This Tuesday May 21, all nerd eyes will be on Redmond, Wash., as Microsoft Corp. unveils the long-awaited successor to its Xbox 360 video game console.
Microsoft is the last of the living-room game triumvirate to talk about its next shiny machine: Nintendo got the gears in motion on the next-generation of consoles this past November with the launch of the Wii U, followed by Sony in February with the announcement of the PlayStation 4, due this holiday season.
So what to expect? Microsoft will doubtlessly save some details for its press conference at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles in a few weeks, but here are some possibilities.
In the lead-up to the successor to the original Xbox, everyone was wondering what it'd be called. Would Microsoft take a page from Sony's playbook and simply call it the Xbox 2, or go with something completely different like Nintendo and its oddly named Wii.
The result was Xbox 360, which was also a strange choice, given that when something turns 360 degrees it usually – okay, always – ends up in the same place. Was that really such a smart name for a supposedly futuristic next-generation product?
The leading contender this time around seems to be Xbox Infinity, which is also a little goofy since it conjures images of Nissan cars. Yet, it could also be a symbolic name – with the length of time between console generations getting longer and longer, Infinity could be a statement on how long this one is intended to be on store shelves.
Infinity would also make it awkward for Disney's upcoming game of the same name, as in, "What are you playing?" "Oh, I'm playing Infinity on Infinity." Or then there's Bungie's upcoming shooter Destiny – "Destiny on Infinity" sounds just as weird.
Other possibilities are Xbox 720 – it has turned around twice to stay in the same place – or just plain, old "Xbox," in which case Microsoft will be accused of copying Apple's strategy of going with "iPad" for its latest tablet. There's always NeXtBox, but that would probably have trademark implications here in Canada with Rogers and its PVR.
The new console will certainly have more powerful graphics, processor, hard drive and all those specs that really only nerdy writers for technology websites care about: "Ermahgerd, moar polygons! More frame rate! Squee!" What will be interesting is if Microsoft decides to incorporate Kinect directly into the console, and whether a second-generation motion and voice sensor will be any more accurate than the first. Kinect has proven to be a flop for games, but an intriguing option for controlling the machine outright. Putting it right in there would be a competitive advantage over the other guys, especially if it's a sharper upgrade.
Always online - will they or won't they?
The biggest question is whether Microsoft will pull the trigger on the "always-on" Internet connection for games that has been rumoured for months now. With game makers wanting to stamp out piracy and the second-hard market, Microsoft has appeared willing to bend over backwards to help them by forcing their games to require an Internet connection to play.
A recently kicked around "leaked internal memo" seemed to put the kibosh on that idea, which Ars Technica quoted as saying "There are a number of scenarios that our users expect to work without an Internet connection, and those should 'just work' regardless of their current connection status. Those include, but are not limited to: playing a Blu-ray disc, watching live TV, and yes playing a single player game."
Whether you accept the veracity of that memo or not, going down the "always online" path would be a PR disaster and deliver a whole swath of gamers to Sony, which says it won't require Internet connections, and that it never really considered the idea. An always-on connection would also limit the next Xbox's prospects in places with wonky broadband, such as developing countries or even rural parts of wealthy ones.
Despite Microsoft Studios creative director Adam Orth getting turfed from the company last month after being lambasted on Twitter for publicly supporting "always-on," the company did not take that opportunity to explicitly assuage gamers. Not surprisingly, observers think the company might actually be dumb enough to do it.
"That would be stupid, but you're hearing so reliably that they're going to do it," says Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter.
So here's the question if you're a third-party developer like Electronic Arts or Activision: do you put a lot of money and effort into making games for the existing batch of Sony and Microsoft consoles, of which there are more than 150 million of in the wild, or do you devote those resources to the next generation, which will sell a few million this year? The answer is obvious, which is why there will be a dearth of quality third-party games at launch.
Both Sony and Microsoft are going to have to count on exclusive first-party titles to spur sales of the new machines, much like how Halo originally launched the first Xbox console back in 2001.
Since it is the games and not the hardware that really matters, this is obviously the most exciting part of the new console launches. What will the new, iconic flagship game be? It's an open question, but one thing is a sure bet: It'll involve guns.
The extra stuff
A lot has changed in the eight years since the Xbox 360 launched. The world and its technology has gone mobile, social and download happy, and new interfaces including touch screens, voice and gesture controls have become mainstream. Microsoft has done a decent job of patching all of this stuff onto the 360 through add-ons such as Kinect and Smartglass, so having a chance to design it all to work together from the ground up should result in something really snazzy.
The company also has an awful lot of other stuff it could cram in – Skype video calling is a near certainty, as is better interoperability with Windows 8 on phones, tablets and computers, not that anybody uses either of the first two. Microsoft has also been pushing the Xbox's video apps of late, including sports and Netflix, so more of that will be baked in.
Hey, anybody remember the Red Ring of Death? The Xbox 360 had the distinction of being a frequently failing device, so much so that Microsoft had to spend billions to fix the issue. Combined with Windows' infamous Blue Screen of Death, the company doesn't exactly have a good reputation for avoiding fatal bugs.
Hopefully the past lessons have been learned – they have to have been, right? – and the new console will be relatively safe to buy.
These days, most gadgets over $300 have a hard time selling. With so much stuff competing for Average Joe's wallet, Microsoft is going to have to be aggressive on its pricing.
There is also the possibility of some sort of subsidy scheme, similar to how cellphones are sold. Microsoft tested out selling consoles last year for $99 in exchange for buyers also signing on to its Xbox Live subscription service – that could have been testing the waters for something bigger.
Is Microsoft bold enough to start looking like a cellphone company – because we all know how much consumers love their mobile providers – and require internet connections for games? That's just too crazy to imagine. Or is it?
You can watch a live stream of the Xbox event here, at 10 a.m. PT.