What to Expect From the Next Generation of Game Consoles

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Nintendo already unveiled its next-generation game console, the Wii U, earlier this year. But what about Microsoft and Sony? We asked PCWorld's four biggest gaming geeks to make predictions on what the next Xbox and PlayStation systems will look like.

Hardware Specs: Smarter and Speedier

What to Expect From the Next Generation of Game Consoles
Jason Cross (laptops editor): The sort of hardware we can expect in next-gen consoles will be very much determined by their release date. As the years roll on, silicon manufacturing processes become finer, which results in more transistors in a given area. That means cheaper, lower-power chips (or, conversely, more performance within the same area, power, and cost).

The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 originally came to market with CPUs and GPUs created in 90-nanometer manufacturing processes. If the next-gen systems ship in 2012, their chips will come from relatively cost-effective 32nm manufacturing; that means about eight times the computing power and cache in the same-size chip. Should the systems arrive late in 2013, there’s a chance that the chip makers will use a 22nm process, delivering 16 times the transistors per square millimeter as in the original Xbox 360 or PS3 chips. Of course, the Xbox 360 and PS3 had issues with cost and reliability at launch, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see both Microsoft and Sony back off a little on the size and power draw of the chips in their next systems.

So what does all this mean? It’s easy to speculate about exact CPU architectures and the like, but that's mostly irrelevant if you’re not a developer. Expect an honest fourfold increase in CPU performance from the new machines. The graphics will probably be eight times as powerful, if not more. Compared with current consoles, which use graphics chips essentially meant for DirectX 9-level graphics, the next consoles will utilize chips that meet the spec for DirectX 11.1. The key benefits, beyond fancier shaders and such, will be that the graphics chips will be flexible enough for a lot of general computation jobs. You can expect many of the next-gen console game engines to compute physics, AI, and even things like audio DSP on the graphics core.

What to Expect From the Next Generation of Game Consoles
Memory is always a tough issue. You can never have enough, but it’s difficult to sell a game system for $399--and drop the price rapidly--when you load it up with RAM. I can’t imagine either Microsoft or Sony being so stingy that they wouldn’t put 2GB of RAM in the box, but we should really hope for 4GB or more. Over the life span of a system, it would make a major difference in what game developers can create.

The real question will be the mass-storage medium. Whether game makers distribute their titles only as downloads or in physical form in stores, players will still have plenty of stuff to download--other games, themes, add-on packs and downloadable content, avatar clothing items, and more. It would be great for consoles to ship with solid-state drives. If developers could rely on caching their game data to a really fast solid-state drive, the I/O throughput would be so much higher that it would change the way games are made. But with downloadable games, demos, and content growing larger, I’m not sure the cost of SSDs will be low enough. A large standard hard drive will probably have to suffice, but with any luck we’ll see some sort of flash-cache optimized hybrid product.

Game Distribution: Discs or No Discs?

What to Expect From the Next Generation of Game Consoles
Patrick Miller (how-to editor): The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 introduced the console gaming world to large-scale digital distribution. Although you can complain all you like about having to download patches or being nickel-and-dimed for DLC (I certainly do), Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network have given gamers everywhere a chance to play games that wouldn't cut it on a retail shelf, such as offerings from independent developers, older big-budget games that don't show up in stores anymore, and remakes of classics that probably wouldn't happen if the publishers needed to pay for packaging and production. And since we're all PC gamers here, we're fervently hoping that the next generation of consoles takes a page out of Steam's book and goes for a download-only distribution model.

Unfortunately, it isn't going to happen. For starters, broadband still isn't widespread enough for everyone to depend on downloads for all game sales--especially broadband connections fast enough to download a game ranging from 8.5GB (the capacity of one dual-layer DVD) to 25GB (the capacity of a single-layer Blu-ray Disc). For someone stuck on a measly 1-mbps DSL connection, a game could take a whole day or two to download.

Also, even if everyone had Google fiber lying in their backyard tomorrow, the console gaming world isn't quite ready for a download-only business model. That's because gamers still buy their consoles from retailers, not from Sony or Microsoft or Nintendo itself. The retailers don't make much from selling the consoles; they keep those big boxes on shelves because they make their money off the peripherals, add-ons, and games that people buy with the console. Until this model changes--which it may, toward the end of the next console cycle--you can expect to see console downloads restricted to older games, demos, and download-only smaller games, as things are right now. Of course, I expect Blu-ray to be the gaming standard for both the Sony and Microsoft next-gen consoles.

Nate Ralph (desktops editor): We really need to get over this whole “physical media” thing.

What to Expect From the Next Generation of Game Consoles
I hear you: DSL connections suck, Comcast has saddled you with a 250GB bandwidth cap, and you want to play Space Shooter Du Jour 3 right now.

Those are all fixable problems. Take a look at Valve’s Steam, the populist choice for digital distribution on the PC. Want to play an upcoming, hotly anticipated title on the day it’s released? No problem: You can start preloading the game well in advance of its release date, and it’ll unlock the moment that date comes.

Worried about tying up your bandwidth? I’m a PlayStation Plus subscriber. Every night, my PS3 turns itself on, checks for any patches or downloads I need, and gets to work. I can also queue up a stack of downloads and tell it to shut itself off when they’re done, and go about my business.

This isn’t future stuff--this is right now. Imagine the next generation of consoles, with larger hard drives (320GB is the upper limit today, but that’s undoubtedly going to change). And with media streaming over the Internet already pretty much the norm, ISPs have no choice but to keep up--improving their infrastructures to meet demand--or risk the ire of the general public.

What about the retailers' cut? Well, Best Buy sells iPads, and that store chain doesn't make a dime off of software (since it's all in the App Store). But once Best Buy has folks in the door, the company can upsell them on the incidentals: extra controllers, gold-plated HDMI cables, Geek Squad protection plans, and the like. The next-generation Xbox and PlayStation consoles will be popular, and where there’s a will to make money, there’s a way.

It’ll take time, sure. But the next consoles are still a few years out, and technology isn’t slowing down.

What to Expect From the Next Generation of Game Consoles
Jason Cross: We've heard good arguments for both disc-based and download-only game distribution, but there is a third option: cartridges. Not the big plastic carts of the 8- and 16-bit era, but smaller cards perhaps twice the size of an SD Card. Think of the advantages. With a proprietary format, piracy would be a little harder. Put most of the high-performance controller circuitry inside the console itself, and the game cartridge becomes little more than a specialized dumb flash drive.

A good flash-drive design would offer the kind of performance that a Blu-ray disc or rotating hard drive could only dream of. We’re talking about an end to long load times, and streaming worlds with a lot more fidelity and variety. The cost wouldn’t even be that bad. Sure, 16GB of flash costs something like $18 in bulk, but the prices are constantly dropping at the rate of silicon production. By late next year, it will probably cost $10. By the time the next-gen consoles are three years old, the cartridges will cost maybe $4 to $6 to produce.

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