2013 - The Year of New Hardware
The next Playstation - what we know
At this stage, almost nothing with any degree of certainty. It's now over six years since the PS3 released, and while, like the next Xbox, there have been no concrete announcements, rumours are starting to build. Of course, keep in mind all of the below are rumours - we've tried to pick the most 'sensible' of the ones floating around the internet, but it's all up in the air at the moment.
- The rumoured code-name is 'Orbis'.
- It may run on a modified version of AMD's A10 APU (accelerated processing unit - a combined CPU and GPU).
- 8GB or 16GB of RAM, will have a blu-ray drive.
- Dev kits are already out in the wild and have been for some time.
- Sony have affordability in mind, but are also pushing as hard as they can to make it as powerful as possible within cost constraints.
- There will be a focus on connectivity and a much more functional in-game menu.
The Playstation brand is currently one of Sony's standout products, and they'll be putting in a red-hot effort to make the next Playstation a winner. All of the above rumours seem reasonable, although we'd bet on 8GB rather than 16GB of RAM (even Battlefield 3 on Ultra only needs 4GB of system and 1GB of graphics memory, and consoles operating systems aren't near as RAM-hungry as Windows). The use of a more standard CPU/GPU approach is also likely to keep costs down and make it easier for developers, but may also get in the way of backwards compatibility (particularly for PS3 games).
As is the case at almost all console launches, we'd expect the games to compare very favourably with higher-end PCs at the time despite having lower-end hardware on paper, again because PC's have to contend with a relatively resource-hungry operating system. We do expect the next Playstation to continue to have a focus on 'core' gamers, as Sony have a long track-record of targeting this market, which is just fine with us.
It's impossible to know exactly when it will launch, but we'd expect it to be within six months of the next Xbox, and probably within the next 16 months. It may or may not be cheaper than the next Xbox as well - Jack Tretton is on record as saying "We've never been cheapest and we've never been first".
We'd also expect a strong first-party launch line-up, although expect some titles to be more staggered than after the Vita release (Sony learned that one the hard way). At the moment, there are teams without an announced project at Polyphony Digital, Naughty Dog, Guerilla Games, Sucker Punch, Evolution Studios and Media Molecule, and we'd expect most of these to be focussing on Playstation 4 software.
The next Xbox - what we know
As is the case for the next Playstation, Microsoft is holding its cards relatively close to its chest, so take everything we know with a grain of salt. We do know that Major Nelson has a countdown to this year's E3 with the comment "And it's on....", and that at over seven years since the original Xbox launched, there's plenty of scope for an upgrade. Other than that, it's all speculation, but some of the more probable chatter suggests:
- The name is much more up in the air - rumours have included Loop, Durango and 720, but nothing seems to have 'stuck' yet.
- It will come bundled with a new and upgraded Kinect.
- An expanded focus on multimedia.
- A multi-core or multi-GPU approach, possibly to support the new Kinect or multimedia functions while gaming.
- 8GB of RAM, and will include a blu-ray drive.
- Windows 8 to be involved, in some form, possibly under another name.
Microsoft entered the home console market with an eye on the 'all in one' under the TV box, and getting Windows into the living room. A lot has happened since, but we'd expect that the hardware will be focussed on supporting something that can do more than just 'core' games, likely with an upgraded version of Kinect built into the system. While some of the hardware rumours sound relatively 'exotic', Microsoft are likely to go for something not too dissimilar to PCs, based on past history and to continue to make it easy for third parties to support them.
There have also been rumours of touchscreens being built into the controller similar to the Wii U, but we'd suggest this isn't likely, as with a built-in Kinect in the package, it would push the cost of the next Xbox too high for it to get widespread early adoption (which would clash with Microsoft's goal of being adopted in the living room, rather than in gaming dens).
We'd also expect that there's more than a small chance that the next Xboxes operating system will run on Windows 8. The next Windows is all about a more inituitive, casual-friendly interface that could work well with a Kinect-style controller. However, given the relatively poor reception of Windows 8 in the PC market, expect it to be called something else.
Building on recent form, we'd expect continued focus on non-gaming and more mainstream applications like Kinect, but that the new system would also be supported at launch by a small number of first-party core games, along with a wide range of third-party games with timed exclusivity (of the games themselves, or of DLC similar to the current arrangements with Call of Duty) or release. For example, Bungie's new game is rumoured to turn up on the next Xbox before anywhere else. We'd hope that Microsoft will drop the requirement for an Xbox Live subscription just to play online, but it may be the case that they're banking on money from this offsetting the higher costs of including Kinect in every hardware bundle.
The 'Steambox' - what we know
Quite a bit - while there have been rumours of a Steambox for years, at the 2013 CES Gabe Newell from Valve opened up and outlined his plans for a standardised controller and Linux-based 'Steambox' designed to go under the television and play Steam games, primarily through its 'big picture' mode. While its Linux-based, it will be a relatively open system, so owners are able to install Windows on it (the majority of Steam's library is windows-based, although it does have 40-odd Linux based games, including Amnesia: Dark Descent, Serious Sam 3 and FTL).
As well as Valve's box, other third-party manufacturer's are making Steam-friendly PCs, including Xi3's box codenamed 'Piston' (see above). We don't know how much Steam's first-party kit will cost, but at $999 the Piston would be one of the most expensive TV-gaming solutions yet released.
