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The current game-console generation saw the coming of age of video games as a full-fledged part of pop-culture media. Halo 2's $125 million first-day sales eclipsed Spider-Man's movie box-office opening-weekend sales record of $115 million. Getting onto a hot game soundtrack is just as important as getting onto a blockbuster movie soundtrack for musical artists. And you know our preferred content medium has hit the big time when politicians start scrutinizing video games for pandering points.
One of the major themes in the next generation will be broadening the mainstream appeal of video games even further. This means finding a way to attract the nongamer while still remaining faithful to the established gaming audience. Each console manufacturer has a different set of core strengths, and we will see those differences in the unique strategies they're taking to expand consumer appeal for the next generation.
The console manufacturers must take into account what kind of technology has, or will, become prevalent in the average household during the lifetime of the next-generation console. Some of the functionality additions in the last-generation consoles were no-brainers. The PlayStation 2 and Xbox both included DVD drives since it was obvious that DVD media would become ubiquitous in the 2000-2005 time frame. Networking support was also a must, even though we didn't see online gameplay blossom until halfway through the current cycle. Features like high-definition video and 5.1 sound are just now starting to pick up steam but will likely become standard in the next generation.
Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo are all placing some major bets on what the potential game-console buyer will want in a system. Sony has already announced that the next PlayStation will support Blu-ray optical disc technology even though Blu-ray hasn't been established as the heir apparent to the DVD. The next Xbox will have media-center-like functionality that will let users access photos, music, and movies (you know, in case you want to show your opponent those Grand Canyon vacation photos in the middle of a Halo 3 match). Nintendo hasn't revealed much about its next console, but rumors and speculation have pointed to new controller functions and advanced gameplay experiences.
Microsoft has secured second place in the US console market by leveraging its superior hardware advantage, constantly improving the Xbox game portfolio, and offering robust online support through the Xbox Live service. Microsoft has done a remarkable job lining up game developers for the Xbox, and the new XNA development platform promises to make game development if not easier, at least more manageable with tools like XNA Studio. Microsoft hasn't been nearly as successful in Asia due to localization missteps such as the original, jumbo-sized Xbox controller and a noticeable lack of Japanese game-developer support. Microsoft plans to address these issues and do a lot more with its next Xbox.
A lovelorn Italian once argued that, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet," but Microsoft will make an exception in the case of console systems. Online reports state that the company from Redmond was fearful that the "Xbox 2" name wouldn't smell nearly as sweet as a "PlayStation 3" name to consumers because the Sony name will be one number ahead. After some not-so-secretive focus-group testing, most reports on the Net are saying that Microsoft has ditched the plain old "Xbox 2" name for an almost retro, dot-com inspired "Xbox 360" brand name. We'll find out if the "Xbox 360" name is for real when Microsoft announces the new system on May 12 in a worldwide television special hosted by MTV. However, since everyone else is already calling it the Xbox 360, we'll go with that name for now.
Sony will enter the next generation as the undisputed market leader thanks to the success of the PlayStation 2. Sony launched the PS2 in October of 2000, almost a year before the Nintendo GameCube and Microsoft Xbox game consoles. Sega actually beat Sony to market with the Sega Dreamcast, but the lack of publisher support ultimately doomed the system. Sony used its head start over Nintendo and Microsoft to build an impressive game library and further strengthen developer support to ensure a steady stream of high-quality games. Sony currently doesn't have an online service like Xbox Live, but the PS2 still has plenty of online-capable games.
We still don't know what the next Sony system will be called, but since the "PlayStation 2" naming convention worked out so well, let's just call it the "PlayStation 3." There are several PlayStation 3 images circulating around the Internet, but just about all of the pictures are concept art made by avid PlayStation fans. We're at least a year away from the system's actual release, so it's probably safe to say that the design hasn't been finalized yet.
The GameCube still has a solid worldwide presence and the most recognizable first-party franchises, but Nintendo hasn't been able to drum up the software support to keep the GameCube's game library competitive with the PS2 or Xbox. While the PS2 and Xbox have pushed into online play, discrete surround sound, and some HD resolution support, the GameCube has stood still or even regressed in those areas. The GameCube has disappointed in the online arena since the system only has Phantasy Star Online for networked play. Nintendo has also removed the digital A/V output from the latest GameCube design revision. The change made sense as a cost-cutting maneuver, but removing progressive-scan support might have sent out the wrong message to tech-hungry gamers.
There's no doubt that Nintendo has the most unknowns entering the next-generation console era, but preliminary information flowing out of the company and some interesting rumors indicate that Nintendo's next system will be the most intriguing of the three next-gen consoles.