Now that the first details of the next generation Xbox have begun to “leak,” it is possible to get a reasonably good understanding of what Microsoft has in store for the gaming public later this year.
First things first, at this point in time, there are few hard facts in circulation and we are only going on rumor and speculation, so take everything you read hereafter with a pinch of salt. That being said, there are enough hard facts and semi-solid rumors to form a pretty good picture of Microsoft’s upcoming console.
What’s in a name?
While Xbox 720 would be the logical progression for the nomenclature, it looks as if Microsoft plans on calling this one the Xbox Infinity. Assuming of course that the Infinity images are not all part of some elaborate hoax, this is interesting – because it means that Microsoft will have to be really creative when it comes to naming its successor. It gives the idea that this console is going to be around for a while – but more on that later..
At this point, I am not quite willing to jump on board with the name calling. It could well be that Microsoft plans on calling their new machine the Xbox Infinity, but that might be the name for a revamped Microsoft content delivery system, or it could just be a clever bit of trolling – we just don’t know. For the sake of simplicity and convenience, I am going to stick to calling it the Xbox 720 until Microsoft says otherwise.
At this stage there is very little hard information to go on – but there have been enough development kit leaks to give us an idea of what we can expect.
- x86 architecture – this is the second major next generation console to become more PC-like in its nature.
- Blu-ray drive – while we are decreasingly reliant on optical media, a lot of people still like to have hard copies of their games. Now that the HD-DVD vs Blu-ray nonsense is decided, Microsoft can do what it should have done with the Xbox 360.
- AMD CPU (APU?) – if the next generation Xbox comes with Jaguar architecture, it will be more or less identical to the PlayStation 4. It is also possible that Microsoft might steer away from the all-in-one chip and opt for separate chips for the CPU and GPU.
Taken together we have something that has a lot more in common with PCs than it does with earlier consoles – and something that looks very similar to Sony’s PlayStation 4. Indeed, the next generation Xbox.
At this stage it looks like the Xbox 720 will come with 8GB of RAM… DDR3 RAM to be precise. Sony chose DDR5, which is significantly more expensive but a lot faster. Sony’s decision makes sense, as the RAM is essentially doing double duty – they are using the same memory for graphics delivery as they are for running the system. It remains to be seen whether that speed difference will translate into any noticeable improvements in user experience. At its projected price, Sony will be lucky to break even on PS4 sales – they might even make a loss – so pushing up the costs on the memory would have been something they weighed up very carefully – its possible that it was just for the bragging rights, but unlikely.
If the Xbox 720 takes the discreet graphics route as it is expected to then the memory speed is unlikely to make a difference. At the end of the day, it looks like both companies are using slightly different approaches to arrive at more or less the same place.
We can expect Kinect 2 to be a big part of the Xbox 720 launch. We have seen development images floating around for some time now and they all point to a significant upgrade in Microsoft’s controller-free game controller. Concept images that were purported to be from a Microsoft Xbox roadmap showed a Kinect 2 system that was capable of tracking significantly more points of motion than its predecessor.
One thing that held the original Kinect controller back in the PlayStation heartland was the space requirement. The Kinect needs quite a lot of space between the user and the television – more space than one is likely to find in the average Tokyo apartment, or dormitory room for that matter. The success of third-party accessories that effectively reduced this range will not have gone unnoticed by Microsoft. It is mere speculation, but I would expect Microsoft to have worked very hard on reducing the minimum distance between the user and the screen, while ramping up its ability to track more subtle gestures.
One of the things that surprised about the Xbox 360 was that it made such a good media player. Adding Blu-ray to the mix really takes things to their logical conclusion. Any changes beyond this are likely to be cosmetic and interface related. The present system works, but there are too many clicks between menus – a controller update would allow things to be done differently. Speaking of controllers, don’t discount the possibility of Kinect 2 featuring more heavily in this regard – improved gesture control would open the door for a good deal more possibilities.