The Steambox seems to be shooting at a market that may or may not be there. Even with Big Picture mode, gaming on Steam is a more fiddly experience than with a traditional console - there are drivers to download, patches, hardware conflicts and then variable levels of controller support. Valve requiring users to install their own copy of Windows on their Steambox before they can access the vast majority of Steam's library is another strange decision, and if Xi3's Piston is any indication, the hardware will cost significantly more than a console as well. For these reasons, we don't see it gaining mass-market traction amongst console players. On the other hand, most core PC gamers are likely to be well covered for hardware. In this context, we expect this to be a niche product with a limited audience.
The Ouya - what we know
We know more about the Ouya than pretty much any of the other hardware in this article. Last year, Julie Uhrman put together a team that raised over $8 million through Kickstarter to make a cheap ($99 US), open, Android-based console that has already been shipped to developers, and is available for pre-order now (with expected release in April 2013). It's based on off-the-shelf technology, and each console can be used to develop games (and anyone can publish them through Android's store). The console is so open that it's designed to be easily hacked!
The Ouya is unlikely to be a direct competitor to the next set of HD consoles or the Steambox, as its hardware (an Nvidia Tegra 3 quad-core processor with 1GB of ram) are unlikely to be able to produce games as capable as those on the PS3 or Xbox 360, let alone whatever is on the horizon. The mobile specs mean it can be much smaller, however, and much cheaper (probably a quarter or a fifth of what the next-gen consoles will cost). It will come with a standard controller that includes a touchpad, and run on a version of Android, supporting many games from the Android store at launch.
Competing with the latest and greatest isn't what the Ouya's is about. While the developers claim it will support AAA games, its strength is more likely to be a thriving home of indie development (literally anyone can download the software development kit and publish a game for almost no cost other than their time and effort).
However, the sheer openness of the system is also likely to restrict the amount of effort devs can put into games. Android developers already complain of high rates of piracy, and that's unlikely to be any different on a system that's been openly designed to be hacked. The Ouya will probably be a garage developers darling, but don't expect it to hit big with the mainstream.
NVidia's Shield - what we know
Announced only last week at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show, Nvidia is making a play at the handheld gaming space through it's 'Shield', powered by a Tegra 4 processor (the direct successor to the Tegra 3 in the Ouya), and sporting a full-sized game controller and a 720p multi-touch display, and running on Android's OS (Jelly Bean in this case).
It's not just an incredibly overpowered (it's unlikely that many games on the Android store needs anywhere near the power of Tegra 4 yet) Android-based portable gaming system, though. One of its unique draws is that it will link with PCs with GTX 600 series graphics cards to enable live streaming of Steam and other PC games to their Shield. However, given the quality of wireless in Australia and New Zealand (and many other places), this is unlikely to be practical outside of someone's home network.
We also don't know the price - the tech looks impressive, but with Nvidia not announcing a target price, it may also be expensive and perhaps, like the Razer tablet, targeted more to a niche PC enthusiast crowd.
The Shield is an interesting piece of tech, but only for those with PCs with GTX 600 series graphics cards that prefer to play with a controller and small screen on the couch than on the PC itself. Until it gets solid support in the Android store for games that are going to take advantage of its impressive specs, however, it's a very, very expensive way to play Android games on the go. It's also unlikely to be cheaper than a Vita or a 3DS, which are much more compelling portable gaming systems for gamers that want more than the relatively low-end (from a console/PC gamers perspective) games on the Android store.
Playjam's Gamestick - What we know
Another Android-based TV gaming device, currently on Kickstarter. It's catchline is that it's small (it's tiny - the actual gamestick is the USB-key lookalike in the controller in the pic below) and very portable, so can be taken anywhere and plugged into any HDMI-enabled TV (but may need another power source for older HDMI TVs). Like Ouya, it's very much an open platform and will have access to a large number of Android games, and at an expected price of just $79 US, will be even cheaper than the Ouya.
Unlike the Ouya, the Gamestick isn't targeting AAA games at all, but rather is aimed at giving people who enjoy playing Android games on their phone and tablet a quick and easy way of taking these to their TV. Given its size, its processing power is more geared towards these titles than the kind of games console gamers are used to playing on the TV. According to the timeline on Kickstarter, they're hoping to ship in the first half of 2013 (at around the same time as the Ouya).
Innovative and clearly targeted, there's still a risk that mobile gamers aren't going to want to make the small extra effort of moving to the TV. Many mobile gamers are looking for time killers rather than deeper entertainment, and once they're at home with access to the TV are likely to have other options. On the other hand, those gamers who prefer deeper games are likely to have a PC or console at home that will out-perform the Gamestick. That said, at just $79 US, and with a tiny form-factor, it may well get some interest amongst younger gamers that are growing up with smartphones and tablets.
What this means is....
...it's a very exciting and disruptive time in gaming! Not only have we recently had the launch of the Wii U and Vita, but this year will see the launch of two (or more!) new console-like devices in the Ouya and the Gamestick, and there's good money on at least one, if not both, Sony and Microsoft getting their next console out before the end of 2013. Throw in persistent rumours about Apple wanting to try its hand at gaming again, and Valve pushing Steam into the living room, and Nvidia having a crack at the handheld space, and it's unlike almost any other time in gaming history. Tell us your thoughts on what you think of all this action below.