in the tooth. Microsoft’s timing this time is similarly remarkable; landing on the shelves in time for the 2005 Christmas season, the XBoX 360 has enjoyed more than six months of time to be the only seventh generation console available for purchase, and will continue to fly solo until roughly November.

In the grand scheme of things, I’m going to venture that Microsoft is going to win this round, and here’s why:

  1. At $299 and $399 dollars depending on the package, it’ll mop the floor with what will be the absurdly-expensive Playstation 3. Due to the solo time on the Market, one would imagine that Microsoft has improved yields on the internal components, and therefore can stand to reduce its price in time for the year’s end to compete with the Wii which is estimated to have a $199 MSRP. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see the XBoX 360 at $225 and $300 by the time we’re busting out the eggnog.
  2. Microsoft’s sizeable lead on release time has given them the unique opportunity to ramp up production to get their console into the hands of buyers. People who don’t have a 360 have played one in the homes of friends who do, thereby generating word-of-mouth and hands-on product interest. The lead time also allows the XBoX 360 time to generate a mature library of titles.
  3. Last, but certainly not least, the XBoX 360 is about to enjoy its second Christmas on the shelves of retailers, in what will probably be a significantly higher production volume than either Nintendo or Sony will be capable of achieving. Never underestimate the ability to actually buy the product in question.

The verdict: Good price, highest market volume, an advanced title library, an attractive feature package and long advertisement bodes well for Microsoft, and puts them at #1 in my book.

Frickin’ blue lasers on its head

The Playstation 3 still remains something of an enigma to the world at large; despite a decent floor presence at the 2006 E3, we still know very little about the final retail packages that Sony will be offering. In fact, it’s hard to come up with anything concrete as Sony’s PR machine has kicked it up a notch (Or five) to offset the fact that they have very little when compared to Microsoft’s shipping console, and Nintendo’s working hardware.

Things are relative however, and simply because Sony offers little in the way of information compared to the Wii or XBoX 360 does not mean there is no information at all. What we do know about the Playstation 3 speaks well for it. The console is technologically quite advanced; in my opinion, it exceeds the specifications of both the Nintendo and Microsoft consoles with ease. On the video side of things, it has connectors for Component video, supporting up to 1080p/i (The XBoX 360 can only do 1080i). Even better, it has support for the new HDMI connector to provide uncompressed A/V signals, which bodes well for the 5.1 Dolby and DTS support, the latter of which neither of Sony’s competing consoles support.

Graphically, from my subjective point of view, the Playstation 3’s graphics appear more fluid and realistic than its competitor’s offerings. This is not to say that theirs are bad, but the Playstation 3’s are simply better. Under the hood, this hypothesis is supported by the sheer horsepower Sony has managed to pack into the silver unit. At the heart of the PS3, a revival of the IBM POWER4 in the form of modified PPC-based CPU developed jointly by Toshiba, Sony and IBM (STI). Coupled with 8 of what Sony calls “Synergistic Processing Elements” or SPEs, or 3.2GHz RISC-based math co-processors, each with their own 256k of addressable memory, and programmable functionality. Sony hopes that the scope of their CELL project, which is the title for the bulk of these processors in the core system, will allow developers to chain system functions in serial or parallel, depending upon the task, to achieve extremely high levels of performance. Early testing suggests that the PPC CPU and the SPEs can realize 98% efficiency. The CELL system helps drive the graphical core of the unit, which is a custom Sony-nVidia GPU that is roughly more powerful than SLI-configured GeForce 6800GTs, and more precisely, approximately 28% more powerful (Real world) than the 7800GT. While traditional PC users may snub their noses at this configuration, and confidently claim that the PC dominates graphical performance with SLI/Crossfire 7900GTX/X1900XTX rigs, it should be noted that the original XBoX (For example) had a GeForce Ti500 amidst the days of the Ti500 for the PC, and it far and away produced better graphics; the gift of single-minded system purpose.

