It's 2011, the year most gamers would have expected to see the next generation of console hardware emerge. However, as I discussed in the first part of this series, the odds of seeing Wii 2, PlayStation 4, or Xbox 720 (or whatever you'd like to call Microsoft's next system) this year are roughly on par with Nintendo retiring Mario.
But since this is the point in console lifecycles that game journalists traditionally take stock of the current generation while looking ahead at the next, that's what I'm going to do anyway.
Predictably, the industry experts and analysts I contacted for this story refused to speculate on what may come next. Consequently, I'm going to make some informed guesses about what we might expect based largely on what we've seen happen with the current generation of hardware, starting with Nintendo.
Few people could have predicted Wii's success when it arrived in 2006. With its unconventional motion controller and relatively low-powered components, Nintendo's white box defied prevailing wisdom, which suggested gamers were primarily interested in better graphics.
Of course, what many people didn't realize at the time was that Nintendo wasn't targeting traditional gamers, but rather a much broader audience that included not just established Nintendo fans but also casual players and families. Indeed, Nintendo didn't care whether you had even tried a video game before; with Wii, everyone was a potential consumer.
And they were right. Thanks to its affordable price-at $280 it was hundreds of dollars less than the competition-novel interface seemingly designed for ages 3 to 103, and a fairly steady stream of reliably engaging first-party games, the Wii became the quickest selling video game console of all time.
However, fast forward five years and the Wii is beginning to lose some of its lustre.
Microsoft and Sony have finally released competing motion control hardware in the form of Kinect and Move, respectively (though, it's worth adding, both platforms are struggling to come up with compelling software for their new peripherals).
Plus, Wii sales are no longer enjoying the explosive growth they once did. In fact, Xbox 360 outsold Wii for five of the last six months in the United States, perhaps suggesting that Nintendo's expanded market of casual gamers is becoming saturated.
Certainly, part of the problem is that Nintendo's technology is beginning to show signs of serious age. Many people considered its graphics and processing horsepower outdated when it was released five years ago, and that perception has only deepened with each passing year.
It's the only console without high-definition graphics. This wasn't as much of an issue in 2006, when HD television-owning families were still in the minority, but that's no longer the case. In 2010, more North American families owned HD sets than didn't. Now even non-geeks are watching television and movies in HD, and they can notice the difference in graphical clarity when they switch to playing games on their Wiis.
What's more, the Wii's limited onboard storage-just 512 megabytes-has proven something of a roadblock. Few paid attention to the Wii's wee flash drive when it was only needed for saved game files and Virtual Console games (titles originally designed for much older systems that required little space) but as the range of content grew-Nintendo has made available new apps and much larger downloadable games-512MB has come to seem almost criminally small. If users download more than a few items they'll find themselves forced into the file management menu, picking and choosing what they'd like to keep and what can be tossed to make way for new content.
Finally, the Wii's greatest hardware advantage-its remote and nunchuk controllers-are in danger of becoming obsolete. Nintendo still has the advantage of in-house developers who have proven time and again that they understand motion control in a way no one else does, delivering reliably remarkable interactive experiences year in and year out. Still, these games could be even better with more precise controls. The Wii MotionPlus add-on, which was released a couple of years ago and noticeably improves the remote's motion sensitivity, helps, but since not all Wii owners have one of these peripherals few developers are making games that take advantage of it.
So while Nintendo is still at the head of the pack in this generation, it could be argued that it also has the most reason to move on to the next generation. But what will the next Nintendo console be like?
Let's start with what Nintendo won't do, which is deliver a box with bleeding edge technology. Nintendo has proven handily such costly ventures are unnecessary for success in the video game business. They'll make it high-definition, probably add support for 3-D, and upgrade to graphics technology capable of generating visuals on par with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, but likely won't go far beyond. This will keep costs down, ensuring a low price and no financial barriers for the casual gaming masses that have become Nintendo's bread and butter.
A bigger question is whether Nintendo will integrate Blu-ray. I don't think Nintendo is particularly interested in delivering a powerful entertainment hub complete with high-definition movie capabilities. It might make the occasional deal with a company like Netflix, but Nintendo has always stated that its primary concern is gaming. That said, Blu-ray discs offer the advantage of higher capacity storage, which is becoming a necessity for graphically complex games. If they really do want to deliver visually sophisticated experiences, they may need to bite the bullet and build in Blu-ray.
Clearly, Nintendo's next system will have much greater storage capacity, which will help support the company's downloadable games business. But while digital distribution will continue to grow, it will not be the primary means by which people purchase their games in the next generation. Downloading massive files is just too slow and cost prohibitive in many places of the world, and that won't change anytime soon. And that's to say nothing of the fact that folks still like having the ability to trade in their games-something you can't do with a downloaded file. I suspect Nintendo will offer a moderate amount of flash storage in an amount dependent on the technology's price at the time (remember, price is key for Nintendo). If their system arrives in 2012, I'd bet on between 64 and 128 gigabytes.
Of course, the most tantalizing mystery is whether Nintendo will throw the industry another game changing curve ball, as it did with Wii's motion control. That's anyone's guess. I think it's a given that Nintendo will refine its existing motion control sysyem, making alterations to both design and sensitivity. But will it add something completely new to the pot? Perhaps some sort of glasses that immerse players in game environments? An interface that tracks and interprets our eye movements or brain waves? (Don't laugh; it's been done.) Outside of a leak from Nintendo's research labs, it's unlikely we'll know whether or how Nintendo plans to change the face of gaming again until we're supposed to.
However, since I'm playing a guessing game, I'll predict that the next Nintendo console won't have anything so radically different as motion control seemed when it was rolled out via Wii five years ago. It will be a high-definition, backwards-compatible machine with more processing power, enhanced motion control, expanded online offerings, and an affordable price point. And I think we'll see it by holiday season 2012.
Next up: The state of console gaming, part 3: Microsoft.