While both Microsoft and Sony have achieved limited success when it comes to social networking, it would be fair to say that neither company has pulled it off particularly well. Speaking from personal experience, the issue has always been one of convenience. Social networks have, for the most part, been a text-based medium. Voice and video don’t translate and nobody likes typing with a thumb stick.
There are two ways of approaching this problem: 1) incorporate a method that allows users to input text more easily; or 2) build a network video/image based network. The thing is that even the most basic video/image based networks still need text input. For real-world examples, think Instagram, Pinterest and Vine. While it is possible to reduce the amount of text that needs to be typed, there is no way to do away with it entirely – but who wants to plug a keyboard into their console? A touchscreen keyboard is the logical compromise – not as fast as a fully fledged keyboard, but more than up to the task of entering a complicated password, or typing a 140-character tweet. Sony’s new controller has a touch panel, and Microsoft’s is likely to as well.
With improved typing ability, it will be interesting to see where the Xbox Live network goes. There is a huge amount of in-game interaction these days and it is not always wise to share ones social network details with ones gaming buddies – so there is a place for a robust gaming-centric social network.
Rumors and Innuendo
A good number of rumors regarding the Xbox 720 have centered on DRM-related issues. The biggest and potentially most damaging rumors to Microsoft were that the next generation Xbox would require a constant Internet connection that game installations would be single-system only. At the time of writing, it seems that Microsoft has backed away from the first stipulation – in that they will leave it up to publishers to decide whether to incorporate the always-online requirement.
As far as the single-installation rumors go, Microsoft is playing a very close hand. They toyed with the idea with Microsoft Office 2013 and the response was so overwhelmingly negative that they backed away. This leads me to suspect that they might do the same thing here. While publishers would love a way to squash secondhand game sales, it has the potential to alienate a good number of users. If Sony follows a different tack then Microsoft risks alienating a good number of users.
The always-online requirement is not to be confused with always-on. It seems that the Xbox 720 will be an always-on device. People won’t switch their consoles off, per se, instead the console will power down to a state that draws almost no power but that is still technically on.
One of the more interesting developments that may or may not be in the pipeline is in the augmented reality department. Around a year ago, a document that was purported to be a roadmap for Microsoft’s Xbox platform teased at the idea of augmented reality glasses. The glasses themselves were more Google Glass than Oculus Rift, but the idea struck a chord and would make for some very interesting possibilities. That the AR glasses are likely to debut closer to the end of the roadmap, which carried through until 2015, gives a little more credence to the possibility. It gives developers time to get on board, it gives bank accounts a chance to recover from the initial console purchase and it gives component prices a chance to drop.
Taken together all of the rumors point towards something that will be more or less on a par with Sony’s PlayStation 4. Now, for the first time, both console manufacturers are using x86 architecture, which should mean that the development gulf between the two is virtually non-existent. As a user that means that aside from a small number of console-specific titles, most of the games on the market should land on either console at approximately the same time – which may be something of a challenge for Microsoft.
Microsoft has long held a development-side advantage in that it was easier for developers to produce games for the Xbox 360 than for the PlayStation 3. Now that Sony has made the jump to x86, that difference has been eliminated. For gamers that means that games that had been Xbox-only or Xbox-first by default, are likely to hit the market at more or less the same time. There will always be some console-specific content to differentiate the two, but aside from a handful of titles consumers are getting more or less the same thing – which makes purchasing decisions a matter of practicality.
One of the key differences between the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 was that Microsoft decided to charge for access to its online network while Sony made theirs free. That is an indignity that users will suffer when it gives them access to better content or better hardware, but not one to which people will so easily submit when there is a free option on the market that is more or less identical. While the Xbox has always had its diehard fans, when it comes down to it, most people are going to be loyal to their bank balances. Microsoft and Sony are bringing out consoles that are similar interpretations of something that is basically the same – the case might look a little different, but the differences in content and performance will be minimal. The Kinect 2 and rumors of an augmented future not be enough to convince the gaming public to part with money for network access that the competition provides for free.