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Monday, April 02, 2012

Most of the Next Gen Console Rumors Are Probably Wrong

It's that time of the year again.  Or more specifically, that time of the gaming console cycle when it seems credible enough that the next generation of devices might be in some kind of hardware prototype form that it seems perfectly reasonable to float around rumors about how they'll play (pun intended) out.

Which also means it is time to go visit some old friends.  Take a quick glance back at the news reporting about the PlayStation 3 before it debuted.  We're going to see some similar themes: leaps to conclusion about disc storage and of course, the old ghost about playing used games.  Let's not even worry about these from a Microsoft or Sony or Nintendo stance, just as pure speculation.

No more used games!

We'll start with the real money-maker.  And when I say money-maker, I mean this is essentially the online equivalent of trolling for a news source.  There's no doubt that the concept of having a game console block used games will drive page views and comments - gamers love their used games.  The $40-60 price range of most new titles is painful enough to have many gamers think twice before purchasing and the so called "grey market" that keeps GameStop in business is a handy way to purchase for many gamers.

This was widely reported as pretty much factual for the PS3 before it arrived, with some news outlets even suggesting the PS3 would physically notch your disc to make your game its bitch.  But it just doesn't add up.

Problem is: The used games market hits publishers in the money belt, not console makers.

Probably the biggest problem with this meme is that it supposes that the big three have a huge financial stake in it.  However the real profit loss for the console makers is subsidizing the console hardware, not in licensing software.  While they would surely like to see the "white market" sales go up, even Microsoft managed to turn the 360 into a huge profit machine this generation.  Publishers and studios are the ones who potentially go into the red when they spend money on game development, not the hardware makers.

Worse, such a move could potentially hurt console makers where they are actually vulnerable - selling actual consoles.  Analyst Michael Pachter has guess that blocking the sale of used games would probably lead to a bricks and mortar lead, gamer followed revolt.  I think he's completely right (and I don't always think that about Pachter).

Finally, I still say that the technology isn't quite as solid to pull this off as some other people do.  If you accept that gamers will still have an offline, disc-based experience ... there's no real way to pull this off.

Course, that brings us to...

No more disc-based games!

This one has an awful lot of credence behind it, considering the number of people who are now used to buying games - be it for the PC, Mac, iPad, iPhone, PS3, 360 or other abbreviation, via the Internet.  Steam, app stores, and console networks are big business these days and with some games only available via electronic means (think Minecraft), surely it makes sense that the next generation consoles would follow suit, right?

Problem is: many, if not most, living rooms are still not on the information highway

While wi-fi is largely domesticated and the concept of "high speed bandwidth" is becoming rapidly redundant - there's still a very healthy percentage of gamers who play 100% offline.  And we're not talking about the casual or senior citizen crowd here - we're talking normal if not hardcore gamers.  While  a decent percentages of gamers in 2011 use their console for online activities, it is by far not the majority.  I know it is anecdotal - but I'm constantly getting into conversations about gaming which quickly get confused because I assume they are playing the most recent patch (see Skyrim).

For more evidence check out the OnLive Console.  Did you even know there was such a thing?  While OnLive has exceeded my expectations for what can be done with streaming games - their hardware sales haven't exactly pegged them as "the fourth console maker" yet.  The truth is that the living room is still new frontier for certainly having high-speed access and many consumers don't yet associate their console as an online device.

But if we must have discs, then...

This XYZ console will use XYZ format!

Will Sony keep Blu-Ray?  Will Microsoft adopt Blu-Ray?  Will Nintendo use flash cards?

The problem with this speculation is that it is probably one of the last decisions the console makers need to make.  While architectural decisions about memory, bus speeds, processors, GPU, and other tightly integrated board components have direct impact on how games are actually coded - storage format fairly uniformly decides two things: capacity and load times.  It makes a big impact, for sure, but certainly not as much as how much system memory can be dedicated to textures or the like.

My guesses are: Sony will keep Blu-Ray, as keeping the Orbis a Blu-Ray player fits in their living room strategy and is cost-effective for them.  Plus, Blu-Ray is probably still the best option technically for games thanks to the large capacity on the discs.  Nintendo and Microsoft will probably use some kind of mutated version of HD-DVD because they can own the experience outright without licensing anything to Sony and still rival the size of Blu-Ray.  They might miss out on being a DVD player (but also might not) - but I'm not sure being a DVD player will be a serious game player in the next generation outright.

The problem with the flash card rumor is cost.  Flash cards offer a lot of versatility to developers (and probably the best option if anyone really did want to kill the grey market of used games) but are really only viable for mobile games where the footprint is small enough to keep costs down.  Look at this way - solid state drives have gotten to a point where they are essentially superior to traditional drives, but expect the makers to opt for the latter so that they can sell a "300GB" model instead of a "150GB" one for less price.

Bottom line: the speculation here is fun, but it is way too early to guess right now.

So for those scoring at home - for the top rumors about the next gen of consoles it is: no way in hell, almost certainly not, and way too early to even care.