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Controller Freak

Chad Sapieha leads you deep into the world of games, covering gaming trends

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Part 3

The state of console gaming, part 3: Microsoft Add to ...

In the second part of this series I suggested that Nintendo, despite selling much more hardware than its competitors over the last five years, might have greatest cause to move ahead to the next generation of game consoles. In contrast, I think Sony and Microsoft have much less reason to push forward on new hardware. I'll tackle the American company first.

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Microsoft came out of the gate first in this generation, releasing the Xbox 360 in the fall of 2005, a full year ahead of rivals Sony and Nintendo. This rush to stores resulted in a bumpy launch-early Xbox 360 consoles were plagued with hardware issues (indicated by the notorious Red Ring of Death) that rendered them inoperable-but in the long run I think it proved a smart play.

After watching PlayStation 2 outsell the original Xbox four-to-one over the previous five years, Microsoft knew it needed a leg up in the next generation, and being first to market helped the console establish a presence (at least in the West; the Xbox 360 has flagged in Japan from day one, selling only 1.4 million consoles in that country in six years). With more than 50 million Xbox 360s sold worldwide and current sales stronger than ever, Microsoft has more than doubled the sales of its first system and sits in a comfortable (if rather distant) second place in the current generation.

Part of the reason behind Xbox 360's success in this generation has been its ability to grow, adapt, and change. Right from the start it offered players many things they'd never before seen in a game console, including a robust online marketplace for downloadable content and a well designed online community complete with a customizable identity and those devilishly addictive achievements that players love to collect and compare.

However, thanks to a steady stream of firmware and hardware upgrades, the console has changed dramatically over the last half decade. Indeed, if a gamer from 2005 were transported to the present and shown a modern Xbox, he or she might well think that it was a next generation console, not just an evolved version of the device they would identify as an Xbox 360.

The system's dashboard was redesigned in 2008, marking the first time a hardware manufacturer had ever completely overhauled a console's graphical user interface mid-lifecycle. Movie and television download services were added. Gamers were provided enhanced communication features and the ability to form parties and travel from one game to another. Even the hardware itself is all but unrecognizable. Smaller and quieter, and sleeker and shinier, new Xbox 360s are closer in design to a PlayStation 3 than the formless and bulky eggshells that the first Xbox 360 buyers took home.

Of course, some of these changes and enhancements were more successful than others-Microsoft will thank you for forgetting about its doomed $200 HD DVD drive add-on-but gamers have, by and large, appreciated the system's perpetual evolution.

Of all the changes that the Xbox 360 has undergone, the launch of the Kinect controller last fall was the most significant-and also the riskiest. This innovative array of cameras and microphones, which detects and recognizes body movements, fundamentally altered the way players were able to interact with both games and the system's dashboard. Fortunately for Microsoft, it's proven quite popular, with eight million units shipped to retail in just two months.

Kinect also serves as a good segue into a discussion about what to expect of the next generation Xbox. After such an important peripheral launch clearly designed to extend the life and utility of Xbox 360, it seems unlikely that Microsoft is seriously contemplating delivering a new console anytime soon. I'd be highly surprised if we heard anything about new hardware from Microsoft prior to E3 2012, which would likely mean a 2013 release and a remarkable eight years between Xboxes.

By the same token, given its early success, it seems likely that Kinect will form one of the pillars of Microsoft's next box. Engineers in Redmond will continue to develop and refine the experience, ensuring seamless integration with the new system. It won't replace traditional gaming-core players will still play their favourite games with a standard controller-but it will help broaden the console's user base to include kids and casual gamers; that lucrative market that Nintendo has fostered and into which Microsoft is itching to tap.

Beyond Kinect, the next Xbox's most significant advancements will likely come in terms of graphics. More powerful processors and additional memory-the exact type, brands, and speeds of which will largely depend on when the system is scheduled for release (technology is always getting better and cheaper)-will combine to deliver the rich visual experiences core gamers crave.

Given the length of time between the release of Xbox 360 and its successor, one would hope that these visual improvements will be significant, but graphics have already advanced to such a point that quality is largely dependent on game artists, the middleware they employ, and the techniques that they use. More powerful hardware will make a difference-you'll see better lighting effects, more detailed character models, and potentially larger and more majestic environments-but it will not be as dramatic as moving from, say, sprites to polygons.

We can also expect more storage. Again, the number and type-solid state or hard disk-will likely depend on when the box goes into production. If Microsoft (or its competitors, for that matter) does choose solid state it would likely mean a noticeable decrease in load times, which could lead to more immersive game worlds free of interruptions when moving from one area to the next.

Like Nintendo, Microsoft faces a hard decision in whether or not to incorporate Blu-ray. The graphically advanced games of the next generation will need more storage than a DVD can manage, and with purely digital distribution still too far off for the next generation, Microsoft needs to do something to cope with these larger files. What's more, many people expect their game consoles to pull double duty as movie players. Indeed, many of my friends chose a PlayStation 3 this generation simply because it meant they wouldn't also need to purchase a Blu-ray player. These two factors combine to make me think Microsoft will take the hit and implement Blu-ray. Knowing that a chunk of the licensing cheques they cut will go directly to Sony-a founding member of the Blu-ray Disc Association-will be a bitter pill to swallow, but the alternative-delivering a less competitive device-is simply untenable.

The final piece of the puzzle will be firmware features and services. These elements will be among the primary means by which Microsoft distinguishes its next console from the competition, and as such will likely be kept secret as long as possible.

That said, we can safely expect new ways to interact and stay in touch with gamer friends, deeper integration with third party social networks, enhanced means of customizing avatars and a player's online persona, and additional content partnerships that would turn the system into an even more powerful media hub (though, as usual, these partnerships may not mean as much to Canadians as our American counterparts).

Clearly, the Xbox 360's popular achievements system will be carried over, but I'd love to see-though am not optimistic about-a new scheme in which players can redeem achievement points for simple rewards, perhaps even games. Cheating could be a problem, but it would encourage honest players to keep controllers in their hands.

So, to summarize my prediction, the next Xbox will be a graphics powerhouse built around Kinect that arrives in 2013, feature Blu-ray and (hopefully) a solid state drive, and come loaded with new and advanced firmware features.

The next part of this series, focused on Sony, will come Friday.

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