Dr. Geek: The Next Generation of Video Game Consoles

What was the first video game console system you played on?  Was it a PlayStation 2?  A Sega Dreamcast?  A Super Nintendo Entertainment System?  An Atari 2600?  A Magnavox Odyssey?

In 1972, Magnavox released the Odyssey as the first computer system built to connect to a television set in order to allow people to play digital games in the comfort of their homes.  The video arcades that would dominate youth and pop culture during the 1980s saw their foundation at the same time, and Magnavox had hoped to be at the front of the wave that would bring highly abstract pixels and sounds into people’s homes as the future of entertainment.

This first generation of consoles would become dominated by Atari, who capitalized on the success of their wildly popular game Pong.  Atari’s first system was simply the arcade game of Pong in a smaller package, playable at home.  Atari learned early the lesson Amazon would later capitalize on with their Kindle series: if you have content that people want, then you can sell the technology to give them that content.

Since the early days of Magnavox and Atari, throughout a forty year span, video game consoles have gone through seven generations.  What typifies one generation from another usually rests on the processing power of the system: as the system’s microprocessors improved, so did their graphics, their sound, their complexness, their controls, and their capability to become more than just a video game system.  Earlier systems are renowned for being 8bit or 16bit, with an aesthetic quality that became ingrained in their players’ consciousness and has since become ensconced in the pop culture products of those young gamers grown-up.

Hence the whole milieu of Scott Pilgrim.

The most recent generation of consoles has been the seventh, consisting of the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Ninendo Wii.  The additions to the PlayStation 3 of the Move and to the Xbox 360 of the Kinect does not qualify them as eighth generation systems because the consoles did not receive a substantial upgrade to processors to accommodate the new controls, which may have caused problems with how well the controls are integrated with the systems.

The eighth generation of systems will begin arriving this Christmas when Nintendo releases their new console, the Wii U.  Current speculation says Microsoft may release their system, the next Xbox, by the fall of 2013, with PlayStation expected to follow suit, with a date unknown.  With the Wii U coming out first, we know more details on what to expect from that system than the other two, but what follows is the most up-to-date information, and speculation, on what we can expect to see in the eighth generation systems.

The Nintendo Wii U had its big unveil in June, 2011, at E3.  The Wii U is a combination of new console and new controller, and it is a step up in terms of graphics and memory from what the Wii has, which has been a constant complaint from hard core gamers who really like realistic graphics.  This is all due to Nintendo finally releasing an 1080p HD HDMI system for the modern HD television, making the new console more competitive with the PS3 and the 360 as they currently stand.

And this is just the new controller.

However, the most innovative aspect of the Wii U is the new controller.  As Slashfilm describes it, this controller is “half iPad, half Nintendo DS“: it has a 6.2 inch touch screen, integrated camera and microphone, built in motion control sensors, plus the standard Nintendo control buttons.  When you see it in someone’s hands, it does look like a bulky, over-sized DS that really wants to grow up to be a sleek iPad.  According to the trailer that introduces with remote control, Nintendo envisions a variety of ways in which it can be integrated into game play, as well as other special features.

The new Nintendo system is expected to be released for the Christmas 2012 shopping season.  So, if the world doesn’t end, you could be unwrapping one of these under the tree come Christmas morning.

Currently, the next generation Xbox console is generating more speculation and rumor than confirmed specs.  On the specs side, rumors have involved Xbox incorporating a touchscreen into its remote control, augmented reality, a BluRay player, enhanced Kinect tracking skills, and a central processor that would permit 3D display.  Other rumors have included the name of the system being Xbox 720 and the potential of a lock-out that would prohibit people from playing used games.  What seems to be more reliable are the predictions that the next-gen Xbox will premiere at this summer’s E3 and that it will most likely rollout in Fall 2013 for that shopping season.

With Wii U confirmed to have a touchscreen remote, and Xbox next-gen rumored to have one, it’s hard not to think that Sony may be considering something similar, given that their new portable, the Vita, has a touchscreen.  Thus far, of the three next-gen consoles, less is known about what Sony is releasing, although people have been dubbing it PlayStation 4.  Speculation may be common for the year as Sony has announced they will not be giving a presentation on a new console at this year’s E3.

Most likely a new PlayStation would feature advances in processors to continue the trend for realistic graphics and 3D display that Sony has been developing.  As to when it may be released…well, seeing as PlayStation wants to further develop the still profitable PS3 (such as with the aforementioned expansion of 3D display) and seek to have their console on a 10 year life cycle of use, and that they recently rolled out the Vita, it may be that they are not too eager to compete head-to-head with Microsoft and would instead wait to see what Microsoft unveils for their next-gen before revealing more of their plans.

Of the current 7th gen systems, although it peaked and sales have been dropping, Nintendo still retains global market dominance, with Microsoft and PlayStation at a comparable equal level.  Nintendo’s Wii targets younger and more casual players, while PlayStation and Microsoft both compete for more hardcore gamers, teenagers and up.  With Wii U, Nintendo is on track to maintain their focus on their specific segment of the marketplace.

Could Sony cede their marketshare of hardcore gaming to Microsoft in order to focus on the success of their portables, which Microsoft has not been able to match?  While doubtful, it would would leave Nintendo to continue to capitalize on the casual gamers market, which has been increasing in recent years…but that increase has been fueled by the rise of social games on Facebook and mobile gaming apps on tablets and smartphones; an increase that has led Nintendo to develop the tablet-esque controller for the Wii U. Meanwhile, Sony and Microsoft face competition from MMORPGs.

It may be that the eighth generation of video games already upon us.  Processors have gotten so small and so fast that they haven given rise to portable gaming.  Meanwhile, bandwidth has gotten strong enough to accommodate faster and more realistic synchronous multiplayer online gameplay. All of this leaves console gaming in a position that the arcades of the 1980s were when the consoles arose: facing stiff competition from new technology introducing new ways of playing digital games.

The question is, will video game consoles go the route of the arcade, or will they find a way to adapt and retain their relevance as external units hooked up to our television sets?

The one device to rule them all...

My answer: the more they can become multifunctional devices – permitting web surfing and video streaming or downloading in addition to gameplay – will probably be more predictive of the presence and power of the 8th generation systems in peoples’ home than what controls they offer or how realistic their graphics are.  I think we’ve finally reached the point of technological convergence where people will increasingly want one device to rule all of their entertainment and information needs.  The more an eighth generation console can accommodate those wants, then the better it will perform in the marketplace.

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About CarrieLynn Reinhard

I've been a scifi fan all my life, so I figured I should actually make money being so. And since I've always wanted to be a scientist -- at one point I was convinced I knew how to clone dinosaurs from their hollow bones -- the career path of being a scientist who studies fans and their media obsessions made the most sense for a woman obviously way too influenced by Jurassic Park. I've been all around the world studying fans, superheroes, virtual worlds, digital games, the media industry, and various media technologies. Now I'm an assistant professor in new media studies and audience reception studies at Dominican University just outside of Chicago, and discuss my research and other issues in the world of geekdom at my blog, www.playingwithresearch.com.