Tying the core components together is a contract from RAMBUS for their XDR RAM which provides unprecedented memory bandwidth and a supporting bus architecture known as the Cell EIB for the component interconnects and Cell FlexIO for Memory to CPU communication.

As far as peripherals for the PS3 are concerned, the most important addition is that of the Blu-Ray drive, which will play Sony’s new proprietary Blu-Ray discs for high-definition, next generation DVD audio/video, and more extensive/high-resolution video game content. The controllers have dropped the boomerang stylization and adopted that of a more traditional PSX/PS2 design. This time, however, the controllers feature motion sensitivity, but not the classic force feedback.

All of these things sound quite magical on paper and the numbers are certainly impressive, however there are some unfortunate caveats that undermine all the statistical glory that Sony has envisioned. The first is that the Playstation 3 isn’t expected to ship in volume until Q1 of 2007. This is a devastating mistake for Sony to make or be forced into, as it will gut Sony’s ability to move consoles during the extremely important year-end retail months; this double-edged sword will reduce Sony’s reliability in the eyes of the customer (few wanting to wait through a worsened version of the PS2 supply issues), and will give Microsoft and Nintendo ample time to snap up market share and shelf space in customers’ homes. The second mistake is the high price of the console, expected to come in at over $600 for the fully-featured package that most consumers truly prefer. While Sony marketing teams are in high gear to deflect criticism of the unwieldy price, and prices adjusted for inflation put the PS3 in the middle of the road, these do little to dissuade the fact that both the Playstation 3’s alternatives will be cheaper and be available in much greater quantities.

Despite Sony’s brand recognition and brand-loyal consumers, I am going to place Sony in last place for this year’s console battle. Here’s why:

  1. At a whopping $600 (est.) for the package most consumers will be fighting for, the Playstation 3’s price tag qualifies as abhorrent in this columnist’s book. One would imagine that the price tag will similarly scare consumers, who are quite used to consoles being approximately $400 on the street date, dipping as low as $150 when the console is one generation old.
  2. The lack of volume production when we’re all sip, sip, sippin’ on some eggnog will leave a sour taste in the mouths of Sony loyalists who had to endure brutal PS2 supply issues. Fool me once, shame on me, fool me twice…
  3. Despite all the new and exciting features for the technophiles most likely perusing this article, most of it will fall in idle hands when it hits retail shelves, and idle hands do not do great deeds when mass market electronics are in question. I believe Sony’s zeal to make the greatest will cost them quite dearly when they’re the last console to hit the ground, not running, but stumbling to get off the starting block.

The verdict: Last in equitability, last in production volume and last in release date do not amount to much more than last to me. I believe that, as a general consumer myself, Sony has failed to persuade me even with my history of Sony products and deeper knowledge of the console’s fine internals that most consumers don’t have.

”Romani ite domum!” Now write it out a hundred times

Despite the prognostication that I have stirred within these pages, it is important to note that video-gaming is ultimately about fun. If you are reading this article to evaluate the future consoles, keep in mind that all of them will ultimately provide entertaining experiences and replayability, but they will all do so differently. Do not judge the consoles based strictly on the qualifications I have provided, because those qualifications apply to the larger community of retail buyers and their perceptions of products. If you are well-educated on your console choice, and believe it is the right one for you, I encourage you to follow through with it. Just because consumers show a general trend based on availability, price and release date does not mean that you have to follow that trend. Back in the day of the PSX and the N64, I avidly purchased a Nintendo 64 because the Playstation’s library of titles was shallow and did not cater to what sort of games I preferred. I have a laundry list of eccentric console choices that ran perpendicular to the general trends of the market, and I was quite happy with the choices that I made.

It goes without saying that all three developers are making compelling products. To the throwback simplicity of the Wii with a fully-developed library of classic gaming titles, to the inclusive and rich game and media support of the XBoX 360, to the ass-kickin’, backwards-compatible powerhouse of a Playstation 3, all of the consoles deliver something unique and rewarding in a gaming and/or media platform. Explore your options, and buy with your instinct, sensibility, and knowledge, and you can’t go wrong.

Game on!

Robert “Thrax” Hallock

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