E3 has come and gone, and I've had some time to digest all the news from the show. I think that this generation of consoles (Sony PlayStation 3, Microsoft Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii) may be the most interesting conflict so far in gaming. All three companies are make more ambitious fiscal investments than ever before, and the challenges facing this round are unique. This is a race that is just too close to call, and I think all three companies are going to find themselves more challenged than ever before.
This is a very, very good thing for gamers. Intense competition has a way of favoring the consumer in free markets.
So, let's start be talking about the big dog on the block: the PlayStation 3. Everything I've read about the machine indicates that it's a technical marvel. It's a Cell powered, Blu-Ray playing, HD monster. This is a very impressive machine.
The Cell CPU is a PowerPC based chip that branches off in a new direction by combining a fairly traditional main core with specialized cores called Synergistic Processing Elements. This means the theoretical throughput of the Cell running at over 3 GHz is very impressive. The complexity of the Cell, especially in regards to the tools for making code run across the main core and SPEs, means that it's a hard platform to develop for. In practice, a lot of the power of the cell will sit untapped. The GPU seems pretty well matched with the 360. Sony's also got motion sensing controllers, but more on that later.
The PS3 is the only machine in this go-around that supports 1080P. It seems that most of the games are running in 720P, and there are very few 1080P monitors out there, so this isn't the decisive point Sony proclaims it as.
Sony announced the PS3 will be available in November with two configurations, a 20 GB edition and a 60 GB edition. These units will retail for $499 and $599. Read that again. Sony's entry-level PS3 costs 500 bucks. This is the single greatest point of weakness in Sony's strategy this go-around. They built the hottest hardware (but not by much), but they're charging a massive premium for it. Consumers can buy a 360 AND a Wii for the price of one PS3.
The "cheaper" PS3 is seems crippled more than necessary. You lose wireless capability (both networking and controllers) and you lose HDMI. For a console that's supposed to usher in the era of "true HD" the lack of HDMI is a sore spot.
Sure, the PS2 has the marketshare. As a result, at least out of the gate, Sony has all the big names on their side. I don't think the PS3 can command 60% marketshare again at that price point. Which leads us to the number 2 console maker...
There is one tremendous advantage the Xbox 360 has over its rivals: it's out now. You can order one online or pick one up a retailer today. The supply issues are easing off and there are some pretty decent games out. Unlike the previous round, Microsoft has the head start this time.
In terms of tech, the 360 is no slouch. It also uses a multi-core PowerPC CPU, but it's a symmetrical design. It's uses a traditional DVD-drive, although an HD-DVD drive add-on is on the way. Microsoft took a slightly less aggressive stance than Sony in terms of the bleeding edge, and in doing so got their console out earlier and cheaper.
Even though the Cell has higher theoretical performance developers are saying the 360 is much easier to develop for. No less than John Carmack himself sees little difference between the two machines in practice. That's good news for Microsoft since they're on the market now, and again cheaper than the PS3. They've also got the Halo 3 thing to reinvigorate console sales in the face of the other two consoles coming to market. I'd be sure they'd take the lead in sales this generation if it weren't for Nintendo and their wee little Wii...
Nintendo's Wii, code-named Revolution, at first glance seems to be a real loser. It's roughly twice as powerful as the GameCube. Since the GameCube is the low man on the totem pole in the current generation, you can imagine the Revolution is pretty underpowered compared to the Xbox 380 and the PS3. The Revolution is also not HD-capable. It's not really SD either, but instead exists in the world of ED (480p). Nintendo's doomed right?
Nintendo is the only company that hasn't announced pricing on their console yet, but the consensus is between $199 and $249. That's significantly cheaper than its competitors. When you factor in HD adoption rates, a lot of parents are going to look at the Wii before the other two consoles when Christmas rolls around.
Nintendo has decided the horsepower race is a dead end. They see games getting prettier, but not any more fun. They've also noticed that creating all the art assests for these stunning games is incredibly taxing on game developers. They're going in a completely different direction.
The Wii has an all-new controller that's unlike anything we've seen. It's hard to describe. Imagine a TV remote, but with fewer buttons. This remote responds to motion. So, if you're playing Zelda and want to swing your sword, you swing the remote instead of tapping a button. Or, if you're playing a racing game, you could tilt the remote like a wheel to steer. I haven't had a chance to try this, but people who have were impressed.
In fact, traffic to Nintendo's booth at E3 this year dwarfed Microsoft and Sony. People are really excited about the Wii. It's different. Developers actually like the fact that the architecture is more traditional. It's easy to develop for.
The Wii is aimed at people that don't really game much now in a big way. Nintendo is shooting at a more enjoyable, more approachable experience than what you have now. Nintendo's showing with the Wii is so strong it's caused Sony to announce the PS3 controller will be motion sensitive.
Finally, the Wii will be smaller, cooler and quiete than the other two. It will also have the ability to play every Nintendo game ever made. Old guys like me can appriciate that.
I can easily foresee all three companies with roughly equal marketshare 18 months from now. What a wonderful world that would be.